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Chicago Fire 2019 MLS Preview

Can the Men In Red put 2018 behind them and get back to the playoffs?

MLS: Chicago Fire at New England Revolution Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Friends, compatriots: it’s finally here. The new Chicago Fire season is just three days away.

The Men In Red are still trying to find their footing after more than a decade of mediocrity (and counting). After a barnstorming 2017 campaign that put them in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in years, the Fire crashed hard and finished 2018 with the second-to-worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Can Chicago turn it around this year? Or are we doomed to another year of crushing sadness?

The Skinny

How did they finish in 2018?

James Bridget Gordon: 10th in the Eastern Conference, semifinals in the US Open Cup.

What’s new in 2019?

JBG: A winger from Poland, a forward from Philadelphia, a defender from Portugal, a goalkeeper from Denmark by way of Vancouver and DC, a new name for the stadium, and a ceasefire agreement with the fans.

Who’s out?

JBG: Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent, Michael de Leeuw, Luis Solignac, Christian Dean, Nicolás Del Grecco, Alan Gordon, Drew Conner, Daniel Johnson, Jonathan Campbell, Patrick McLain, Yura Movsisyan

Who’s in?

JBG: Fabian Herbers, Marcelo, Przemysław Frankowski, Jeremiah Gutjahr, Cristian Martinez, Amando Moreno, Andre Reynolds III, David Ousted, CJ Sapong

What’s the new jersey?

Ruben Tisch; The new away shirt is a bit of a throwback. It’s white with a red stripe across the chest in classic Chicago Fire style. The big news is the shirt sponsor. The Fire have kicked the paint to the curb and are now getting that smartphone money with the Motorola logo written across the chest. And yes, it is Motorola Mobility, the brand owned by Lenovo, and not Motorola Solutions. (I think. It’s complicated.)

Projected starting XI

RT: In a 4-2-3-1— Ousted; Corrales, Marcelo, Kappelhof, Hassler; McCarty, Schweinsteiger; Frankowski, Mihailovic, Katai; Nikolic

Expectations for 2019

RT: The Fire have given us a severe case of whiplash over the last couple of seasons. The difference in finishing position between 2017 and 2018 is staggering. I think the Fire are not as bad as their 2018 season suggests, but also not as good as 2017. I’ll say they make the bottom half of the playoff spots, and get to the Open Cup final, maybe win it if they get lucky.

The 2019 Chicago Fire, Explained

What did we learn last season about this team?

JBG: That their high-flying run in 2017 was, in fact, a fluke. It’s unclear whether their campaign the year before, in which they finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference and was in the Supporters’ Shield race for a time, was a case of the team over-performing and 2018 was a return to the mean. It’s also entirely possible this team is much better than their results last year showed. Regardless, 2018 was a year in which this organization was exposed once again as dysfunctional— on and off the pitch.

RT: We learned that Nemanja Nikolic can’t do it alone, and that the team really missed João Meira. Niko is a great player and can do so much, but his 2017 scoring output was due in large part to how teams were still treating David Accam as the main goal scoring threat. With Accam gone, Niko was not able to put up the numbers to equal his golden boot performance of 2017. The lack of a quality second CB to play alongside Johan Kappelhof showed last year. The revolving door of Jonathan Campbell, Christian Dean, Grant Lillard, and Bastian Schweinsteiger made sure that communication was never established and there was never a real CB tandem. The Fire never really knew what they had until Meira left after the 2017 season, and it showed.

Who is THE player to watch on your team, and why?

JBG: Djordje Mihailovic. He earned his first USMNT caps earlier this winter, impressing at Camp Cupcake and scoring a goal in his national team debut. He’s showing real growth as a player, and, combined with Mo Adams and Brandt Bronico, could help form the midfield backbone of this team for years to come. A lot of the team’s successes and failures this year could well depend on how Mihailovic performs— and how well he’s coached.

What’s the biggest concern for this season?

JBG: Fullback. In 2017 we had what was, for my money, the best fullback pair in MLS. This offseason, Matt Polster finagled a move to Rangers FC, while Brandon Vincent opted to retire from the sport rather at age 24. Replacing those two was always going to be a big ask, but the Fire organization, bafflingly, has not even tried. So unless there are still some potential deals in the works, or head coach Veljko Paunovic intends to play three in the back, the wide defender positions will likely be a glaring weakness for other teams to exploit.

Will this team care about CCL/U.S. Open Cup/Canadian Championship?

RT: Yes. Oh god yes. If the four Dewar Trophies in the cabinet weren’t enough of a clue, the drive to be the hashtag kings of the cup, and the first team of the modern era to reach 5 US Open cup titles is the next one. The club has made the Semifinals 6 of the last 8 seasons, And made the final once. Deep Cup runs are a part of the Fire’s history, and there’s no reason for this year to be any different.

Who’s the player fans will learn to love?

RT: Mo Adams. Every fan will learn to love Mo Adams as much as I love Mo Adams. Adams is very much a boss in central midfield, capable of controlling the field, as well as shutting down opposing number 10s. As the season rolls on and Basti gets tired legs, He should get more playing time, and will be able to showcase his talent properly.