Season Preview: Chicago Fire / by Andrew Olsen

The Chicago Fire won MLS Cup in their first season in the league. They qualified for the playoffs in 12 of their first 13 seasons in MLS. But since 2010, they’ve made the postseason only once (in 2012), where they lost in the first round. For such a storied franchise, it’s clear that Chicago has underachieved for the last four years. Hopes in the Windy City are that a new coach with a history of success in MLS, Frank Yallop, will be able to turn around their fortunes and return the club to the promised land. 2013 Finish: 49 Points, 6th in the Western Conference, Missed MLS Playoffs

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Players In:

Name Position Acquired from:
Lovel Palmer D/M Salt Lake
Harrison Shipp F Homegrown - Notre Dame
Kyle Reynish GK New York Cosmos (NASL)
Chris Ritter M Homegrown - Northwestern
Jhon Kennedy Hurtado D Seattle
Patrick Ianni D Seattle
Giuseppe Gentile F Waiver draft - Charlotte
Benji Joya M Santos Laguna (Mexico)

Players Out:

Name Position Where'd he go?
Paolo Tornaghi GK Waived
Arevalo Rios M Option Declined
Michael Videira D Option Declined
Corben Bone M Option Declined
Joel Lindpere M Option Declined
Maicon Santos F Option Declined
Shaun Francis D Out of Contract
Wells Thompson D Out of Contract
Daniel Paladini M Columbus
Jalil Anibaba D Seattle

 

Median Age: 25

Their 2013 was really bad followed by pretty good, but ending in disappointment. The Fire began the season looking more like kindling (sorry, that's the only fire-related pun I'll use in this post), losing seven of their first ten matches. But then they started making moves, both in the front office and up the table. Chicago acquired centerback Bakary Soumare from Philadelphia and forward Mike Magee from Los Angeles, and their ascent quickly followed. Soumare brought a much-needed solidity to the back line, and Magee played out of his mind for the remainder of the season in his hometown. After running off six matches unbeaten immediately following their acquisition, the Fire came back to Earth and narrowly missed out on the East's final playoff spot, bowing to Montreal on a tiebreaker.

The season was not without its hardware though, as Magee won the league MVP trophy, despite being tradedCHIINFO

On paper, the Chicago Fire seem like they have the pieces to be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Their offseason moves didn’t floor anyone, but they do appear to have improved, both on the bench and in the coaching box. The head coach position is where Chicago made their most substantial move: out went Frank Klopas after last season, and in came Frank Yallop. Yallop won two MLS Cups with the San Jose Earthquakes as well as the 2012 Supporters’ Shield, so he certainly has pedigree to match that of his new employer.

As far as the roster he will be working with, it seems like it should fit with his general style of play pretty well. In San Jose, Yallop was well known for his team’s propensity for quality wing play and crossing it to the forwards, something to which the Fire should be fairly well-suited. In Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka, Chicago has two wingers that are both lightning quick and love taking on defenders. As for who they’ll be crossing to, number one on the list is reigning league MVP Mike Magee. ‘Magic Mike’ is unlikely to repeat his career year from 2013 when he scored 21 goals in stints for both Chicago and Los Angeles. But even if he doesn’t approach that number in 2014, Magee is an instinctive finisher who always seems to bag more goals than you project for him.

The other options up front are long time Fire player Chris Rolfe and the Ecuadorian Designated Player Juan Luis Anangono. Rolfe got much of the action up top alongside Magee last year, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Anangono play a bigger role in his first full season with the club. Anangono is a big, physical presence up top that would seem to match Frank Yallop’s desired style, as he could be an asset getting on the end of crosses. Meanwhile, Rolfe is a solid technical player in his own right, but to me is a bit like a poor man’s Mike Magee. While they combined very well at times last season, having two players with fairly similar styles up top leads to diminishing returns.

The rest of the starting eleven will likely see more shakeups from last season. Along the back line, Chicago traded away Jalil Anibaba---who played every minute for the Fire last season---to Seattle in exchange for centerbacks Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni. How those two duke it out for playing time with returning starters Austin Berry and Bakary Soumare will be interesting to watch. On the outside, Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares returns to his normal left back position, while right back may be manned by newly acquired Lovel Palmer. Both of those fullbacks are solid if not spectacular options who should get the job done.

My biggest questions come in central midfield for Chicago.Jeff Larentowicz looks like a shoo-in for one of the spots there, as he has long been a solid two-way midfielder in this league. But who starts alongside him will be an interesting puzzle for Yallop to put together. Does the Brazilian Alex become a full-time starter? Does the newly acquired young starlet Benji Joya get deployed in an attacking midfield role from the get-go? Or will veteran captain Logan Pause return a starting spot to bring a strong veteran presence onto the field?

From top to bottom, the Chicago Fire look like they should be one of a host of teams competing for the playoffs in the East. They’ve done well to bring in an established MLS coach in Frank Yallop, and they have a roster without many glaring holes. If Mike Magee can deliver another MVP-caliber season, this team could vault to near the top of the Eastern Conference table. But without that, the rest of the roster is still long on solid players, but a bit short on difference-makers. Yallop’s guidance and a re-jiggered backline might just be enough to return the Fire to the playoffs, or at least another year where their playoff fate comes down to the final day of the season.

Crowdsourcing Results

6th in the Eastern Conference; the Chicago Fire were picked to make the playoffs by just 120 of 404 voters (29.7%)