The story of the 2020 Chicago Fire is one of stops and starts— of stops and starts-and what ifs and might-have beens. From a frantic preseason that started way too late to an end of season final game let down, the Chicago Fire had a roller-coaster season that will go down in history as a lost year, just like for the rest of us. There was a panned rebrand, a massive hustle just to have a roster together for opening day, and after that, a lot of uncertainty and stress.
That’s not to say there weren’t positives. Some players took steps forward while others were tantalizingly close but always fell short. Most of the new signings made positive impacts and for the most part, their brand new striker lived up to his hype. But it wasn’t enough.
The Fire ended up out of the playoffs with 13 dropped points and some serious thinking to do.
This is the 2020 Chicago Fire retrospective.
The Fire’s preseason started late. From the end of the 2019 season, everyone expected the removal of head coach Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez, but Pauno wasn’t out until November 12th— a full month and change after the last kick of the ball on October 6th (a 5-2 win over Orlando City), and instead of Nelson getting the boot, he was shuffled off to the business operations side of things and would have no football decision making power.
This was less than ideal considering the overhaul the roster was going to go through. Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Fire’s biggest star was retiring and their captain and midfield star, Dax McCarty, was off to join Nashville’s debut campaign. To compound those issues, the Fire’s biggest attacking threats Aleksandar Katai and Nemanja Nikolic were also moving on; Katai to the LA Galaxy and Niko back to Europe. There was a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in.
Finally the new Sporting Director was hired. Georg Heitz was placed in power five days before Christmas and he didn’t waste time taking interviews for the manager gig. His choice was Raphael Wicky. Wicky was most recently a manager in the US Youth system, but he had previous UEFA Champions League experience with FC Basel— not coincidentally while Heitz was Director of Football there. The duo got to work scouting and making moves. They took Jonathan Jimenez with the 26th pick in the MLS Draft, but he ultimately wasn’t signed and found himself on FC Toros of the USL. But the Fire’s first big signing was Robert Beric on January 18th. The Slovenian joined the club from St Etienne in France and there was hope he could fill the hole Niko was leaving.
Then came the flurry of signings. Miguel Navarro, Bobby Shuttleworth, Ignacio Aliseda and Boris Sekulic were all signed in the middle of February, and Gastón Giménez was the team’s new designated player from Argentina. Unfortunately, travel issues caused by the COVID virus meant the Fire’s new signings would miss most or all of training camp aside from those who were already in the United States.
Surrounding all of this was the pending rebrand. For years, the worst kept secret in Chicago sports was that owner Andrew Hauptman was not a fan of the Fire’s branding. He’d been trying for years to change things about the club from the color of the jerseys to the name of the club itself. On his way out, he succeeded. In his last act as owner, the rebrand was pushed through. It was not received well, to put it mildly. There was endless mockery from the outside and large loud pushback from the fanbase. Ultimately, though there was nothing anyone could do about it before the season started. And so with a half completed roster and some Nat 20 viscous mockery, the Fire would start the season against the defending champion Seattle Sounders.
That game turned out better than expected. Going in there was worry about the fire’s half finished squad- they started Brandt Bronico at right back because of Sekulic’s travel problems, and rookie Mauricio Pineda started next to Alvaro Medrán because Gastón Giménez wasn’t available either. However, the Fire ended the first half tied with the champs and at times, looked like the better squad. Then Beric scored his first goal for the club and the Fire took the lead early on into the second half. It was looking like a successful debut for all involved, but then as we would be accustomed to, the back four let the club down. Brandt Bronico let Jordan Morris get by him and score to tie it, and then won the game in stoppage time.
They looked better in New England for their second match the next weekend, coming away with a 1-1 draw, this time coming back from giving up an early goal thanks to excellent passing from the debuting Gastón Giménez and Djordje Mihailovic, who served it up for Jonathan Bornstein. Everything was looking up for their March home opener against an ailing Atlanta United who had just lost Josef Martinez to a season ending injury.
Then the world stopped.
That pandemic that caused the Fire some travel inconveniences in February had kept growing almost unhindered throughout the world, and it was starting to be felt in the United States. Once Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus after a game on March 11th, everything started to shut down. The NBA suspended their season, Major League Baseball delayed their start, the NCAA outright canceled the basketball tournament, and MLS suspended operations. Cities imposed curfews and stay at home orders. The world shut down in March. No one know if and when things would get better and we could start living again. But for now, most of us knew that sports were a secondary concern at that moment. It was time to look after the health of us and our loved ones, soccer could wait.
Stay tuned for next week, when the Fire and the rest of MLS resume play with a tournament. Injury problems abound.