The 2020 season is almost here. But before we get to that, we have to maneuver through the trials and tribulations of training camp. The Fire have invited 28 players with them to camp in Tampa, FL. Over the next few days, I’m going to take a look at the roster as it stands, analyze it, and from there, try to predict the starting XI for March 1 in Seattle. Today I’m going to go over the goalkeepers and defenders, and later in the week, the midfielders and forwards will get their turn.
Kenneth Kronholm, Bobby Shuttleworth, Connor Sparrow, Gabriel Slonina
The Goalkeeping situation is more interesting than it has been in a long time, although that’s not saying much. The two keepers at the bottom of the depth chart, Connor Sparrow and Gabriel Slonina, aren’t expected to contribute much this season. All of Sparrow’s professional experience comes at the USL level, and I don’t expect that to change. Slonina is still a teenager and is still a development project for the coaching staff. If he gets any time at all this year, I’d be really surprised.
Where this gets interesting is the competition for the starting spot between Kenneth Kronholm and the recently acquired Bobby Shuttleworth. After he was granted the starting spot over David Ousted last season, Kronholm put up okay numbers. He ended the year with 58 saves for his half-season, and had 5 clean sheets, ending with a record of 6 wins 6 losses and 8 draws.
However, last season he continuously failed the eye test. There were plenty of times he looked lost and unsure of what to do. Because of that, critical errors were made and goals were scored at just the wrong times last season. While he did get more comfortable as the season wore on, errors in key moments kept coming for Kronholm, leading to the Fire not picking up key results down the stretch.
Enter Bobby Shuttleworth. The newly signed former New England Revolution and Minnesota United goalkeeper most recently spent time in the USL with the Sacramento Republic on loan, where he performed poorly, giving up 22 goals in 15 games while only managing 3 clean sheets. Looking at his career, it isn’t much better. He only has two winning seasons under his belt, (2014 and 2015) and he does tend to give up goals.
What he does have, however, is MLS Playoff experience, something sorely lacking in this roster. He performed well in the playoffs too. He helped the Revs get to the MLS Cup Final in 2014, where they lost to Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan’s LA Galaxy. He made 22 saves during that playoff run and kept the Revs in the game until Keane won it in extra time.
Both goalkeepers gunning for the starting spot are decidedly average. While not as terrifying as in past seasons, The names on the roster do not fill me with joy and anticipation. I’d expect Kronholm to start opening day in Seattle unless someone has a breakout performance in the preseason, or he gets hurt. However, I also expect him to have as short a leash as Ousted did last year, and Shuttleworth to step in if things get dire.
Trialists: Jonathan Campbell, Jesus Vasquez, Nikolaos Kainourgios
The 2019 Chicago Fire’s defense was a shambles. It was so bad, in fact, that of the members who started the season on the roster, there are only two left in camp from that season, and only one of them is signed to the team. Johan Kappelhof went from being out of the team at the end of 2018 to one of the club’s longest-tenured players, and with good reason. Kappelhof is the team’s rock. He’s one of the defense’s most consistent performers and while everything around him was burning, he was able to settle things until help arrived. It eventually did with the likes of Francisco Calvo and Jonathan Bornstein, and the Fire ended up in an unspectacular but serviceable space at the end of the year.
The biggest thing we don’t know coming into the season is whether or not the new brain trust has fixed the defense’s biggest issue coming, and that’s the squad’s depth. And from a glance, the answer seems to be “kind of?” The back line depth is all over the place.
Left-back is the deepest part of the roster. Jonathan Bornstein’s addition in the summer of last year almost bandaged over the gaping holes in the defense last season so much so that they were able to still be in the playoff hunt in September. He’s back this season, along with two flex players behind him in Jeremiah Gutjahr, who acquitted himself well when asked to play over Jorge Corrales, and Raheem Edwards, who did not play well, but that may be more due to a contentious relationship with the coaching staff than ability. There is also Andre Reynolds II, who impressed in his performance in the Leagues Cup, but other than that did not see much of the field for the Fire. The person most likely to fight Bornstein for the starting job is Miguel Ángel Navarro. The 20-year-old is an exciting prospect who has played in the Copa Libertadores in 2019, and as the year moves forward, I could see him working his way into the XI.
On the other side of the coin, right-back is paper-thin. In their first preseason match, They had two players see minutes there and neither of them had right back listed as their natural position. The first half was played by Gutjahr, who as previously stated, has played left-back, and is a flex winger. The second half was played by Brandt Bronico, who at times played the position last season, but never with too much success and would definitely best be used as an emergency right-back if injuries forced them to do that.
Out of all the defenders on the roster, I think the best option at right-back is Kappelhof. We know he can do the job well enough, and while not as good there as he is at center-back he’s perfectly serviceable on the right.
Centrally, the players have a huge hole to fill. Say what you will about Bastian Schweinsteiger (and I’ve said plenty), he was a massive presence and his retirement leaves a large hole that needs to be filled. As the roster exists now, the only guaranteed starter at the moment is Francisco Calvo. Ideally, he’s partnered with Kap, but with the RB situation as it is, that’s not a sure thing. Both second-half players on Saturday—Jonathan Campbell and Jesus Vasquez—are not under contract. We know what Campbell gives the club. He’s a replacement-level player and a good reserve to have if he can come to terms on a deal.
As for the other two trialists, I can’t really say a whole lot about them. I know Kainourgios is a Greek U-21 international, and Vasquez is another young player who they’re taking a look at. But until we see any game film, I can’t form any opinions.
My projected back line for opening day is (from left to right) Bornstein, Calvo, Kappelhof, and Bronico.
Stay tuned for later in the week when Ruben goes over the midfield and the forwards.