By Mike Fotopoulos (@irishoutsider)
If it were truly possible to tank in the Major League of Soccer, the Chicago Fire have been making a valiant effort to test that theory in recent seasons. What was once only considered gross incompetence has been given a shiny veneer of professionalism with the addition of Nelson Rodriguez in 2016. By proceeding to sell everything that wasn’t nailed down for various forms of GarberBucks, the roster began to resemble the closest thing to a full rebuild that the club has desperately needed since the waning days of the Blanco era. The remaining question, as has always been the question in the annual reshuffle of the Men in Red, is will this process actually succeed? Is it even a process at all? If a team fails in the suburbs, does anyone even notice?
There is, however, cause for hope. Piles of league money, in various shapes, sizes, and colors, has slowly turned the roster from a collection of aged out journeymen and long-term projects to…a slightly more cohesive group of journeymen and slightly less speculative projects. The mysterious departure of Harrison “Don’t Call Me Justin” Shipp aside, the outlines of Rodriguez’ plan has been to build prudently through the draft and complement with a very specific type of experience. Everything outside of this, every scrap of dead money, wrung out to sale for as much as he can grab.
The entire offense is now rebuilt along the lines of drive and experience. Nemanja Nikolic is, at least on paper, the kind of international signing the organization has chased for 7+ years. He is a finisher with European experience, and of the Eastern variety to boot. Summer addition Michael De Leeuw follows the same general outline, a professional attacking midfielder with more to prove. On the wings, David Accam and Arturo Alvarez fit the same profile, though on opposite sides of the age curve. The former is still trying to make the leap (and stay healthy for a full season) while Alvarez is a known quantity who is, at worst, an average gamer on the right side.
While the hunt for big names and goals have been the core distraction in transfer season, strange flirtations with Bastian Schweinsteiger aside, it is the unexpected rebuild of the midfield that is really telling the story for Chicago in 2017. Adding Juninho and pairing him with HOLY SHIT WE GOT DAX MCCARTY creates a story that people can finally start getting behind. A roster like this has roughly four or five players who could be considered first choice captains on lesser MLS teams. These were teams I’ve watched, in person, and, regardless of my sobriety, I knew that what the Fire need more than anything else are guys that, well, give a shit. Actually finding guys who are even slightly above league average is a net positive for the Fire, and hopefully the start of something greater than the sum of its parts.
The new midfield pairing is an excellent plan for solving two problems at once. Improving possession and also shielding a very green backline. It is hard to fault a defense when goals are few and far between, but the current core of Brandon Vincent, Jonathan Campbell, and Johan Kappelhof have a lot of room for improvement. The younger players have the potential to get on some shortlists for USMNT camp, and Kappelhof is already an accomplished young player. There is a lot of potential for this group to gel and take a step forward this season, and the speculated shift of Matt Polster to right back would add to that potential. Another draft pick just on the outside of call-ups, he finds himself in the running for a number of roles in most Fire XI.
That kind of flexibility will be key, because for all of the talk around the Fire’s outside playoff hopes, this suddenly competent roster is extremely thin. The team is more vulnerable than others to one-off injuries, most evident last season with Accam and his backup…hold on give me a minute here I’ll find his name somewhere…This season is no different, though the thought of Luis Solignac, John Goossens, or David Arshakyan coming off the bench is not as harrowing as the days of Little Mikey Banner and the ghost of Jerson Monteiro.
Last and possibly least is the goalkeeping discussion. The addition of Jorge Bava is a bit of a head scratcher, shades of past MLS mistakes of paying way too much for mysterious international goalkeepers, but it was likely time for the Fire to say the great Sean Johnson adventure had run its course. Backing up Bava is once and future folk hero Matt “I Love” Lampson, but like most GK battles in the league, taking bets on this competition is a mug’s game. Ideally, the club has two at least serviceable keepers that can keep the mistakes to a minimum and help organize the defense. Clean sheets first, saves of the week a distant second.
So after another season of wandering in the wilderness, there are green shoots of hope poking through the parking lots in Bridgeview. We might want to have the village take a look at those. The 2017 Fire will be an interesting project to watch in the suburbs, and we can only hope that the process continues to move forward, the plans taking shape. As always in recent years, the new roster will be judged this time next season, seeing who has survived the next reshuffle, if any, and if the club is any closer to completing the proper rebuild it so desperately needs.