By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
The Chicago Fire had a tremendous 2017, and it seems their 2018 squad will mostly look like that one. In many leagues, this stability, paired with the team’s younger players developing further, would spell positive results for the upcoming season. But the increasing amount of allocation money coming into the league means that the Fire’s competitors are stockpiling TAM-level players while Chicago stands pat. In all, the Fire may fail to improve without adding a few more pieces.
2017 In Review
The Chicago Fire’s 2017 season should be considered a remarkable one. After two consecutive wooden spoons, the Fire finished the season in 3rd in the Eastern Conference. They put together an 11 game unbeaten streak that had them at the top of the East on July 1st. They had the league’s Golden Boot winner, Nemanja Nikolic, who put in 24 goals. Though they ultimately bowed out of the playoffs with a 4-0 home loss to the Red Bulls in the knockout round, the massive turnaround from 2016 should mark the season a success.
During that first half of the season, the underlying stats suggest the Fire really were excellent. Through July 1st, Chicago was 2nd in the league in xGD per game. By expected goals, they had the league’s third best offense and its third best defense. This stretch was built on a shot-limiting defense (they gave up just 10 per game, third fewest in the league), and an offense that generated high-quality shots (0.13 xG per shot, highest in the league). Nikolic’s own average shot quality was at 0.16 xG. They averaged 2.05 points per game, a Supporters’ Shield winning rate.
After July 1st, though, Chicago faltered. They averaged just 1.125 points over the season’s final 16 games. By most measures they were pretty average. The Fire’s xG per shot dipped to 0.11 xG, and their shots allowed per game ticked up to 12.7. Looking at their cumulative expected goal difference makes the decline pretty clear:
So what changed?
Part of this decline is undoubtedly owed to a change in approach from opposing defenses. The Fire’s Achilles heel of 2017 was the lack of a number 10, a player capable of breaking down packed defenses with smart passing and vision. This was best exemplified in the Fire’s 0-0 draw to a nine-man, heavily bunkered Orlando City side in June. As that flaw became exposed, the Fire faced increasingly tight defenses. Their completion percentage on passes within 20 yards of goal dropped from 2nd best in the league to just the 8th best after July 1st.
A second part of this decline is that the Fire’s two best scorers hit slumps at the same time. David Accam, perhaps spurred by all-star game grousing, was relegated to the bench for a stretch, and Nikolic underwent a nine game scoring drought.
It should also be noted that during that 2-month slide marked above, Chicago played at New York City, at Kansas City, at Columbus, and against Toronto. The quality of the competition certainly didn't make things any easier.
A few other storylines from 2017 - Matt Polster moved from defensive mid to right back, where he was mostly excellent. Brandon Vincent improved significantly over his rookie campaign. Chicago finished third despite only fielding below average goalkeepers all season. The Fire signed Bastian Schweinsteiger in March, and the move was a huge success both on the field and off it.
Chicago has made a few smart offseason moves. The most notable move, though, is the one they have not yet made. As mentioned above, the Fire’s biggest weakness was not having a number 10. Specifically, as they moved more and more towards possession-oriented soccer, they needed someone to pull the strings in the final third. The Fire have not yet signed a DP or TAM-level player to do that.
They did draft Wake Forest standout Jon Bakero, who could be that guy - many are very high on him. Bakero was awarded the Hermann Trophy as the top NCAA men’s soccer player, and had a good combine. He can play as a CAM or a 2nd forward, and that’s where Chicago has used him in preseason so far.
The Fire used their second draft pick on defensive mid Mo Adams. Adams has looked solid in preseason, and will likely backup Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, who should both be excellent mentors. He could see some starts as the third central mid in a 4-2-3-1 - Chicago ran out defensive-ish center mids Juninho and Djordje Mihailovic alongside those two in the absence of a real CAM.
Homegrown player and Indiana University star Grant Lillard signed with the team in January. Lillard deepens a thin center back corps made thinner by Jonathan Campbell’s recent injury, and he should be a capable back up and occasional spot starter in his rookie year.
Serbian winger Aleksander Katai joined the team from Deportivo Alaves on loan until June 30th, with an option to buy. Katai will replace the departed David Accam (more on him below). He brings with him Champions League experience and a great goal scoring record with Red Star Belgrade, though he struggled to get minutes since moving to Spain in 2016.
The biggest move of the offseason for the Fire was trading David Accam to the Union for 1.2 million in allocation money. Accam recorded 33 goals and 15 assists in his three years with the Fire, including 14 and 8 last year. That amount of production will be difficult to replace, but Accam has always been most useful in a counter-attacking offense. As such he doesn't quite fit the direction the Fire have moved in since Frank Yallop left and Veljko Paunovic came in, and so they probably got some value out of dealing him to a team that’s a better fit.
Portuguese center back Joao Meira started 27 games for the Fire in 2017. While he struggled at times in his first year in the league, 2016, he eventually settled in and formed a solid center back partnership with Johan Kappelhof.
Chicago traded their starting goalkeeper, Matt Lampson, to Minnesota in January. Lampson saved 3.5 fewer goals than expected, and also never looked especially comfortable playing from his feet, something which he was increasingly asked to do in Paunovic’s system.
The Fire under Paunovic have routinely played a 4-2-3-1, though they frequently switch to a 5-3-2 when defending a lead. They also ran out a 3-5-2 in the attack at times, with Schweinsteiger dropping deep between the two center backs to control the ball out of the back, and the fullbacks getting high up the field. The lack of a number 10 meant their 4-2-3-1 wasn't wholly conventional - often they played with three more defensive center mids, or a second forward in the hole behind Nikolic. They will likely continue to stick with those options in 2018.
Richie Sanchez joined the Fire at the end of 2017, and made two solid starts. Since they moved Lampson, it looks like they trust the 23-year old Sanchez to be their guy in 2018. He did save more than a goal above expected, but, with a very small sample size sticking with Sanchez is a risky move that carries with it some uncertainty.
Backing Sanchez up will be Stefan Cleveland. Cleveland was loaned to USL affiliate Tulsa for his rookie season, where he made only two appearances.
The starting fullbacks will likely be Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster, though Polster is dealing with an injury that has kept him out of preseason action so far. Vincent is a more traditional fullback - a good one-on-one defender who can hit in a cross. Polster plays a bit more unconventionally. His development in year two as a right back will be fun to watch. Behind them is Rafael Ramos, who came over from Orlando City in a trade for Cam Lindley’s homegrown rights. Ramos only saw 55 minutes of game time in 2017 after 1015 in 2016, but if he can develop further he could push Polster for starts.
Johan Kappelhof, the MVP of the defense over the last two seasons, will start at center back. Kappelhof is a good passer (3% above expected in the Fire’s own third), and also led the team in tackles and interceptions. The spot next to him is a bit less certain. From preseason it looks like Christian Dean will start in week one. Dean, the third overall pick in 2013, has never lacked talent, but he has had issues staying healthy. He made three starts with the Fire last year after joining in August, before a broken foot ended his season. Lillard will challenge Dean for that spot, though he will probably need time to adjust to the league. A center back partner for Kappelhof remains a position of need.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty will start in the middle. Both were tremendous in 2017. Schweinsteiger does a bit more in the attack - he put up 0.25 xG + xA per 90 to Dax’s 0.15, while McCarty does a bit more on the defensive side of the ball - 2.2 tackles per game to Schweinsteiger’s 1.7. Both and incredibly important to the team’s buildup - they were 3rd and 4th in the league in xB.
Their backups will be a combination of Mo Adams, Drew Conner, and, once he gets healthy, Djordje Mihailovic. Mihailovic, a 19-year old homegrown, played 700 promising minutes before tearing his ACL in the Fire’s playoff game.
Katai and Luis Solignac will likely start on the wings. Solignac scored seven goals to go with four assists in 2017, his best year yet in MLS. He only took about two shots per game, but those shots were of decently high quality - 0.13 xG on average. The average xG of a shot on which he provided the key pass was 0.12 xG, so he both creates and gets chances in dangerous positions.
Daniel Johnson, if he can stay healthy, may be the first off the bench out wide. Johnson played 125 highly entertaining minutes last season before a knee injury from which he found it difficult to regain his form knocked him off track. Johnson attempted 5.7 dribbles per 90 in his eight appearances, a number which over the course of a season puts him in the company of Ignacio Piatti, Justin Meram, and Lucho Acosta. His passing, over small sample sizes, was far above expected across the board (he completed his passes at a rate 10 points better than expected in the final third).
The number 10 role, in lieu of an additional signing, will probably go to Jon Bakero.
Golden boot winner Nemanja Nikolic will be expected to continue his goal-scoring form. It should be noted that he played all 34 games in 2017, which is a resiliency that shouldn’t necessarily expect to be repeated. The forward line looks a bit thin behind Nikolic. Alan Gordon is currently in on trial, and he would be a smart signing. Solignac can play up top if need be. Michael de Leeuw is a fantastic option there, in a 2nd forward role, or on the wing, but he ruptured his ACL in October and likely won’t be back until August.
As it stands now, the Fire are optimistically only a fringe playoff team - Toronto, Atlanta, NYCFC, and Orlando are all clearly ahead of them. The Red Bulls and Columbus are too. More likely they end up between 7th and 9th. Chicago are thin, and they’re a couple difference makers short of where the top teams are at.
In a different light, this offseason could be spun as a youth movement. Placing some responsibility on Bakero, Adams, Sanchez, Lillard, and Johnson, not to mention the minutes already going to Polster and Vincent, could be seen as a bold and risky decision to embrace youth. That it hasn’t been spun this way by Nelson Rodriguez suggests the front office is trying to make moves, and it doesn’t signal a positive 2018 that so far they’ve struck out.