By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
A successful 2019 season for the Chicago Fire will be predicated on making up for the miscues of their 2018 offseason.
In 2018, the Chicago Fire just didn’t have a roster that could compete in a very good Eastern Conference. In the summary to my 2018 preview, I concluded “the Fire may fail to improve without adding a few more pieces.” Not to pat myself on the back too much, but this is exactly what happened, and in each instance on the field it led to a different affliction. Let’s enumerate them:
GM Nelson Rodriguez neglected to sign a starting center back, forcing Bastian Schweinsteiger to start 15 games there and LB Brandon Vincent to chip in 12. Basti is the team’s best player, but he lacks the defensive steel for that role, and as a result attacking teams preyed on the half-space in front of him (and Vincent):
The team had no depth on the wings, and gave 22 starts to rookies Diego Campos and Elliot Collier. While they were perfectly fine for rookies, the team’s attack suffered in those games. Sample size and confounding variable caveats apply, but the team’s xGF when either player started was the second-worst in the league. When neither player started, it was just under league average.
Forward Nemanja Nikolic hit a scoring slump in May and June and the Fire had no alternate to start. The Fire got just six goals all season from backup forwards.
The #10 role was occupied by a rotating cast including Brandt Bronico, Jon Bakero and a too young and then only recently healthy Djordje Mihailovic, and no one of that group could unlock a defense. Only 2% of all the Fire’s passes created a shot - the lowest percentage in the league. Taking a step back from that, they completed the second fewest passes into Zone 14 of any team in the league:
The 2018 team’s thinness was especially egregious in a season where expanded GAM and TAM meant the rest of the league got deeper and deeper.
To compensate for their lack of depth, manager Veljko Paunovic tried to make the squad more tactically flexible. Chicago rolled out nine different formations, second most in the league, usually in an attempt to play to their opposition’s weaknesses. In total, it really didn’t come off. 2018 was actually somewhat worse than a “failure to improve”. The Fire were a noticeably worse team. They dropped from a 1.9 expected goal difference in 2017 (not great, but a little better than average), to -17.6 (3rd worst in the league). This was the second biggest decline among teams between the two seasons:
The Chicago Fire in 2018 were bad. The key question for whether they’ll be better in 2019 is “Did they get their offseason acquisitions right?”
Offseason Roster Changes
Each of the Fire’s offseason moves were made mostly to cover for these deficiencies.
Nelson Rodriguez added Brazilian central defender Marcelo, from Sporting CP, to fill the hole at center back that Schweinsteiger and Vincent were previously responsible for. Evaluating foreign center backs is really difficult (just ask the Galaxy), but he has the profile of a player that can succeed in MLS. A 29-year old, he has spent most of his time in the Portuguese first division, which is where former successful Fire center back Joao Meira came from.
Chicago brought in 23-year old right attacking midfielder Przemyslaw Frankowski from Jagiellonia Białystok in the Polish Ekstraklasa. Frankowski seems young and promising - he has four caps for Poland. But his 23 goals in 134 league appearances is not a great return, and the Polish league is a step down mostly from MLS. Apparently he’s very pacey, and is able to create from the flanks.
The Fire claimed Danish goalkeeper David Ousted off waivers, after one season with D.C. United and five in Vancouver. Ousted’s 2015 Whitecaps defense was the league’s best by xGA, and he saved five goals more than expected that year. He should be an upgrade over Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland (who were pretty poor, but still young!), but that shot-stopping ability has been the exception rather than the rule throughout his MLS career. He’s more typically allowed more goals than expected (by ASA’s post-shot expected goals model).
Two of the team’s biggest offseason moves were to re-sign players previously under contract. Chicago announced in November that Bastian Schweinsteiger would be back with the team, which is a big deal both on the field and off it. Chicago also came to terms on a new deal for vastly underrated center back Johan Kappelhof. Kappelhof has been the team’s and one of the league’s best defenders since signing on in 2016.
Promising young left back Brandon Vincent opted to retire at the end of the season. Vincent started 81 games in his three years in Chicago, and improved noticeably in each season (though slotting in at center back didn’t help him last year). His departure stings, especially since he chose to retire at just 24 years old.
Right back and former defensive mid Matt Polster departed this off-season to Rangers, in Scotland. He’d had injury issues, including a knee injury that limited him to just three games in 2018. But when healthy, he was excellent both in attack and defense. He averaged more than one key pass per game and put up seven assists in 2017, which are good numbers for a fullback.
Second-forward / center attacking mid / right winger Michael De Leeuw had his option declined by the club. De Leeuw also dealt with a knee injury in 2018, and he’s 32, so bringing him back didn’t entirely make sense. But his work rate and hustle made up a part of the emotional soul of the team, and he put in 1.5 tackles per game in 2017.
Serviceable center back Jonathan Campbell’s option was also declined. He was subsequently picked up by Seattle. Campbell’s certainly not a game-changer, and mostly came off the bench in 2017 and 2018 after starting 30 games his rookie year. But Chicago is still thin at center back, even if homegrown player Grant Lillard develops into a nice depth player in his second season. In Campbell they at least knew what they had, and he could fill in when needed.
Given Pauno’s penchant for fiddling with tactics, it’s difficult to guess how Chicago might line up in 2019. Switching tactics every week was a high variance strategy designed to get the most out of a less talented squad. Though it could be frustrating to watch, it was likely the Fire’s best chance for success with the team that they had. With a stronger roster, that fiddling shouldn’t be so necessary. There’s a lot of value in tactical stability, where every player has time to learn and perfect their role, and it will be interesting to see if Paunovic adjusts his approach accordingly.
The Fire’s most used formation of 2018 was a 4-2-3-1. With the current squad, that starting lineup might look like this.
That’s not a bad team if Frankowski and Marcelo both work out. Most exciting for neutrals and USMNT fans should be seeing Djordje Mihailovic in the number 10 role. Mihailovic spent most of 2018 recovering from a knee injury suffered in the 2017 playoffs, but after returning in mid-August he looked really good for a 19-year old. His performance with the national team at the recent January camp showed he continues to improve. If he can maintain that upward trajectory, and drop the “for a 19-year old” qualifier, the Fire’s offense will be in good shape. Nemanja Nikolic depends on quality service for his chances, and having an additional weapon to provide that will go a long way towards improving the offense’s 2nd worst in the league 2018 season. The team took just 10 shots per game, the lowest in the league, so upping that number will have to come from some combination of Frankowski, Schweinsteiger playing farther up the field, and a developing Mihailovic.
The team could also run out a 3-5-2, which might look like this:
This lineup has more question marks. It’s not totally clear if Frankowski can manage the right wingback spot - he could play second forward, but that then bumps Katai to the bench. It’s also not clear if Brandt Bronico would land in the third center mid spot, but he’s a good shout for it. Bronico’s development was one of the rare bright spots of 2018 - he went from 4 appearances as a rookie in 2017 to 23 and 17 starts. He was fifth on the team in xBuildup, and was a key cog in the midfield when Schweinsteiger was relegated to center back. Basti may not be a great pick for the center of the back three here. That’s a defense that looks very vulnerable in the air and on set pieces. If Grant Lillard can make strides this season he may slot in better, with Kappelhof moving to the middle and Schweinsteiger moving into the midfield.
In either scenario the full backs/wing backs will be counted on to add width, as much of the team’s chance creation in 2018 came from the middle of the field. Basti led the team in key passes, as a center mid. Aleksandar Katai was second on the team in key passes, and though he’s a winger he likes to cut inside. Many of his key passes come from the half spaces:
Katai was fairly inconsistent throughout the season. He had an excellent start to the year, and then followed that up with a brutal late summer slump before recovering at the season’s end. Here’s his xG + xA contribution over the course of the year:
That sort of hot and cold production is not what you’d ideally get from a DP, but perhaps it will even out now that he’s adjusted to the league.
Nikolic runs hot and cold as well, but that’s mostly a product of his dependence on others to create chances for him. Or rather, on others to find him when he makes smart runs to open up chances. Fabian Herbers is listed as a forward on the team’s roster page, and he’s a nice piece that the team added in a trade with Philadelphia, but he’s not quite a like for like replacement with Nikolic. He fits in better as a second forward or as a winger to spell Katai and Frankowski.
I’ve made it almost to the end of the preview without mentioning Dax McCarty. He’s a reliable defensive stalwart and the ball-circulating engine that makes the team go. I’ll mention Raheem Edwards, as well. I was pretty high on him in 2017 when he recorded a goal and 6 assists in 1000 minutes with Toronto, but he’s 23 now. If he can lock down the starting left back spot, and give the team some of that width they’ll need, he should be a very fun player to watch.
Chicago will have a shot at the playoffs if Frankowski, Marcelo, and Ousted pan out. None of those players are true game-changes, so their ceiling seems to be a first round playoff game on the road. That’s a fairly slim margin for error for a team still lacking defensive depth and depth at forward. They’re betting a lot on Mihailovic, which is fun and necessary, but also risky. In their worst-case scenario, those bets and their acquisitions don’t work out, and the Fire look about like they did in 2018. Realistically, they probably hang around the playoff line most of the season, and whether they get in or not comes down to a few lucky or unlucky bounces.