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The 2019 Chicago Fire In Review

The season was disappointing and frustrating. But there’s hope on the horizon.

MLS: Chicago Fire Announcement-Soldier Field Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a weird thing to feel optimistic at the end of a season of bad performances and missed playoffs.

And let’s not mince words here— in terms of performances on the pitch, the 2019 Chicago Fire were absolutely dreadful. Wasteful in front of goal. Shaky defending. Hapless goalkeeping. Underperforming numbers. Dropping points against teams we should’ve beaten handily— a phenomenon made all the more frustrating after games like the shock 5-1 win over Atlanta. And at the end of the season, our franchise player decided to hang up his boots for good.

Quite a few fans gave up on the season back in July, and with good reason. When not winning the Wooden Spoon is the most you can hope for your team, you know things are dire.

And yet, we’re all feeling pretty good right now.

We have a new owner. We’re moving back to the city next season. There’s an air of optimism, of camaraderie, of ambition we haven’t felt around the club in a very long time. Still early days, to be sure, but the future looks brighter than it has any right to.

Bookmark this post to look back on in a year. I suspect the contrast between this and the 2020 Season Review will be stark.

But for now, it’s time to put this season to rest. Here’s our review of the 2019 Chicago Fire season.

In your opinion, what was the single biggest problem with the Fire on the pitch this year? (Please list only one.)

Bridget: Their poor finishing. As Matt Doyle said, this should’ve been a 55pt team. They massively underperformed relative to their numbers, and a big part of that was because they were so wasteful in front of goal.

Ruben: For me, it was their lack of a proper solution at left back until Jonathan Bornstein got here. It showed poor planning by the front office, and hubris at their thinking that they could just coach someone up to play the position.

Mick: I have to go with the inconsistency in front of both goals this year. If you felt like this team should have scored a whole lot more, and given up a whole lot less on a consistent basis, the numbers back you up: this team woefully underperformed their xG and xGA. Between Nemanja Nikolic’s struggles, the goalkeeping woes, this group only scored in bunches during a single game and gave up too many soft goals when they couldn’t find the net in others.

Jack: Finishing. This team was one of the top chance creators in the league, but weren’t close to the top in finishing those chances. You can’t be a top team in the league if you underperform on something you’re supposed to be good at.

What do you think the Fire could have done differently?

Bridget: It wouldn’t have solved the goalscoring problem, per se, but I really think they should’ve picked their goalkeeper and made that decision at the start of the season. The whole saga with David Ousted and Kenneth Kronholm was bush league, and the bet didn’t pay off like Nelson Rodriguez hoped it would. (Gee, that sure sounds familiar.)

Ruben: The obvious answer is score more goals. As Bridget noted above, the Fire should have been a 55 point team and made the playoffs this year. The biggest obstacle from them being that team was the difference between chances created, and chances converted. If the Fire scored a few more goals in a few more games, it would have been a completely different season.

Mick: Filled the most obvious hole in their roster before the season began, allowing them to get to the consistent team sheet that we saw keep them alive in the playoffs down the stretch. It would have forced Veljko Paunovic to tinker less, and probably would have resulted in a few less goals given up.

Jack: Filled holes before the season began. Calvo, Bornstein, and Gaitan were all very important players this year, but they all missed significant portions of the season. If these three were with the team from preseason onward, the team would have been on the same page much quicker and we would have seen the late season consistency much earlier.

How would you rate the Fire’s transfer business?

Bridget: 5. Sapong, Frankowski, and Bornstein were all net positives. But the goalkeeper mess, combined with not starting the season with first choice fullbacks, negated the good the front office did. Also, despite a few decent performances, I’m really not sure how you look at Francisco Calvo and his messy departure from Minnesota and say, “he’s definitely the solution to our problems.” Also also, why go through the hassle of signing Michael Azira and then playing four times? Just bad decisions all year.

Ruben: On a 10 scale, I’d give it a 6. There were some moves that were really good— CJ Sapong, Przemysław Frankowski, and Jonathan Bornstein come to mind. And then there were some outright disaster pieces of business. Andrew Gutman’s saga comes to mind here for me. And then there were things that didn’t and still don’t make much sense. Sending Mo Adams to Atlanta still confuses me. It left the club with no real back up for Dax McCarty and, all of a sudden, they were very thin in the one position they were deep in. So, yeah, a 6.

Mick: I’ll go one higher and say a 7 for Nelson Rodriguez. Sapong was awesome, I think Frankowski is a piece to build on, Gaitan is probably the most intelligent player in the league, and the Bornstein acquisition turned this group around. All great incoming signings, and would welcome them back with open arms. Ultimately the timing of that Bornstein signing, the unending goalkeeper musical chairs, and the lack of young, exciting talent infused in the roster are marks against the club.

Jack: A 5. The players brought in were good acquisitions for the most part. The two problems I have are with the timing of the deals and that no game changer was brought in. It’s okay to have pieces come in after the season starts, but not if it’s 3 starters. You need guys like Bornstein, Calvo, and Gaitan getting to know the rest of the team in preseason. Second, about not bringing in a game-changer­–Gaitan is a good player, but he’s kind of mercurial and was brought in at a time where the Fire could have used a guy that would be one of the best players on the field every single game.

Name one player you’d like to see back in 2020 and one you’d like to see gone.

Bridget: I want Frankowski to stay. I was skeptical at first but he definitely grew on me as the season wore on, and I’d love to see what he can do at Soldier Field.

Please send Kronholm back to Germany and sign an actual, competent goalkeeper. Thanks in advance.

Ruben: I’d like to see Nemanja Nikolic stay, despite the fact that I know he’s probably the most likely player to leave on the roster. He works really hard for the club, and unlike others who did the same, actually produces results. This was admittedly a down year in production, but I think he will bounce back next season. And I’d love to see him in red when he does it.

As for a player I don’t want back, it would have to be Francisco Calvo. Despite his performances late in the season being fine, I still don’t believe you can consistently win with him at center back. His mental lapses and predilection for turnovers in the worst spots means more defensive problems for the FIre. I wouldn’t be sad to see him in another shirt next year.

Mick: A couple of candidates here, but I think I’ll go with Przemysław Frankowski. He started well in a Fire uniform, had a bit of a dip in form, and ended the year on a high note. Aside from Katai, he looked to be the most dynamic player the Fire had in the opponent’s final third, and I really believe he has all the tools to be a top 7 winger in the MLS.

For the one I want to see gone, I think it’s Micheal Azira. This has nothing to do with Michael Azira, but I think we need to develop a new number 6. Is Jeremiah Gutjhar the answer? Do we need to get someone from outside the league? I don’t know, but between Bastian & Dax being we need a new defensive midfielder and I’m not sure Azira is the long-term answer.

Jack: I want to see Jonathan Bornstein back. As far as I’m aware he isn’t in danger of leaving, but I think he was very important for the stability of the back line. It also seems like he stepped in right away and provided some extra leadership in the locker room. With Basti leaving we need to make sure that the other leader figures we have are retained. He can also be a great mentor to Andre Reynolds II as he grows into being a professional.

A player I do not want back is Marcelo. There’s no reason to keep our 3rd or 4th string centerback on board if he’s making TAM level money. I would rather we move on and maybe try to develop an academy or draft product behind Calvo and Kappelhof.

How would you rate Velko Paunovic’s performance as a coach? Should he come back for one more season? Or is it time for a change?

Bridget: I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as I could, but at this point, I’m done. I’m tired of his excuses. I’m tired of him blaming the players for his own mistakes. I’m tired of him having so much talent to work with and doing fuck all with it. I’m tired of him going on petty power trips with younger players and fucking with their heads just because he can. He had four seasons to deliver something tangible and he couldn’t do it. Pauno Out.

Ruben: Pauno certainly has his problems. He sometimes makes tactical errors and his substitutions make me scratch my head at times. At other times, though, he gets it absolutely right, like putting in Herbers against Orlando on the last day of the season. I understand the impulse to let him go, and don’t think that’s the wrong decision, but I also think it’s okay if he gets one more year.

Mick: I want to give Paunovic some rope for the beginning of the season tinkering-the guy had no choice play players in their unnatural position. He also was able to squeeze a great season out of an aging Bastian Schweinsteiger, so that is something.

But I just don’t know what we’re building towards. I’ve written about this before, but how does Paunovic want his teams to play? I could point to almost every other team in the league and say “this is what they want to do.” I can’t do that for the Fire, and we’re four years in! We saw some consistent ideas the last few games this year, but I just don’t know what his plan is. If they keep him for one more year, he needs to show that he’s implementing a style and game model throughout the year.

Jack: This season is the season I’ve been most disappointed in Paunovic, especially given the talent at his disposal this year. I think sticking with him is just sticking with mediocrity. There’s not much I can point to as a strength he’s bringing to the club. I’m not interested in going into Soldier Field with a coach who still struggles, after four years, to field a team with a consistent identity.

I want someone else brought in. Tab Ramos has been linked to the Fire before, and would actually integrate young players as we thought Pauno would do when he was hired. Or maybe splash some cash on a “DP Coach”. My top choice, and a bit of a dream replacement, would be Roger Schmidt. Schmidt, formerly of Bayer Leverkusen, recently left his post as manager of Beijing Gouon in late July. His high pressing system would be a nice change of pace to the tinkering of Paunovic, and Schmidt has the experience of coaching at the top of the sport in Germany for years.

What surprised you most about this team in 2019?

Bridget: Sapong’s early hot streak was definitely a nice surprise. But mostly, I was impressed with how well the locker room stuck together toward the end of the campaign— a welcome departure from previous underperforming seasons.

Ruben: They never quit on the season or each other. We’ve seen teems quit on themselves before, and after the start they had, it would have been a reasonable reaction to go through the motions and finish in last place. But they kept playing, and were able to make a go of it in the second half of the year.

Mick: I echo Ruben’s thoughts. This group CARED. You could see it in their play, after the games, and on social media. It must have been brutal in that locker room to keep the spirits high, and you have to tip your cap to the leaders of this team for keeping this group together. I loved it.

Jack: The performances we got from unsuspecting players. I thought CJ Sapong was a nice pickup, but through the first third of the season I think it could be argued he was team MVP. Bornstein is in a similar boat–I was happy to finally have a starting left back that was actually a left back, but he was way more solid than I was expecting. I think the stability he brought was important to the consistent results towards the end of the season. Finally, Brandt Bronico stepped up huge this year. He constantly impresses me with how much he improves from season to season. The #grindset really is real, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does to improve next year.

Heading into the offseason, what should be the Fire’s #1 priority to improve?

Bridget: Marquee player. Basti’s gone and Soldier Field seats 62,000. We need butts in seats and we need a winning product on the pitch. A bona fide star would go a long way toward that.

Ruben: The club culture should be the priority going into next season. I’m not really all that concerned about player personnel, or anything on the pitch. Joe Mansueto needs to fix everything about the club that Andrew Hauptman spent getting wrong. The club under AH was toxic, and hopefully, the new caretakers can fix it so we can freely worry about whether the team is good enough without worrying about the underlying organizational problems

Mick: We can only pick one? Honestly it’s the youth setup and the integration of Academy players into this team. Between Homegrown products not getting a second contract, targeting older DP’s to lead to team, to losing promising prospects to other MLS clubs they have to start to get their pipeline of youth talent right.

Jack: Bring in a player that is going to be a top 2 player on the field every single game, no matter the opponent. I want a player that teams build their whole game plan around trying to stop. The best teams in the league have this player, and if Joe Mansueto really wants to fill all 62,000 seats in Soldier Field and have Atlanta and Seattle levels of support then this is what he needs to do.

And now the big one: how are you feeling about Andrew Hauptman’s departure as owner? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Joe Mansueto?

Bridget: I’m mostly relieved that Hauptman’s gone. Nobody was happy with how things were going during his tenure— including him, I suspect. He wasn’t willing or able to do the things that needed to be done to make this club great, but sunk costs kept him from walking away. Thank goodness someone came along to make it worth his while to cash out.

As for Mansueto— he’s definitely saying all the right things. I’m still very much in Wait And See mode, but I like what I see so far.

Ruben: I’m cautiously optimistic. The players seemed to respond to the takeover positively, which is always a good sign. However, I worry that he doesn’t comprehend all the damage that was done to the club by Hauptman. There are real structural problems that need to be solved, like not having a USL team to bridge the gap between the academy and first team, that need to happen first. I won’t be truly satisfied until those things are fixed.

As for my feelings on Andrew Hauptman’s departure, I’m relieved more than anything. Hauptman always struck me as being out of his depth. He never figured out how to run a championship organization, and that led to things like The Editorial and poor choices in front office personnel once the holdovers from AEG left the club. I will not miss him, that’s for sure.

Mick: I said when Mansueto announced that he bought majority ownership that hope is the strongest drug on the planet, and boy am I flying high on a lot of it. In the interviews that he has been a part of since that announcement, I have been very excited about how he’s conducted himself and what he’s said. Not that I think he will be the one completely changing the direction of this franchise, but I think he’s smart enough to hire the right people to do that.

I’m not sure I can say anything more about Hauptman that hasn’t been said, but the success this club saw during his tenure does. Good luck Andrew Hauptman, thanks for nothing.

Jack: I am very optimistic about Joe Mansueto’s ownership. In his first few weeks he has said more to journalists and fans than Andrew Hauptman said in his entire run as owner. Not just that, but he’s also saying the right things. Mansueto seems like he truly cares about the city of Chicago, and about the reputation that the club has in the city. Now, when Nelson Rodriguez says “we’d like to thank our ownership for his incredible support and dedication” I won’t have to roll my eyes.

Sum up your feelings on the 2019 season in one word.

Bridget: Frustrating.

Ruben: Complicated.

Mick: Indifferent.

Jack: Underwhelming.