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Francisco Calvo is better than you think. But, his mistakes must improve for the Fire to win in 2021.

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The Chicago Fire captain is a key player to watch heading into 2021

Francisco Calvo takes on FC Cincinnati at Soldier Field
Chicago Fire FC

There’s no player on the Chicago Fire that gets more scrutiny from fans than Francisco Calvo. The Costa Rican international defender is a lightning rod for controversy. The Fire made some disastrous defensive errors in 2020, and at least some of those are certainly on Calvo.

When the Fire announced Calvo’s contract extension for 2021, some fans called it a huge mistake. When I shot down rumors a couple weeks ago that Calvo was returning to Saprissa, a few people joked on Twitter that it was too bad it wasn’t true.

Is the scrutiny fair? After all, Calvo’s the team’s captain, so criticism comes with the territory. But Fire coach Raphael Wicky says he’s not the only one who deserves blame for mistakes.

“I don’t think it would be fair to talk just about Francisco,” Wicky told Hot Time. “If you analyze our goals, how we gave up our goals, some of them were unlucky, the ball bounces in front of (Gyasi) Zardes, goals like that. But then there were easy mistakes, and that’s why it’s not fair to just talk about Francisco. But I will talk with him about that, and I have talked with him last year about those things.”

Calvo’s not a bad player. He’s respected by his Fire teammates enough to be the team’s captain. His 77 interceptions last season led MLS by a massive margin, 20 more than Columbus’ Harrison Afful. Those interceptions were a big part of the team’s attack, which ranked number one in Expected Goals in the Eastern Conference according to FBRef (although the finishing didn’t come close to matching the xG).

There’s an idea that perhaps Calvo goes looks to go forward too much, leaving gaps in the defense. But, he actually stayed at home a lot more in 2020 than he did playing alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger the season before. In the 23 games he played for the Fire in 2019, Calvo racked up three goals, two assists, and 32 shots, with six of those on target. In 22 games last season, he scored once and assisted twice, with 16 shots and three on target.

When compared to his fellow MLS centerbacks per 90 minutes, FBRef rates Calvo as above average in most statistical categories. He ranks high on tackles (2.03 per 90), comes in solidly on blocks (1.79 per 90) and clearances (also, strangely 1.79 per 90), and does quite well at progressive passes and progressive carries. His passing completion percentage of 81.1% is below average, but that’s perhaps because he attempts more aggressive passes than his counterparts. Statistically, he’s well above average for an MLS centerback.

But, his defensive lapses remained a problem in 2020. In March, Adam Buksa was able to run right past him to score for the New England Revolution in a 1-1 draw. On the goal, Calvo was badly caught ball watching.

And at the MLS is Back tournament, with a spot in the knockout stage on the line, Vancouver was able to quickly split the Fire’s defense twice after a lengthy weather delay. In the first goal, Ali Adnan slid a ball straight through to Yordy Reyna, while Boris Sekulic and Mauricio Pineda watched. The second goal six minutes later saw Cristian Dajome run right by Calvo and Miguel Navarro as they both looked on. Same scene, different players.

All four Fire defenders on the field made terrible mistakes on the two goals. But Pineda, Sekulic and Navarro didn’t get nearly the hate on Twitter that Calvo did. He’s a bit like a Bears quarterback in that sense, fans tend to seize on his mistakes more than others. They fit the narrative. But as captain, more should be expected of him.

“I think it’s a lot of concentration for every player, for 90 minutes,” Wicky said. “Mistakes are possible in those key moments, and that’s not just Francisco, that’s everyone. That’s set pieces, that’s easy mistakes. Mistakes when we have the ball, when we lose the ball. That’s not only Francisco. That counts for everyone.”

The Fire missed the playoffs by a point, meaning any of those mistakes could have been the one that kept them out of the postseason. The reality is, all of them did. Wicky preached all last year about the need to fix mental defensive mistakes and improve poor finishing.

“How can we do less mistakes?” Wicky asked. “How can we be more concentrated and focused over 90 minutes, over 95 minutes to win these games? That’s a point we want to work on, and have to work on, with every single individual.”

These issues must be resolved in 2021, if the Fire want to have any success this season. That’s on everyone, but as captain, it starts with Calvo.