Last year, the Fire were a heartbreaking mess that just missed a playoff spot they didn’t really deserve to have. They also changed ownership, moved back to Soldier Field, and crafted themselves a completely new identity.
How much will the changes affect the quality of the soccer on the field? Will fans come out in droves upon the club’s return to their ancestral home? Will there be Ice Cream Nachos?
We’re about to find out.
Welcome to Hot Time in Old Town’s Chicago Fire season preview.
Ruben- Hello again, It’s my second year as editor for the Fire desk at Hot Time in Old Town. I’ve been with the site in various capacities since 2011 and am probably most well known for manning the HotTime twitter on Fire game days. I also put together the game previews that go up the day before matches. My outside interests include Magic the Gathering and various esports. Forza Ferrari, Go Sox.
Patrick - Hi everyone. I’m the new managing editor of Hot Time in Old Town. Prior to this I worked as an investigative news reporter and producer for TV stations and other outlets around Illinois and Wisconsin. I’ve been a Fire fan since 2003 or so, and I’m also a huge Arsenal fan. In addition to working here, I coach youth soccer for a local club.
Mick- Hey hey folks. Back again for the second year here at Hot Time in Old Town, hopefully not due for the classic sophomore slump. Going to mix it up a little bit from this year for my content; I am going to introduce a weekly column on the MLS outlook in Vegas with a focus on the Fire, and then dive into very specific tactical trends that I see from the Fire as they arise.
James - Hello everyone, I’m a new face here at Hot Time in Old Town but have been around the Fire for a while now. I’m British, and have written about soccer for various sites for a number of years. I’m constantly found on Twitter and have a keen interest in Formula One, WWE and old British rock and roll.
TJ- This is my first season with HTIOT where I will be serving as the editor of the Red Stars desk. My only other writing experience goes back to 2014 and 2015 where I was a contributor to OTF Soccer. I am the host of the Minivan Dad Soccer Pod and previously was a fill-in/third wheel on USFanTV. I am an all-around soccer junkie that watches way too much soccer from all around the world, but in the Chicagoland area, when I’m not using my season tickets for the Fire (11th season) or Red Stars (first season). I can be found contributing to soccer as a soccer dad, youth coach and referee.
RJ- Hi there! I’m Ruel but most folks call me RJ. I’ve been with HTIOT since early 2018. You can usually find me over at the North Lot Podcast. Outside of Chicago soccer, I’m a huge fan of the English Championship and J-League. Apart from covering soccer I write about video games. If I’m not yapping about Fellaini/Balotelli to the Fire, I spend my limited free time playing rhythm games.
What Are Your Thoughts On How The Offseason Unfolded?
Ruben- It got better as it moved along, but it started about as well as a car with no engine. It took forever to decide to fire Veljko Paunovic and to rebuild the squad, and the lack of urgency in finding replacements was certainly concerning— not to mention the ongoing debacle of the rebrand. However, they’ve recovered well enough and look to have put together a competitive squad. Beric looked good in the final preseason game, and the midfield has impressed as well.
Patrick- I’m with Ruben. For the longest time, we wondered what was going on. The late decision to fire Paunovic certainly slowed things down, but once Joe Mansueto hired Georg Heitz, everything began to fall into place. Heitz clearly has a plan—adding younger, faster players at a lot of positions. Will it work? I hope so. We’ll find out.
Mick- It feels like it isn’t over, so it gets a grade of incomplete. Like Ruben and Patrick said above, it all got off to a late start and based on the shape of the roster there are more things coming. Once it got moving, it trended in a positive direction but I wouldn’t be surprised if we consider the “offseason” stretching into the first few game weeks.
James - The off-season has been...interesting. From the meltdowns over the rebrand to the positivity over Heitz and Wicky arriving to some more meltdowns over badges. This has been unlike any off-season I can remember. There looks to be a real plan in place now so there’s real cause for positivity.
TJ- Considering how quickly the change in ownership came together in the late summer, this off-season has been handled as well as can be. While there seems to be an issue with how long it took the club to move on from Veljko Paunovic, I think that was a correct decision. I feel that Joe Mansueto had a list of priorities and the others (getting out of Bridgeview lease, completing the deal with the Chicago Park District for Soldier Field, making the best out of the re-brand already in motion, building successful business operations) took priority. Once the decision to revamp the soccer operations was made, the progress has been calculated, steady and continually upgrading. I am one that would rather see that, than to make a hire just to make a hire without enough thought put in.
RJ - As what Ruben said, “It started as a car with no engine.” As the offseason progressed, it became a Honda Civic with an itasha wrap looking to impress - and just like a Civic, the club had a new questionable look and slow start. However as the offseason progressed, the Fire actually made some meaningful additions to the club. It finally seemed like the Fire was actually doing something right for once during the offseason. That Civic won’t ever turn into an NSX, but with Wicky behind the wheel, it could turn into something special.
Who Is Your Player To Watch?
Ruben- Fabian Herbers is going to surprise some people this season. He’s going to be spending most of the season on the bench, but when he’s on the field, he’s going to have an impact. He has an instinct for goal and is not afraid to shoot from 30 yards; something that at times is difficult for this team. He’s also good at recognizing space and placing himself in the right places. I’m looking forward to seeing how he develops this season.
Patrick- We’ll have to wait a bit to see him, but I’m extremely excited to see what Gaston Gimenez can do. Like with all the new signings, it’s tough to be sure what he can really do because we only have YouTube videos and stat sites to judge him, but Gimenez appears to be a beast of a number six. His presence should provide cover to Johan Kappelhof and Francisco Calvo as they get used to playing with one another as central defenders once again. And, hopefully, he’ll be able to win a lot of balls and launch the attack going forward.
Mick- For me it has to be Ignacio Aliseda and it’s not even close. Not only do I want to see what the diminutive attacker brings on the wing in terms of production, but his success is critical to signal to the rest of the world that young, promising players should come to Chicago. Aliseda is the first DP the club has signed under the age of 20, and we are going to learn very quickly how much this new ownership group will prioritize development and how they treat investments like himself moving forward.
James - There are the obvious answers here in any of the new DPs but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the longer-tenured players were to have their breakout year in 2020. Someone like Bronico or Mihailovic can really make that step from being promising young players to being key cogs in Wicky’s team.
TJ- This to me is a simple answer, Francisco Calvo. There is a reason that Minnesota was willing to move on from an all-star for 50 cents on the dollar, and I have a feeling this is the year this may be discovered. I feel that Calvo had a lot of cover last season in Basti and Dax, which with all due respect to Gimenez and Kappelhof is simply not there. As the leader, and potential team captain, Calvo will be asked to run the defense this season, which he seemed to stumble at both in Minnesota and in games missing Schweinsteiger. With there still being question marks between the sticks in Kronholm and Shuttleworth, the back four needs to be a team strength and not a funnel.
RJ - The homegrown players. Mauricio Pineda was a joy to watch during the pre-season matches. He is a perfect Dax McCarty replacement. The Slonina brothers - while they didn’t light up the world during the preseason like Pineda, also looked promising. And a final shout out to Andre Reynolds III, who I am still rating ever since his debut against Cruz Azul last year. I think it is a damn shame he didn’t start a single minute during the pre-season. Here is hoping that Wicky gives them all a few minutes to develop this year.
What’s The Biggest Concern For This Season?
Ruben- Much like last year, the biggest concern is the defense. The presumptive back four never played together during the preseason, and presumptive right-back Boris Sekulic didn’t even spend any time with them at camp. The Fire are going to need to outscore opponents to get any points in March while the defense learns about each other, and as we saw last season, That’s a tall ask.
Patrick- The fact that Gimenez, Sekulic, Ignacio Aliseda and Luka Stojanovic played zero minutes with the team in preseason is definitely a concern. At his introductory news conference, Raphael Wicky stressed that fans will need to have patience. I do think it could take months before this team truly shows what it can do together, and that could be frustrating. Fire fans are starving for a winner—rightfully so—but I do wonder if we’re capable of the patience we’ll need this season.
Mick- Lack of creativity and service to the front three. Beric was signed to score goals in this league, Sapong has proven he can score at a consistent clip, but will they get enough opportunities to make a difference? Giminez is a holding midfielder, Medran likes to start attacks from a deep-lying playmaker position, Djordje connects play together more so than be a game breaker in the final third; where will the supply come from? I’m worried about the lack of goals and where they come from.
James - Unpredictability. We’ve all become used to seeing the Fire go from heroes to zero in a matter of days and that will likely continue this year. If the team doesn’t perform consistently, there’s a real worry that fans will quickly turn and lump 2020 in with the many, many dumpster fires we’ve had to watch in recent years.
TJ- I’m going to take a different tack with this part and say it’s Soldier Field. I don’t mean the atmosphere, which I think will be there as long as the club remains competitive. I am specifically referring to the quality of the field itself, especially once the calendar turns to August and the Bears return. Soldier Field has consistently been one of the worst natural surfaces in the NFL, especially as the season goes on. I know there are safeguards in order to try to keep the field at a high quality, I’m just not sure they will actually be successful, and the last thing this club needs is another reason for players to not want to be here.
RJ - The goalkeeping situation. Ever since Sean Johnson was run out of town, the Fire never found a suitable replacement for him. Both Kennith Kronholm, Bobby Shuttleworth are a liability and Connor Sparrow is an unkown.
What Are Your Predictions For The Season?
Ruben- In a word, Chaos. The Fire could finish anywhere from second to last in the league (Because no one is finishing below San Jose) to fighting for first in the east. Regardless of where they end up, there’s going to be growing pains especially early on. Where the Fire finish will depend almost exclusively on how they handle that adversity.
Patrick- I’m 100-percent with Ruben on this. It’s tough to see a clear picture of what might happen this year. From new coaches to new players, there are way too many variables to know for sure. But, I know this: Great owners drive clubs to success, and we definitely appear to have a strong, active, motivated owner for the first time in the history of the club. For that reason, I think the Fire will start to gain momentum over the summer, and will finish a solid fourth in the east. All they have to do is get into the playoffs, and then anything can happen.
Mick- Like everyone else, it feels like throwing darts at a wall here but I anticipate a very slow start (take a peek of the schedule to start, yikes) and then a surge into the summer to snag a playoff spot. The Eastern Conference has a soft middle, I think the playoff spots from 5-7 are up for grabs and the Fire have the horses to secure one of those after struggling out of the gate. I would mark that as not only a step in the right direction, but also label that as a successful first season back at Soldier Field.
James - Fun. It’s not always going to be pretty (or even enjoyable) but when it is good, it is going to be REALLY good this year. This is a team who could quite likely finish anywhere this year and it is going to be a hell of a ride seeing where it ends. A solid run could even see the Fire reach the playoffs but the only thing that seems certain just now is that 2020 isn’t going to be boring.
TJ- I feel as though the predictions that put the Fire on the edge of the playoffs and/or just on the outside looking in feel right. However, that said, being near the top of the table or just outside the wooden spoon race wouldn’t shock me either. If this team comes together and the talent/potential on this team shines through, I think they will be the team that no one wants to play in the playoffs.
RJ - The Fire will be all over the place this season, and it will be both joyful and depressing to watch. But the team will definitely finish above Orlando City SC - if they don’t then just turn us all into tang.