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How good will the Chicago Fire be in 2021?

And, who starts on Matchday One?

SOCCER: OCT 07 MLS - Chicago Fire FC at Sporting Kansas City
Fire head coach Raphael Wicky
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A friend asked me this week where I thought the Chicago Fire would finish in the East. My first thought? I really don’t know. After he pressed me, I ventured a guess: slightly better than last year. As in, they’ll probably sneak into the playoffs.

I know, that’s not the most exciting answer, especially coming from a person who’s bullish on this Fire team more often than not. But, I don’t really have a lot of reason to think this team is competing for an MLS Cup in 2021, other than the fact that in MLS, sometimes teams get a lot better year-to-year.

I do think under Joe Mansueto the Fire will eventually be successful. I see the plan. I’m just not convinced things start to get really good in 2021. So, what needs to happen for the team to make some noise this season? I think there are a few things:

Stanislav Ivanov has to be the real deal

Ivanov looks good on video, but is he a significant upgrade over Djordje Mihailovic on the wing? We’ll see. He’ll need to be dangerous and efficient for this team to move forward.

The defense needs to make far fewer mistakes

I wrote a piece recently arguing Francisco Calvo is better than most fans think, but the fact is he still makes too many mistakes for a star centerback. But, as Raphael Wicky correctly pointed out, it’s not just Calvo who needs to step up. I expect Wicky to go with Jhon Espinoza over Boris Sekulic on the right, but whoever starts out there needs to be focused and disciplined for 90 minutes. Same goes for the winger in front of them. Przemyslaw Frankowski—or whoever starts on the right side of midfield—will need to drop and defend. On the left I expect it’ll be Jonathan Bornstein more often than Miguel Navarro. While Jonny B doesn’t give you quite as much on the overlap going forward, he’s steady in the back, and that could take some defensive pressure off Ivanov (although, Wicky might well stick Ivanov on the right, and Frankie on the left). As for Navarro, he’ll have to avoid bone-headed plays like that ugly pass-across-his-own-box against NYCFC. Mauricio Pineda was very, very good for a rookie in 2020, but in ‘21, he’ll need to improve as well. Everything I’ve seen from him tells me he will.

Wicky will need to find a way to stop the team from blowing leads

The Fire were among MLS’s leaders in dropping points from a leading position in 2020, which is something you have to blame, at least in part, on Raphael Wicky. The Fire played well—really well, sometimes—but managed to crumble late in matches far too many times. Late last season Wicky, who is a positive, pragmatic guy most of the time, really seemed to be growing frustrated by his team’s mistakes. If the Fire had held on to, say, three or four of the leads they dropped, they would have finished mid-table in the East.

If all of those things come together, where do the Fire max out? I think the high end might be somewhere around a No. 4. That wouldn’t be so bad in year two of a rebuilding project.

So who starts on April 17?

@meninred97 threw this question out yesterday on Twitter, and I think it’s a good one. Right now, I think it’ll look something like this (4-2-3-1): Shuttleworth; Bornstein, Calvo, Pineda, Espinoza; Gimenez, Medran; Ivanov, Stojanovic, Frankowski; Beric

On the bench: Brady (or Kronholm when he’s healthy, but Wicky told me he isn’t just yet), Herbers, Aliseda, Offor, Navarro, Sekulic, Kappelhof (I think we’ll see Gutierrez, Teran, Collier and Monis sprinkled in, too, if they’re not on loan.)

But, a lot can change between now and Matchday One.

57 days to go.