By Tom Worville (@worville)
Here we go again, another season of MLS and another season preview of the Chicago Fire and how things “might change” and how this “could be their year”. Usually these statements are made in reference to them reaching the playoffs, but I’m just hoping this year they aren’t left at the foot of the table come October.
To put it bluntly, the Chicago Fire were terrible in 2015. The last game of the season summed up their entire year. Lackluster defending, toothless attacking and, ultimately, a defeat to the New York Red Bulls meant they finished the year with just 30 points: less than one point per game and the worst total in the whole league.
Looking at the overall league table, the Fire had the joint leakiest defense in the league with NYCFC, conceding 58 goals (a massive 1.7 per90) but a decent attack, scoring 43 goals (1.27 p90). The sheer number of goals conceded meant that they had the worst goal difference in the league (-15) something that the team will no doubt be looking to rectify this year.
Furthermore, looking at expected goals (xG) paints a different picture. Their total of 1.29 xG per 90 is the fifth highest in the league according to American Soccer Analysis’ very own Expected Goal model. Equally, 1.32 xG against per 90 sits as the fifth highest also - giving an xGD per 90 of -0.03 overall. Compared to the actual goal difference per 90 of -0.29, there seems to be a some unluckiness in Chicago’s performances.
The reason for this unluckiness (or underperformance) could be due to a number of factors: low player quality, factors not included in expected goals like defender positioning or random variance could all be to blame for Chicago’s underperformance last season.
Looking at the Elo rating system (click here for more information) I created for MLS, the Fire sit last in the league, with them having the only Elo under 1900 in the league. from the chart below, their stock couldn’t be lower.
So 2015 was a very bad season, but ever since the last whistle was blown in that final day loss to the Red Bulls, big changes have taken place down at Toyota Park. Former MLS-er and U-20 World Cup winning Serbia U-20 head coach Veljko Paunović has taken the top job in Bridgeview, with the roster being completely overhauled too. There’s been no less than 15 departures, and ten arrivals since the end of the season, with a couple more new faces expected to join the team in the next couple of weeks.
Taking a look at the squad below, you can see the departures, arrivals and incumbents.
Of the departures, the most notable are defenders Joevin Jones (who departed for the Seattle Sounders) and Jeff Larentowicz (picked up by the LA Galaxy) and midfielder Harry Shipp (traded to the Montreal Impact).
Paunović is looking to implement an attractive style of play with Chicago, and is likely to play a 4-2-3-1 too. The depth chart below is how I expect the team to lineup on the opening fixture against NYCFC:
Looking at the squad by position though, the Fire (on paper) look stronger this year. In goal will most likely be Sean Johnson again. In front of him though, the available defenders on the roster have completely changed. Eric Gehrig is the only defender to stay with the Fire after the 2015 season, with seven defenders leaving and six joining.
Freshly minted USMNT-er Brandon Vincent is a real talent, and is likely to nail down the starting left back spot. On the other side I expect Michael Harrington to get minutes at the start of the season, but potentially be displaced by exciting Brazilian Rodrigo Ramos. In the center of defense I expect Gehrig to retain his place, partnering up with Dutchman Johan Kappelhof. Kappelhof (who was signed from FC Groningen) is relatively unheard of, so I reached out to Michiel Jongsma who writes over at benefoot.net, to get his opinion on the Fire’s new recruit:
So the Fire have got a good, but not great defender. Hopefully he finds his feet quickly in MLS and is a success.
Moving onto midfield I expect Matt Polster and Michael Stephens (though Razvan Cocis might begin the season as the starter over Stephens), behind a scary attacking quartet of David Accam, Collin Fernandez, Kennedy Igboananike and Gilberto. I’ve added in Fernandez as I expect him to get some minutes this season, but can see the Fire bringing in a new player soon too. Potentially Dutchmen John Goosens (see his wonder goal here) or Michael de Leeuw (also of FC Groningen) could take up the Shipp-sized hole in the starting XI.
The Fire have decent backup in defense, but I feel they need more options going forward. Joey Calistri is a raw youngster, and with Gilberto the only recognizable number nine in the team, I’d hope that another striker or two are brought in before the season starts. They also have very little cover in the wide positions occupied by Accam and Igboananike, so hopefully Arturo Alvarez (currently on trial) and maybe one or two other versatile attackers can fill out the remaining seven places in the roster.
So for 2016 I hope that the Fire just don’t finish last. Realistically, there’s a chance of them reaching the playoffs, but equally they could fail to gel as a team after so many changes and finish last again. I’m not a massive fan of predicting final table positions (probably as I’m no good at it) so here’s my prediction: Chicago Fire won’t finish last this season, with a -15 goal difference and with just 30 points. They have a better coach and team which means that won’t happen. They’ll attempt to play attractive, attacking soccer and could be one of the more exciting teams in the Eastern Conference this season. Roll on March 6th.