This is the first of a two-part retrospective on the 2019 season. Part two will run next week.
The Chicago Fire came into the 2019 season with a lot to prove.
After regressing to 10th place the previous year from 3rd in 2017, the Fire were looking to bounce back into playoff contention. Their biggest offseason pickup, Przemysław Frankowski, was brought in to finally fill the hole left by David Accam’s departure to Philidelphia the previous winter. CJ Sapong was brought in to bolster an already strong front line, led by Nemanja Nikolic.
However, there were still some worry around the squad, chief among them was who was going to play fulback. Matt Polster was off to Glasgow to play for Rangers, and in a shocking move, Brandon Vincent decided to retire. That left the Fire with no obvious first-choice fullbacks on the roster, as well as questions about how good the defense was going to be. It wouldn’t be long before we got our answers.
The Fire opened the season at the LA Galaxy on March 3rd. Things looked good early on. Despite being on the road, the Fire controlled possession and looked the more dangerous team in the first half. Their quality was rewarded in the 4th minute of the second half when Sapong, who was starting because Nikolic and his wife had just had a child, scored their first goal of the season and gave them the lead. Unfortunately, they would eventually let LA back into the game with poor play by Jorge Corrales, and eventually they would fall to a bit of Zlatan magic.
At the end of the match though, they wound up with more possession and more shots then LA. They dropped points, yes. But it was clear that if they could clean things up on defense and put away a few more chances, this team would be dangerous force in the eastern conference.
The slow start continued though— first with a 1-1 draw against Orlando City in the home opener. Corrales got sent off after another horrid performance, and some last minute heroics from Sapong and Frankowski gave the Fire their first point of the season. Just like in the first game, the Fire were dominant both before and after the red card, and should have walked away with three points.
That would become the theme of the club as the season wore on. The Fire were always dominating the games from a statistical perspective, but were almost never able to transfer that to points and wins. Even in their next game, a 4-2 loss to the Seattle Sounders, they out-shot Seattle 25-10 and had slightly more possession. Ironically, their first win in Week 4, a 1-0 win against the New York Red Bulls, they were both out-possessed and out-passed.
The ultimate expression of their failure to capitalize on all the chances they were creating came on April 12th at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps. In the match, the Fire had possession 60% of the game and 23 shots, six of which were on goal, and their only goal of the game had to come from the penalty spot. Niko stepped up to score his first goal of the season, and it was in just in time. Another defensive error, this time by new goalkeeper David Ousted, gifted the Caps the lead in the 54th minute; before that late penalty, it was looking like the Fire were going to lose again.
From there, things didn’t look like they were getting any better. Aside from a 4-1 drubbing of a truly awful Colorado Rapids squad, the Fire’s front line seemed to dry up in April, losing 1-0 to both Montreal and NYCFC. The Fire finished their first two months of the season with a record of 3W-3D-4L.
May was the best month of the season by far for the club. They seemed to find their form and only lost one game. Yet it was that one loss that truly showed us how disappointing the rest of the season was going to be. After three decent performances that saw them holding LAFC scoreless on the road and wins over New England and Minnesota United, the Fire went out to San Jose feeling good. They would come back feeling sick.
That game turned into The Chris Wondolowski Show. Wondo broke the MLS all-time scoring record after dropping four goals on Chicago in what was the worst defensive performance of the season. The defensive issues we thought were going to be a problem had cropped up in the past, but never in such an egregious manner. Even the help they brought in, in the form of Francisco Calvo from Minnesota, was not enough to address the issues. The Fire still had no fullbacks and were haplessly disorganized, to the point where Wondo could run rings around them. But that wasn’t the worst thing to happen.
That dubious honor came in our ignominious early exit US Open Cup campaign. The Fire went down to St. Louis looking to stake their claim on history; they came back with their tails between their legs and calls for a house cleaning from fans. Two goals caused by poor defending endemic of the first part of the season would end the Fire’s campaign, and as I said in my recap, it was emblematic of the poor planning and hubris of the Fire’s front office.
At the halfway point of the season, the Fire were out of the Open Cup, in 9th place, and not at all looking like a contender.
Next week, we’ll talk about Jonathan Bornstein, the continued underachievement, and hope for the future.