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In 2021, increased competition is driving the Fire

“We are all playing for our lives in every training session, because we know we have to fight.”

Jhon Espinoza and Miguel Navarro
Chicago Fire FC

Even after adding 18 new players in 2020, there was something missing with the Chicago Fire—something crucial to the success of any good team. Raphael Wicky mentioned it more than once toward the end of last season: The Fire needed competition at every position.

Left back Miguel Navarro, who did have to battle for a spot last season with veteran Jonathan Bornstein, said there’s a noticeable difference in training camp this season across all positions.

“We are all playing for our lives in every training session because we know we have to fight hard to be in the starting 11,” Navarro said. “I think that really motivates us as young players because we all know that we’re coming here to do our best and to make the Chicago Fire a winning team.”

Here’s an example: new signing Jhon Espinoza is here to compete with Boris Sekulic at right back. Last season, Sekulic was a lock to start, because the team lacked another true right back. At times, especially during the non-stop run of games following the August season re-start, Sekulic looked gassed. He needed a game off. This season, Espinoza will make a strong push to wrestle that starting job away from Sekulic, something that should push both guys to improve.

At forward, it’s unlikely Chinonso Offor will be able to snatch the starting job from Robert Beric, but he should definitely be able to provide depth that was lacking in 2020. CJ Sapong was solid when he was with the team, but the veteran missed the bulk of 2020 with injuries and family issues. For what he lacks in experience, Offor has a massive upside. After moving from Nigeria to Latvia to Chicago, he won’t be interested in sitting on the bench. Despite Beric’s team-leading 12 goals, there was a long stretch in the middle of the season where he failed to score. If that happens again, Offor will be ready to pounce.

After a year of limited minutes, the Homegrowns might just provide the biggest boost in competition. Andre Reynolds II, Brian Gutierrez, Alex Monis, Allan Rodriguez, Chris Brady, Nick Slonina, Gabriel Slonina, and Javier Casas, Jr., are all a year older, and Wicky told them it’s time to stop thinking of themselves as the young guys—he wants them to go out, push the veterans, and try to take their jobs.

“We’re in preseason, and it’s an opportunity, also, for younger players to step in,” Wicky said. “(Gutierrez) gets minutes, Monis gets minutes. It’s up to them, as well, to show that they’re there and that they’ll try to catch this opportunity, and that’s how we’re treating it.”

Early injuries have hurt some of the team’s depth in attack, though. The club is hoping Stanislav Ivanov can make the team more dynamic offensively, but we won’t see him until mid-summer after he underwent successful knee surgery this week. Last year’s second-leading scorer, Fabian Herbers, is out for 4-6 weeks, meaning he may not be back for the April 17 home opener. Likewise, Elliot Collier will also be out around 3-4 weeks with an injury he picked up in the preseason match against New York City FC.

As we learned this week, the 2021 schedule is heavily frontloaded with home games, meaning the team will be on the road for much of the back half of the season. On top of that, the playoff field will be much smaller—only seven teams will make it in the East—as opposed to ten last year. For a team that finished 11th after failing to win a single road game, those are both big issues to overcome.

Those early injuries have many fans worried, too. They’re unfortunate, but injuries are part of the deal. It’s almost certain there will be more injuries in 2021. That’s where the depth and competition really come in. If Navarro’s comments are any indication, the Fire will be ready to deal with all of those obstacles in 2021.

“This year, there aren’t any excuses,” Navarro said.

More preseason notes: Saturday’s preseason match against FC Cincinnati (10:30 a.m. CT) will be streamed live at ChicagoFireFC.com. Per league rules, it’s only available for fans viewing in a 75 mile radius from Soldier Field.

The final preseason match in Florida against Orlando City will not be streamed. The Fire were hoping to bring all the matches to fans, but couldn’t make this one work.

The Fire will play two more preseason matches when the team gets back to Chicago, the club announced today. On April 7, the Fire face Forward Madison at noon, and April 10, they’ll play the Vancouver Whitecaps at 11:30 a.m. CT. Both games will take place at SeatGeek Stadium. Fans will not be allowed, but the matches will be streamed at ChicagoFireFC.com.