This week, ahead of the kickoff of the 2022 MLS regular season, SB Nation is taking a league-wide look at every team in the league.
If you regularly read Hot Time in Old Town, a lot of this won’t come as any surprise. For you guys, check out Ruben’s tactical preview, where he gets into the weeds and provides a deep look at how this Fire team might play.
But if you’re a fan of another club, or if you’re the kind of Chicago Fire fan who crawls into a cave during the off season, and you’re back and wondering what’s going on, this is the preview for you. A lot has changed! Let’s take a look:
Head Coach: Ezra Hendrickson - The longtime MLS assistant coach and player finally gets a crack at a head coaching job. He takes over for Raphael Wicky, who was fired in September of last season. The team’s former interim head coach, Frank Klopas, is back as an assistant, as is goalkeeper coach Adin Brown. The Fire also added club legend CJ Brown and MLS veteran assistant Junior Gonzalez to Hendrickson’s staff.
Key Additions: Xherdan Shaqiri, Kacper Przybylko, Rafael Czichos, Spencer Richey, Jairo Torres (coming on May 1), Jhon Durán (signed a year ago, but just joined)
Key Losses: Robert Berić, Álvaro Medrán, Francisco Calvo, Ignacio Aliseda, Luka Stojanović, Bobby Shuttleworth
Projected Best XI (4-3-3): Goalkeeper: Gabriel Slonina; Defense: Miguel Navarro, Rafael Czichos, Carlos Terán, Boris Sekulić; Midfield: Federico Navarro, Gastón Giménez, Xherdan Shaqiri; Forwards: Jhon Durán, Kacper Przybylko, Jairo Torres
For more on the Fire’s tactics, read this!
Best offseason move: This has to be signing Xherdan Shaqiri, right? You could make a case for the additions of Przybylko, Czichos or Torres, or even hiring Ezra Hendrickson as head coach, but Big Shaq has the potential to be among the best players in Major League Soccer. He’s a game changer, which is exactly what this Fire team has been missing. Chicago’s been good at creating scoring chances, but they’ve lacked a killer in the final third—a guy who can create a goal out of nothing. Teams haven’t feared the Fire’s attack in a long time, and that could change this year with Shaqiri. Don’t sleep on Czichos, though. His leadership and steadiness will be massive.
Best Reason to Pay Attention: Since Joe Mansueto took over as sole owner in late 2019, the Fire have slowly been creating a sleeping giant, spending huge amounts of money on off-the-pitch improvements, the move back to Soldier Field, a new sister club in Switzerland, and plans for a new, best-in-MLS training facility. But during that stretch, the on-field product has remained poor. Xherdan Shaqiri’s signing may finally be the spark this club needs to become relevant in MLS again. Other than a one-and-done playoff appearance fueled by Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic in 2017, the Fire have been an afterthought to nearly everyone around the league for more than a decade. Mansueto’s willingness to spend big on a club he loves and cares about will eventually pay off, and adding a dynamic attacker like Shaqiri, who is still only 30, could finally get things going in the right direction in Chicago.
Bonus Reason to Pay Attention: Gaga! Addison’s Gabriel Slonina is one of the best young goalkeepers on the planet. He’s only 17, and yet he’s already earned a call up to the United States Men’s National Team, and he’s garnering interest from big clubs all over the world. It’s only a matter of time before he’s in goal on for a big club on a UEFA Champions League night. Watch him now so you can say you were a fan before everyone else.
The one glaring weakness: Depth. The starting 11 is looking good, and there are a few areas where the Fire have decent depth—guys like Fabian Herbers, Brian Gutierrez, Jonathan Bornstein and Mauricio Pineda may be coming off the bench more often this season.
But what happens when a string of injuries hits? It will be interesting to see who steps up. The MLS Next Pro team, Chicago Fire II, could prove to be key here. Pick the guys who are performing well, and give them their shot with the first team when the time comes.
Season Prediction: With the addition of Shaqiri, and swapping a far more stable Czichos for Calvo, the Fire should be better than last season. For those reasons, along with Hendrickson’s experience in the league, we expect the Fire will finish 5th in the East, and land a spot in the 2022 MLS playoffs. Is that really optimistic? Yes, especially for a Fire team that almost never makes the postseason. But if we can’t have optimism at the beginning of the season, what’s the point?