The Runner Sports

MLS 20 In 20: Chicago Fire

The Chicago Fire enter 2016 needing to turn over a new leaf after finishing with the horrible record of 8-20-6 in 2015.  To turn over this new leaf Chicago called in a new manager and almost completely remade the roster.  With flagging support and a new NASL franchise rumored to be coming to town, the Fire management needs to get this offseason exactly right.

Key Additions:

D Brandon Vincent (Last Club: Stanford)

D Michael Harrington (LC: Colorado)

D Joao Meira (LC: Belenenses)

M Nick LaBrocca (LC: Colorado)

D Johan Kappelhof (LC: FC Groningen)

M John Goossens (LC: Pune City)

New head man Veljko Paunovic has brought in a host of new talent that primarily plays along the back line. This makes sense as the Chicago Fire had what was tied for the worst defense in MLS last year with nearly two goals against per match.

The first improvement was drafting Brandon Vincent in the first round of the MLS Superdraft.  Vincent is a one of the rare drafted players who should expect to start from the beginning of the season.  Through the first few preseason matches, Vincent appears to be doing more than just holding his own.  An outside back that is comfortable getting forward in the attack, Vincent is also capable of sound positioning and instincts defensively.  Since the rookie of the year can go to defensive players (unlike other sports) Vincent has a realistic shot at capturing the award this season.

Harrington and Meira are both players who have a chance to step in and start along the back line.  Harrington is another classic MLS vet who was able to freely move in the first year of MLS free agency. With well over two-hundred MLS appearances he brings a wealth of valuable experience to a back line that lost captain Jeff Larentowicz.  Meira is largely unknown to me as he has made a career at mid-table Portuguese league clubs.  Meira didn’t appear overly impressive in the Fire friendly last night against the Vancouver Whitecaps, but seeing as he just joined the club days earlier a growing period is to be expected. The same story can be said of Kappelhof as he forged a long career with a mid-table Groningen club and didn’t do much in the scrimmage.

John Goossens might be the gem of the offseason signings as the relatively unknown midfielder has made a sizable impression in the early going.  Goossens is a player who has bounced around the Dutch league ultimately never sticking with any one club, largely due to injury.  In last night’s friendly, Goossens was the best Fire player on the field for large stretches.  Employed as an attacking midfielder, he was able to link the largely stationary Gilberto with the rest of the attack.  Goossens scored a goal and nearly had several others.  Then there is this strike from Goossens in a friendly earlier in the week against the University of Portland.

Key Subtractions:

GK Jon Busch

D Jeff Larentowicz

D Lovel Palmer

F Mike Magee

M Matt Watson

M Patrick Nyarko

D Joevin Jones

M Harry Shipp

Well, Chicago rid themselves of nearly every big name player from the roster last season.  Gone are starters Joevin Jones, Mike Magee, Lovel Palmer, Jeff Larentowicz and others.  This was a true house cleaning done by Paunovic.

Most of the moves made sense considering the age of players like Magee, Palmer, Larentowicz and Bush. The best years of these former stalwarts in Chicago are long behind them and with the scale of rebuild needed, it is best they move on.

The problem that Chicago Fire fans have with the offseason is the trading of Harry Shipp and to a lesser extent Jones.  Shipp was the club’s most successful homegrown player, meaning he played with the club since he was in high school.  Being a home town kid who was developed by the club obviously means a lot to the fans and the player.  The trade was a shock to fans of the Fire and the league in general.  To many Shipp represented the future of what the Fire would become as he is only 24 years old and has USMNT aspirations.


2016 Storylines:

How quickly can the club create chemistry:

This is a similar question that is facing the L.A. Galaxy only Chicago aren’t retaining their best players.  Gone is the structure, however unsuccessful, that Chicago had.  Many of the old leaders are out the door and replaced by a multicultural group.  It is possible that Chicago could start a Brazilian, Portuguese, Dutch, and American player along the same back line this season.  I realize that these players share the language of soccer (and Portuguese is spoken in Brazil), but a transition period is to be expected to begin the season.  Not only that but when many of the leaders are gone, Chicago could be in for a difficult opening stretch to the season.

How quickly can new manager Veljko Paunović adjust to MLS:

There is a stigma associated with managers who are new to the MLS scene.  We think that with all the complicated and at times foolish MLS rules, a foreign manager will struggle becoming accustomed to the league.  The rules aren’t the only factor a foreign manager might not be prepared to handle, but the travel across multiple time zones and climates is simply not something most other leagues have to contend with. Paunovic did play for a single season with the Philadelphia Union and I don’t exactly subscribe to this outsider bias, but with all the shifting parts in both the playing and technical staff, how quick can the squad reach full speed?  This will be key for the Chicago Fire to avoid a slow start that could snowball into another horrible season.

Can Chicago escape the bottom of table:

A season ago, Chicago was the worst team by a whole seven points.  In a league that promotes parity unlike any other in the world, it is unfathomable that Chicago would remain that poor.  With that said, there doesn’t appear to be much talent on the roster and with the local support beginning to abandon the club, there might not be much of a home field advantage.  Can Chicago improve on their horrible showing from a year ago?

Can Matt Polster become the new best player:

Polster is one of the few holdovers that inspires much enthusiasm.  As a rookie, last season Polster came in third for the rookie of the year award.  He is a holding midfielder who is fantastic positionally and is calm in possession.  If not for Goossens, Polster would have been the story of the Chicago friendly last night.  He displayed an added attacking dimension to his game that could serve Chicago well.  It might be too much to ask from a second-year professional, but Polster has a chance to fill the leadership void vacated by Larentowicz.


2016 Reasonable Expectations:

I hate to say it, but Chicago seems destined to be near the bottom of the table yet again in the eastern conference.  In what is an undoubtedly improved conference, Chicago hasn’t done enough to climb far up the table.  I believe the difference in the league position might not be changed, but under Paunovic, who is known for youth development, improvement throughout the season is the expectation.  The club probably won’t finish higher than ninth place in the eastern conference.


Mainstream Sports Equivalent: 

This one was difficult for me as the Chicago Fire are a once proud franchise that has frustrated their fans with mismanagement in nearly every facet.  In some ways, I want to compare the Chicago Fire to Miami Marlins.  Both have ownership that fans don’t agree with. Miami has been driven crazy by Jeffrey Loria’s stadium dealings and Fire fans have to travel to Bridgeview (about 1/2 hour away from downtown Chicago) to watch a “home” match.  Both franchises have come into the league as expansion sides and experienced nearly immediate success (Chicago won the Open Cup and MLS Cup in their first year and Miami with a world series title in their fifth season).

In recent years, both Miami and Chicago have had a bad habit of trading key players.  As for the current rosters, I have trouble finding any comparisons without stretching too much, but both franchises are a mess on the ownership side so it trickles down the rest of the way.

If you have enjoyed this article be sure to check out the other previews that are posted on TRS.

John Harbeck

Ohio sports and all things soccer.If you like my writing follow me @JHarbeck5 on twitter

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