That’s, uh, “Keeping It
What are the Chicago Fire?
The Chicago Fire are a
shadow of their former selves professional football franchise in Major League Soccer. Last season, the Men in Red (as the Fire are also known) faded horribly after a promising first half finished third in the overall MLS table.
Maybe a little history is in order?
The Fire were MLS’ first expansion team, back before the league
became a Ponzi scheme harvesting exorbitant expansion fees had much traction in the American sporting landscape, winning the double in 1998 to set all of us up with unrealistic expectations going forward secure the slightly-less-delightful-as-the-years-go-by-but-still-desperately-defended moniker of ‘Best MLS Expansion Franchise.’ A dominant team so freaking long ago that the memories are literally starting to organically fade within the people who were there in the early, unsteady years of MLS, the Men in Red are currently led by the good-natured ghost of German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger, as well as one-dimensional 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, and weary-eyed MLS stalwart Dax McCarty.
What happened last year?
2017 peaked early in Chicago, and the high-water mark isn’t hard to pinpoint: July 1, when the Fire completed their second consecutive 4-0 win in the league and stood alone atop the overall table, 18 games in. Hidden within that rout, though, were the seeds of dissolution that would sprout to ruin the second half of the season for the Fire - primary among them, David Accam’s absence from the XI and Schweinsteiger’s increasing brittleness forcing him off in the second half.
Without the threat of Accam’s explosiveness coming off the left wing, Nikolic and Michael de Leeuw faced much sterner marking down the stretch, which made things difficult - but the greater revelation was that the tactical mastery the Fire had enjoyed to that point seemingly sprang solely from Schweinsteiger’s wise and wonderful football brain. Without Basti (dogged by persistent injuries down the stretch), the Men in Red retreated tactically, the early, revelatory expansiveness simply draining out of the side like a water from a sponge.
What’s the offseason been like?
Ever have writer’s block? Or been terribly constipated? It’s been like that.
The challenge seems simple enough: Build upon last year’s growth. Figure out what was working from April to July and order a crate of it. Get an attacker who can turn with the ball in the attacking zone so two-deep-lines-of-four isn’t a trump card against the Fire. To accomplish these tasks, Chicago has drafted astutely, picking up the Mac Hermann trophy winner in Jon Bakero, another quality young attacker in Diego Campos. They signed a Homegrown defender (Grant Lillard). They invited a couple of vets to camp.
So far, so good, right? Building up that depth. Lovely.
Then they sold David Accam - who, we learned immediately after, had just signed a contract extension - to a conference rival in Philadelphia. And they invested the 1.2 million dollars in MLS scrip they so acquired on … uh …
- Tony Tchani cost $150,000 from Vancouver, so at least Basti won’t have to do his own running-people-over in the midfield this year.
- Aleksandar Katai is on a rent-to-own deal from Alaves in Spain, but is more of a combination-move guy than the unbalancing wing forward Accam represented. That said, he’s in the prime of his career and was trusted at one point to create chances for a La Liga side, so fingers very very crossed.
- <list ends>
<record scratch> Wait a minute, list ENDS?
Yes, the list ends. A long courtship of Juan Manuel Quintero collapsed when it turned out Porto married him off to River Plate. Also - this is apparently true - professional footballers tend to want that money, son, and the Fire apparently aren’t offering enough of it, or something. Or maybe it’s something else, as I’m sure we’re about to hear huffily asserted from the folks in the know. Perhaps it is it our posture? Does someone on the negotiating team need a breath mint? We don’t know. But it has gotten bad enough that Nelson Rodriguez, justly lauded for assembling last year’s roster, has resorted to public mea culpas like this one:
“The roster’s incomplete, as it has been,” Rodriguez said. “We’re still looking to improve across all the lines, we’re still involved in conversations both inside and outside the league. Can’t say that anything is imminent, but we’ll keep working …”
Currently, injuries have breakout right-back star Matt Polster on the shelf, along with attacking midfielders de Leeuw and Djordje Mihalovic, wingers Luis Solignac and Daniel Johnson and keeper Richard Sanchez, all potential starters. At least we have some depth behind Polster now in Rafael Ramos - and all the Men in Red had to give up to get him was the rights to the crown jewel of their academy system, Cam Lindley, who refused to sign with the club over the winter.
So that’s how the offseason has gone.
What’s the best-case scenario this year for the Fire?
Football is a grand and various game, and almost anything is possible. There is the framework of a very good MLS side on this roster - Johan Kappelhof and Christian Dean could form a uniquely fluid and mobile center-back combination; Polster and Brandon Vincent are a proven wingback tandem; Schweinsteiger plus McCarty plus almost anybody is a gritty yet still creative midfield three; and so on. If Katai can provide the kind of against-the-grain creativity that turns possession into good looks at goal, Nikolic will finish them. A playoff berth - and maybe the first postseason victory in a decade - are the best-case scenario for the Fire at this point.
So you’re doubting the best-case scenario?
There’s just too many long bets that need to land for the 2018 Fire to credibly expect to challenge again for the Supporters’ Shield. Dean needs to stay healthy, which he’s never done. Basti needs to stay healthy. A keeper, any keeper, needs to show they’re going to snatch that starting spot and not let go - which none of the guys in camp have ever done. Rodriguez needs to find impact players, somehow, before the summer transfer window, because by the time August purchases are integrated, there will be something like 10 games of a 34-game season left to play.
What happened here?
We will probably never know conclusively. What we do know is that, in an era where MLS is making it easier to invest in really good players, the Fire have seemingly declined to do so.