Editorial- The Chicago Fire had a rebound season in 2017, which came to a deflating end on a cold Wednesday night in Bridgeview. The Fire finished third in the MLS supporters shield race with a record of 16 wins, 11 losses and seven draws.
Chicago Fire 2017 Season In Review
The Chicago Fire collected an improved 55 points in 2017, up 24 points from their 2016 season. Chicago’s third place finish allowed them to host a rare postseason game. The Fire were quickly bounced out in the opening knockout round game by the New York Red Bulls by a score of 4-0. The season’s conclusion was a bitter one but the 2017 season provided moments of sweetness not often experienced by Fire fans.
Who was the most important player for the 2017 Chicago Fire? This award could be debated endlessly as a number of players are to be considered. Was it Nemanja Nikolic? 2017’s golden boot winner and his 24 goals were an immense part of this Fire team’s success. Was it the teams new captain, Dax McCarty? The MLS stalwart filled a major void in the Fire’s midfield and has been widely lauded for his locker room leadership. Was it the German legend, Bastian Schweinsteiger?
The World cup winner’s arrival to the Fire brought a level of global hype and visibility rarely seen in North American soccer. Schweinsteiger had an instant impact on the team and brought the squad’s level of play up for a good portion of the season. Was it attacking midfielder Michael de Leeuw?
The dutchman was amongst the team’s best contributors from last years roster and was the Fire’s key link between the midfield and attack. De Leeuw’s work rate for the team was sorely missed once he suffered a season-ending injury late in the season. His absence was highly noticeable during the Fire’s playoff loss to New York. Some fans may even suggest converted right back Matt Polster for the award, as he contributed immensely on both sides of the ball when healthy.
— Nikolic Nemanja (@niko_nemanja) October 23, 2017
With so many worthy candidates for team MVP it seems like a disservice to pick just one player. Picking an individual from a team is somewhat inherently unfair on principle anyway. So to do justice to the players who have been so valuable to the Fire in 2017, this MVP selection will be a sidestep and become an award for the Most Valuable Person.
The person who brought in these players and built this turnaround team is Chicago’s MVP of 2017, General Manager Nelson Rodriguez. The second year Fire GM seemingly used all of the league’s player acquisition mechanisms available to him to great effect. He brought in upgraded players and built out a competitive team which came up out from the cellar of MLS. While Rodriguez’ legacy is yet to be written, and faces crucial decisions this offseason, he stands out as the Chicago Fire’s MVP of 2017.
What went right in 2017
The Fire were competitive in 2017 and produced their best finish since 2009. A third place finish was hardly imaginable in recent years as Chicago’s soccer franchise was the first to earn consecutive last place finishes just a year ago.
The Fire even graced the top of the MLS table for a time in 2017 which allowed the often downtrodden fanbase to dream big. The Fire played some of the best soccer in the league until July as they put together an 11 game unbeaten run through may and June. The Men in Red were healthy and played a dominating possession game.
Chicago impressed the league with skillful team passing sequences and scored freely. The midfield pairing of McCarty and Schweinsteiger was the best of the league in the first half of the season and forward Nemanja Nikolic was on pace to smash Major League Soccer’s goalscoring record. The season’s first half was spot on, the squad was playing at an elevated level and the key players remained healthy.
What went wrong in 2017
As good as the first half of the season was for the Fire was, the second half was almost equally as bad. The underlying reasons for the Fire’s second half slide was the lack of depth throughout the squad. Not deepening and upgrading the defense and goalkeeper pool especially. Once the calendar flipped to July, the injuries and mismanaged moments began piling up. The Fire had only three center backs on staff throughout the majority of the season and struggled severely once Joao Meira missed time with injury. Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam’s influence began to fade as leg injuries flared up and reoccured with both players. As mentioned, the late season-ending injury to Michael de Leeuw stymied a lot of the positive attacking play Chicago had put together early in the campaign.
Not all of the 2017 signings panned out for Nelson Rodriguez either. The Fire ushered out fan favorite goalkeeper Sean Johnson after the 2016 season and brought in 36 year old Uruguayan Jorge Bava. Safe to say, the veteran did not impress in his eight appearances for the Fire. Bava lost his starting position at the beginning of May and was later added to the injured reserves.
— Robert Kerr (@LWOSr2kerr2) April 28, 2017
MLS veteran and three time MLS Cup champion Juninho ended up having a muted impact for the 2017 Fire. The Brazilian made 17 starts and was subbed in four times for the Fire, adding one goal and two assists. While Juninho was a steady presence at times in the middle, the 28 year old never seemed to build a great deal of chemistry with his team on the field. The big three of McCarty, Schweinsteiger, and Juninho didn’t produce top performances when fielded together. While de Leeuw played his role well, the Fire never had a truly creative attacking presence come from their midfield either.
What do the Fire need for 2018?
The newly arrived offseason will be a measure of the Chicago Fire’s ambition. The squad was undeniably improved but has a long way to go to truly compete for an MLS cup. The owner has spent a good deal of money on players this year, will he be content with the modest uptick in attendance and attention seen this year? Will the Fire continue on this ambitious path and grow? Will Nelson Rodriguez be able to make changes and acquire the number of quality players needed to compete with the likes of Toronto FC? The current front office pulled off a number of coups in building the 2017 season but did not acquire a great quantity of quality players.
While the Fire had their impressive moments on the field and produced a tremendous rebound season, Nelson Rodriguez will need an abundance of new players if they wish to continue their upward trajectory. Chicago’s goal should be to add depth at nearly every position on the field. As mentioned above, the Men In Red only had three center backs for most of the season, so adding defensive depth should be the top priority for the front office. Nikolic’s ironman run this season covered up the fact that he was really the only true forward on the roster. Goalkeeper was a tough spot in 2017. Jorge Bava didn’t work out and Matt Lampson faded badly, especially against top tier opponents. The Men In Red will need their late season goalkeeping acquisition, Richard Sanchez to improve greatly or look for yet another stopper.
The lone position the Fire had quality depth in during 2017 was central midfield. That however may not be the case looking ahead to 2018. Juninho will likely not return for a second season on loan. Then there is the million dollar question surrounding the future of Bastian Schweinsteiger. While the german had a positive impact on the squad, it is hard to imagine him improving and becoming healthier in 2018. The Fire could spend his salary on a number of other positions that could aide in growing their future. It is my belief that if the German was returning for a second MLS season, he and the Fire would have worked out a deal already. Without Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the center of the park is no longer their strength.
Another big decision the Fire may need in order to reach higher heights in 2018 would be addressing the coaching of the team. It may seem harsh to part ways with the current coaching staff given the improved returns, but there were many management shortcomings in 2017. Both on and off the field Head Coach Veljko Paunovic made management errors and did not appear willing to adjust.
On the field, the Men In Red appeared unable to bounce back when trailing. The Fire did not score from set pieces at all during the season. When the Fire were in the midst of their slide in August, they did not adjust or attempt different ways to create chances. At appeared if plan ‘A’ did not work out for the Fire, they would keep repeating until defeat. When a team is struggling to score goals, set plays are key to earning points. During the FS1 broadcast of the playoff game against New York, the Fire had failed to beat a winning team since July 1st. Once their hot streak concluded, the Fire limped the rest of the way to the postseason.
Off the Field the wheels of man management appeared to come off when dealing with talented winger David Accam. The Ghanian International was an exciting and key figure in the Fire’s unbeaten run but was slowed by being benched, reinstated and then injured. Another odd case of bad man management came in this last week of the season when starting goalkeeper Matt Lampson was benched on Sunday, and then reinstated for the playoff game on Wednesday. Hard to say the shuffle caused his bad goalie play, but it certainly wasn’t the best tactic.
Paunovic was certainly an upgrade to his predecessor as he is far more engaged and ambitious. His european connections were a big part in recruiting star forward Nemanja Nikolic as well. The coach has improved the team but appeared to plateau in just his second season. If ownership is still willing to spend the extra money, and a top coaching candidate becomes available, Nelson Rodriguez should make an aggressive move and upgrade the coaching position as well.