While our Men in Red continue to battle for playoffs, the front office would be wise to be thinking about 2020 and beyond.
Whether the Chicago Fire front office decides to bring back any of their familiar faces, reward other players with new contracts, or bring in new marquee signings, Hot Time in Old Town examines all possibilities for Chicago moving forward.
Keep in mind most changes will not occur before the end of the season, and certainly not before the secondary transfer market opens on July 7th. A lot can change between now and then, and all three players currently on Designate Player contracts will be able to solidify their place with the team and male their case for a renewed contract next season.
Of the three Designed Players on the Fire’s roster, Basti most resembles the original idea of the DP— a global superstar towards the end of their career that will bring instant credibility and name recognition and can make the rest of the roster better through their experience and skills. Basti has certainly accomplished those tasks; from the fanfare that greeted him at the airport upon his arrival to his displays of silky skills and precise passing, the German has made his mark on the club and the city.
With all that said, he is probably the most expendable of the current three DPs when all are playing at their peak. Chicago at the present have a surplus of attacking, creative talent, with Aleksandar Katai and Nemanja Nikolic joined by CJ Sapong, Djordje Mihailovic, Brandt Bronico, Dax McCarty, Przemysław Frankowski, and Nico Gaitán. This is a deep, talented group that we have taken in-depth looks at, analyzing their depth, talent and the unique skill sets each bring.
A player of Schweinsteiger’s pedigree and skill will always be welcome in almost every MLS squad. But at the present, Chicago is not in a position where they need to devote a DP slot to bringing back the German star. If Basti does decide to come back for another season in 2020, which is not a given after the extended contract negotiations that occurred before this season, the Fire front office would be wise to find a way to bring him in at an amount lower than the DP salary, freeing up that critical spot for another massive splash.
Brought in to the team in 2017 in part to mitigate the loss of David Accam, Katai has improved in every season with Chicago, becoming more consistent and assuming a large responsibility in the team’s offensive production. The dynamic winger has been the team’s spark plug this season, causing havoc with his movement and long-range ability to the tune of three goals and four assists on the season. Katai has made a strong argument
One major knock previously on Katai was his consistency and fitness levels. He often made mental mistakes and could disappear from games, living up to former manager Nenad Lalatović’s comments that Katai “had a problem in his head” and it affects his play and conditioning. This season, he’s shown marked improvement, going at least 75 minutes in nine appearances while doing a better job of remaining engaged in the game throughout, making his presence felt.
Katai has made a strong argument for a renewed Designated Player contract after the season as he has been critical up top, and looks to be able to continue to contribute at a high level for many seasons to come. If he can continue the way he is playing and finish the season strong, he has a realistic chance at double digit goal and assist totals, and would absolutely deserve for his contract to be renewed by the Fire.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question for the Fire involves bringing Niko back for next year.
More to the point, the front office will have to try and guess which version of Niko they’d get in 2020. Will they be bringing back the 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner whose twenty-four goals helped catapult the Men in Red to a third-place finish in the east and a trip to the playoffs? Or will they be getting the 2019 edition of the Serbian striker, who’s eleven missed chances and -4.28 goals-expected goals scored are both worst in the league.
For a DP, Nikolic tends to run a little too hot and cold, going numerous games without finding the back of the net. For a player that is not great dropping back on the ball or well-regarded defensively, Nikolic’s calling card is his ability to put himself into positions to score and his ability to convert those chances. While his introduction to the league was about as good as it gets, he simply has to be more consistent, particularly as the talent around him increases and he gets more and more opportunities. I do not believe the Fire would be wise to bring Nikolic back at a DP-level contract, and may need to look at allowing him a move back to Europe in 2020.
If one or all of the current Designated Players are not brought back on DP deals, new additions Frankowski and Gaitán have both shown well in their brief Fire career, and could be rewarded with higher level contracts as a result. Both players have demonstrated what made them transfer targets for the Fire’s front office to begin with, showcasing silky skills and great soccer IQ, and look to be stalwarts going forward. Gaitán in particular has had a dramatic impact on the team and it is highly obvious just how much better he makes the entire team with his movement and skillful passing. If he returns from his injury quickly and can continue to make his presence felt for the remainder of the season it would be difficult to see the Fire not rewarding him with a lucrative new contract to make him a cornerstone of the new look and new location team in 2020.
With the move to Soldier Field, the front office may want to look outside the organization and find a way to make a big name splash before the 2020 season. The Fire have been linked to big names like Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Robert Lewandowski, Nelson Rodriguez could try to make a regime-changing signing to stir up the excitement that has been waning around the franchise.
Regardless of what direction the team elects to go, the 2020 Chicago Fire will most likely look quite different than the team currently plying its trade at SeatGeek Stadium. Whether that is for good or worse, the next two transfer windows will shape up to be critical for the team, the front office and the city.
For now, let’s enjoy the team that we have, and take time to marvel at the composure and gracefulness of Schweinsteiger, the incredible displays of skill from Katai, and the goal-potential of the Golden Booted Nikolic. Hopefully, they can lead the Fire to another playoff appearance.