We’ve reached the virtual end of the first half of the season. MLS is breaking for the group stage of the Gold Cup and aside form the Open Cup game against Saint Louis FC, the Fire don’t play again until June 22nd. Now is as good a time as any for mid-season report cards. I’ve taken into account performances, as well as things outside their control as mitigating factors, such as coaching and the effect of other positions effect on performance.
So without further ado: your 2019 Chicago Fire mid-season report card.
The first thing that must be said is that the goalkeeping has been substantially better this year. The acquisition of David Ousted over the off-season has been a big upgrade over the likes of Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson, and Richard Sanchez. However, he’s had a few blunders that have cost the Fire points on more than one occasion. So right before the deadline, Kenneth Kronholm was signed from the 2. Bundesliga to challenge for the spot.
Kronholm is a different kind of keeper than any other keeper the Fire have had. He’s a sweeper keeper who likes to have the ball at his feet, and will come out as far as the center circle so the defenders can get further forward.
Of course, the FO and coaching staff has to ruin everything. The transition from Ousted to Kronholm, while maybe could have been foreseen, was performed with such a lack of grace and tact that I didn’t believe it at first. Goalkeeping is about confidence and demeanor as much as technique and skill, and this situation has the potential to destabilize everything.
But that’s for the future. For what we have to grade, things seem okay.
Bottom Line: The Goalkeeping has been okay. A lot of the goals scored have been out of their control and they’ve been a marked improvement over what has come before.
By far the weakest part of the club, the back line consists of either players playing out of position (Johan Kappelhof, Diego Campos, Jeremiah Gutjahr, Raheem Edwards ), players who aren’t good or consistent enough (Francisco Calvo, Marcelo) or both (Jorge Corrales), and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
There are no natural fullbacks on the squad. Every person who’s played there this season has been converted from wingers, whose natural inclination is to get forward for the attack. This normally wouldn’t be an issue if the center backs were capable of making up for the difference. The problem is that the center backs aren’t capable of doing so, forcing the fullbacks to play more defensively, which these players don’t have the skill set for.
And then we come to Bastian Schweinsteiger. He’s still a good player, for sure. His passing is still, at times, world class, and his sense for and ability to see the the game makes center back the perfect spot for him at this point in his career. However, guile and smarts can only do so much in a league were athleticism in attackers is so high. He has trouble keeping pace with attackers at times, and players have been able to best him making runs off his shoulder. He needs a better partner.
Bottom Line: It’s a mess. The state of the defense is always going to cost the Fire points.
If one were looking for bright spots and optimism when talking bout this team, this is where you should watch. Even before the acquisition of Argentine playmaker Nico Gaitán, the midfield was the most secure consistent performing part of the roster.
Aleksander Katai is back on his early 2018 form. He’s consistently the most dangerous player on the pitch for the Fire. His runs are dynamic, and he’s always exactly where he needs to be to create scoring opportunities.
Gaitán has come into the squad and made everybody better. The clear example is the difference between the way the team played before and after he was taken off in the match against Minnesota United. He played the first thirty minutes, scored a goal, and was the most influential player on the pitch. He completed all but four of his passes and was able to control the game.
Once he left however, things seemed to fall apart. MNUFC were able to control the game and the Fire were lucky they didn’t give up a goal. It’s testament to how good Gaitán is that he can have that big an impact on the way the team plays and performs.
The rest of the midfield has had their ups and downs. Mo Adams and Djordje Mihailovic have been in and out of the lineup. Dax seems to have lost half a step, and Brandt Bronico has had wildly inconsistent performances from game to game.
Bottom Line: This has been the biggest bright spot this year, and when firing on all cylinders, it’s a joy to watch.
Grade: B +
For a team that’s top 5 in expected goals for, you’d expect this team to score more goals, but the fact of the matter is that they’re not. Nemanja Nikolic has been extremely disappointing in his third year at the club. For the man who won the golden boot in 2017, his decline in just two years has been tough to watch. He doesn’t have that killer instinct in front of goal anymore, and it’s sad watching him miss open net after open net, and hang his head.
CJ Sapong, meanwhile, is having a career renascence in the red and white. He has 5 goals in 12 appearances, and the games he hasn’t scored in, he’s been dynamic and forced teams to pay attention to him. He’s a joy to watch and everything I ever wanted when he was signed.
Bottom Line: CJ Sapong is the reason for the passing grade. He’s been fun to watch. Niko’s decline, on the other hand, has not.
So what are your impressions? Give us your half season report cards below!