What do you even say about a season like this?
We had a few years to acclimate to a team that underperformed. We didn’t like it— especially not the old-timers who remember the glory days— but at some point you have to acknowledge reality.
The 2017 season gave us hope that maybe the glory days were back. That maybe we were reclaiming our rightful place among Major League Soccer’s elite. In retrospect, that was unspeakably cruel.
Failures in the transfer market. Poor results. Inadequate business growth. And a protracted conflict between the club’s most dedicated supporters and the Front Office, hitting its peak— or depth, if you prefer— when Sector Latino were issued a permanent stadium ban while Section 8 found themselves under increased scrutiny.
By almost every metric, the rest of the league has passed us by. Not only will the club refuse to acknowledge this, but C-Suite executives get pretty testy if you point it out to them.
The club has evidently decided they don’t need supporters. A handful of pliant customers will do. (And Don, we suppose.) Very soon, Fire fans will need to make some hard choices about whether this organization is worth the hassle and emotional labor.
But that’s for 2019. For now, we all need a breather. And some time to reflect.
With that in mind: here’s our review of the 2018 Chicago Fire season.
The Fire had a really difficult season, on the pitch and off. In terms of on-pitch issues, what was the one critical factor for this bad campaign? What one thing— and again, we’re talking about stuff on the pitch here— made this season so awful?
Adnan: Goalkeeping. Other areas might have been bad, but the mistakes from the goalkeepers cost us the most points at the end of the day. Sanchez made error after error in critical moments and games. It really killed the team morale, as they worked so hard to get somewhere only for Sanchez to bottle it. My favorite was the New England game, where he just dropped the ball a few feet away from goal. McClain could’ve been a savior but he got injured almost immediately. Cleveland is half decent, and could be a capable backup, but he’s not a starting level keeper. Since the club are so bad at buying players, fans have to hope McClain can be the guy for the future.
James Bridget: The complete failure in the transfer market. I don’t doubt that the FO made genuine plays for guys who could’ve made a real impact. But with each one, they either tripped over themselves or they got played for suckers. Either way, we didn’t bring in the weapons we needed to compete. And then the FO had the temerity to suggest that we were all wrong for expecting more from this team. Absolutely unacceptable.
RJ: The lack of squad depth, which could be attributed to the Fire’s failure in the transfer market. While the Fire was chasing the likes of Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres, the backline of the Fire was suffering.
Ruben: The lack of difference makers on the field. The Fire didn’t really have anyone who could take the game by the scruff of the neck and force them to win games. With Bastian Schweinsteiger relegated to defense, there was no commanding force.
And now let’s talk off the pitch. Do you see any kind of amicable solution reached between the Front Office and Section 8/Sector Latino?
Adnan: Unfortunately, no. The fact that the club has already starting selling general tickets in the section ahead of next season could be damning. My main fear is that Sector Latino just merges with Section 8 in the Harlem End. That would then crowd the section, and have all the atmosphere in the stadium come from one pocket of the stadium. Hopefully I’m wrong about all this, and the Fire can go through a turnaround like DC United. #Free101
James Bridget: Nah. The FO negotiating with S8C/SL12 in good faith would be tantamount to them admitting they made a mistake, which it’s clear they will absolutely not do. If anything I think this situation is going to get worse between now and Opening Day. #Free101
RJ: Unless MLS intervenes, I don’t think any solution will be reached between the two parties. I am hopeful that one day an agreement can be reached between the FO and Sector Latino. Their presence in the stadium is sorely missed. #free101
Ruben: Not without significant turnover in the front office. In order for this to get settled, there needs to be some cooler heads in the FO willing to sit down and listen in good faith, as well as a change in philosophy. They’re a top-down organization, and we need a bottom-up philosophy to fix this. Someone who believes that supporters are part of the club, rather than just paying customers.
What do you think the Fire could have done differently?
Adnan: Not banning Sector Latino. It’s not a coincidence that the worst stretch on the field came right after the removal of Sector. Playing in front of a quiet stadium with no atmosphere must have had an effect on the players. It just shifted the entire mood surrounding the club, and brought a lot of unneeded negative energy. There were plenty of problems on the field, but the off the field issues ended up costing the team the most.
James Bridget: Literally everything. But to be specific: we needed a true replacement for 2017 David Accam (Katai is good but we needed more), we needed a replacement for Joao Meira, we needed a competent goalkeeper, and we needed a backup goalscorer that wasn’t fucking Alan Gordon. Oh, and not ban Sector Latino and declare war on the club’s most loyal supporters.
RJ: It depends who should of have done things differently. Despite the setbacks, the lads out in the pitch have done anything and everything possible with what they had. I don’t think they could of have done anything otherwise. It all boils down to the FO of the Fire for running the club so incompetently. From their mistreatment of Sector Latino to their failures during the transfer window.
Ruben: They could have not failed in the transfer market, for one. I think if they sign a big transfer target a lot of the team’s misfortune could have been avoided.
Which Fire player had a breakout year in 2018?
Adnan: The obvious answer is Brandt Bronico, who went from relative unknown to consistent starter. I’m not gonna lie, I barely knew who he was at the start of the year. I had seen him in brief cameos throughout 2017, and didn’t think much of it. He’s really impressed me and everyone else, and now is one of the faces of the future. His passing ability really caught my attention, as you just don’t see that creative vision with many college products in this country. His “grindset” is almost scary at this point, and it’s almost a guarantee he’ll only continue to improve.
James Bridget: It’s hard to say because hardly any of the newer players got a consistent run of games. I want to give it to Mo Adams, but he spent so much of this season in Pauno’s doghouse that it’s hard to make that argument. I guess I’d have to go with Bronico, ultimately. For whatever reason he managed to crack Pauno’s code and get regular minutes.
RJ: Brandt Bronico. He wasn’t the #10 the Fire needed, but he did help create some creative moments out in the mids. He did everything Pauno asked him to do out in the pitch and just like his #grindset hashtag, he worked his butt off making sure that himself and his teammates didn’t themselves out there.
Ruben: Well, JB, I will say Mo Adams. The fact that he stood out so much while not playing for long stretches of the season says to me that he could be a cornerstone for the club for years to come. That game against Montreal should go down in legend.
How would you rate the Fire’s transfer business?
Adnan: About a 3 out of 10. There are the obvious problems, like not bringing in the big names needed. Some weren’t all the fault of the front office, but some really slipped through their fingers. The fact that they didn’t bring in a defender or a keeper even though everyone knew it was a problem for the longest time is the most disappointing team. However, to give them the slightest bit of credit, bringing in Aleksandar Katai and Raheem Edwards were shrewd pieces of business, as those two should form a dangerous partnership on the wings next season. Other than that, it’s been pretty dreadful.
James Bridget: 1/10. There isn’t a single aspect of the Fire’s player acquisition process that doesn’t need a complete overhaul. That would require personnel changes in the Front Office, which probably won’t happen, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
RJ: 2/10. Aleksandar Katai and Raheem Edwards are like a tasty marshmallow inside a stale cereal box.
Ruben: 4/10. Katai was good. Edwards was fine. It was a decent draft. Other than that, it was bad. The fact that N-Rod showed himself to be a gullible GM that can be fooled and used as leverage makes it worse than normal. So 2/10.
What surprised you most about this team and/or this season?
Adnan: The consistency of Aleksandar Katai. Everyone knew he had plenty of talen, but there were concerns about his effort and workrate. I feared he’d start off well, and then fall off once the league adjusted to him. In the end, he’s probably been the teams MVP, and was our only offensive difference marker during the entire summer. There was a run of games where he either scored or assisted on a weekly basis. He did drop off a bit towards the end, but that could be said for everyone. He’ll have an entire offseason to further adjust and acclimate ahead of next season, and there’s a good chance he will end up on the All-Star team.
James Bridget: Raheem Edwards. I was genuinely, pleasantly surprised that he’s managed to come good. While I hope the team upgrades enough so that he’s not a guaranteed starter, I hope he sticks around in 2019 and fights for minutes.
RJ: Raheem Edwards. He isn’t David Accam, but he sure does know how to run down the wing and cause problems for the opposition.
Ruben: The fact that the club missed Joao Meira as much as they did. They went from a solid to good defense in 2017 to shambles in 2018. and the thing that was the catalyst was not having him at CB.
How would you rate Pauno’s job this season? Are you satisfied? Should he stay on for next season? Or do the Fire need a change?
Adnan: 4/10. I think Paunovic has gotten away with a lot this season because the majority of the blame has fallen on the front office. That itself is fair, but that doesn’t mean Paunovic has made a number of mistakes himself. He sticks with players who are underperforming for too long, while keeping others on the bench for no reason. Then there’s the dreaded doghouse that almost claimed Aleksandar Katai, and will probably screw over someone next season. It just seems like the players have lost their faith and belief in him. It’s time for a coaching change.
James Bridget: 3/10. Too much tinkering, too many power games with the players, too much blaming everyone else for his problems. With the caveat that there legitimately might not be anyone better on the market, I think it’s time for a change.
RJ: 4.5/10. His constant lineup changes, playing players out of their natural position (Brandon Vincent is not a centerback), and alienation of players have cost the Fire way too many games this and the previous season. It’s great to see that he did place some faith in the younger guys in the squad though. However, do I want him to stay? No. But if the Fire can’t find anyone else, he’s the best the club will ever get.
Ruben: I honestly don’t have an opinion on this one. He can stay or go, and I don’t think it really will matter. Yes, the tinkering playing players out of position is bad, but that was in large part because of the abysmal roster construction by NR. His in game management was poor at times, too. Baffling substations and some bad strategic decisions were all him, though.
Name one player you definitely want to keep and one you definitely want to get rid of.
Adnan: In terms of fringe players, Mo Adams is one player who the club have to keep ahead of next year. I don’t think there’s any chance they would get rid of him, but I’ve seen the front office make dumber moves. He’s shown that he’s an elite level defensive midfielder at times, and just needs a consistent run of games to further prove himself. Adams was thrown into the deep end several times, like making his debut at Red Bull Arena or having to shut down Ignacio Piatti, and did remarkably well every time. Unfortunately, there are a number of players who just aren’t good enough, and should be sent out. The one player that needs to go Richard Sanchez, who just makes too made errors to be a goalkeeper at this level. If he stays, there will always be this hope with management who will play him and wait for a turnaround that will never come. Let him go, and keep Cleveland as the backup.
James Bridget: Keep Matt Polster. Ditch Richard Sanchez.
RJ: I would like to see Matt Polster stay. His contract expires at the end of December, so I’m hoping the Fire will offer him a contract extension and Polster accepts it. I believe that if Polster wasn’t injured this season, the Fire would of have been in a better position. In terms of getting the axe, I really can’t say, those who are poised to leave will most likely leave. So, maybe Nicolas Del Grecco? Other than taking up the payroll while on vacation on Tulsa, what has he done?
Ruben: Keep: Johan Kappelhof. I shouldn’t have to elaborate here. Go: Luis Solignac. I’m not as high on Soli as a lot of people are. I appreciate his toughness and speed, but I just don’t think he’s that good.
Looking ahead to next season, what should be the Fire’s #1 priority in order to improve in 2019?
Adnan: Bring in a top level centerback. The Fire have a good enough attacking frontline to cause damage, and a backline that isn’t always shooting itself in the foot would greatly benefit them. I’ve still got hope Grant Lillard can be the future for the club at the position, but he’s had a worrying amount of injury issues. Getting another defender would be especially crucial if Kappelhof leaves the club.
James Bridget: A true #10. Our defense has been wobbly all year, but our main problem was that we weren’t scoring enough goals. One big reason for that was our primary attackers, Niko and Katai, having to do everything themselves. We need a true playmaker, and one that can also present a goalscoring threat of their own.
RJ: Being competitive in the transfer market. The team needs proper squad depth.
Sum up your feelings on the 2018 season in one word.
James Bridget: Betrayed.