Editorial (December 3, 2018) – It was a season to forget for the Chicago Fire. On the field and off, there were far more scenes of dismay than of celebration. The Men In Red concluded their 21st season of play in tenth place, in the Eastern Conference, and 20th in MLS overall. The Fire collected just 32 points over the 34 game season, and earned an 8-18-8 season record. Chicago’s MLS team entered 2018 looking to push on from their resurgent third place finish in 2017, but found more strife than success throughout.
2018 Chicago Fire Season Review: The flame that didn’t spark
MVP of a misfire season
Who could be named an Most Valuable Player on this Chicago Fire team? It’s a tough pick— all of Chicago’s key players have significant caveats to their MVP claims. Push come to shove, the Fire’s sole impactful acquisition in 2018, Aleksandar Katai, should take the club’s MVP award. The Serbian winger scored 12 goals, and earned five assists, in 33 appearances for the Men In Red. The 27-year-old ranked second on the club in both goals and assists, as well as leading the team in shots.
Katai had a couple barren patches of form during his first season in Chicago, but provided a much needed creativity to Chicago’s attacking play, and scored a number of spectacular goals . His laser volley at Red Bull Arena, in April, and lob of Tim Howard, in June, were high points of the Fire’s season.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) June 14, 2018
What went right in 2018
The list of ‘What went right for the Fire in 2018’ is filled mostly with silver linings. The addition of exciting Aleksandar Katai from Spanish club Deportivo Alaves, the emergence of midfielder Brandt Bronico, and the healthy return of Djordge Milhailovic, are a few items a Chicago Fire fan can look to as positives. Nemanja Nikolic’s ability to score 15 goals from just 28 shots on target, is also notable.
The Fire had a healthy and available Bastian Schweinsteiger, the 34-year-old made 31 league appearances in 2018. The world cup champion chipped in with four goals and six assists, while playing a large part of the season in the center of defense, rather than in his standard midfield position. The German legend wasn’t quite enough to make the Fire a winner in 2018, but Chicago was able to avoid earning their third wooden spoon award in four years.
What went wrong in 2018
The ‘What went wrong for the fire in 2018’ list is filled with far more notes. The signs of a bad season coming were obvious long before the first kick of the season. After 2017’s results, it was clear the Fire had improved but still needed additional depth across the field. Heading into 2018, the Fire squad had actually become leaner. Former starting center back Joao Meira, veteran midfielder Juninho, among others, were never adequately replaced as drama filled transfer sagas ended as failures.
Adding to the shortage of incoming players was the shock trade of star winger, and back-to-back club player of the season, David Accam, to the Philadelphia Union. The Fire entered the season with a lack of depth at every single position on the field. The talent void was so obvious that Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez conceded his “roster was incomplete” in May. The squad remained undermanned throughout the season and never truly challenged for the playoff positions.
Away from the field, and into the stands, the season had plenty of things go wrong, as well. Club relations with its supporters groups had a full meltdown in 2018. In June, team management handed down a permanent ban to the entirety of Sector Latino’s section, 101, in response to “repeated violation of the [Clubs Code of Conduct]”. The tipping point came after a game May 20, after a small group of Sector Latino members had a violent clash with opposing fans. Section 101 then sat empty and roped off, in stark contrast of it’s usual bombasity.
Perceiving the permanent ban to the entirety of Sector Latino as a gross overreaction, the Section 8 supporters group responded. Section 8 supporters group subsequently began a season-spanning boycott of games in the Harlem end stand. These two most vocal and theatrical sections of the stadium were then vacant and hushed for the majority of the season. Talks between the supporters groups and the Fire’s front office have occurred as recently as November 15, but all parties remain at odds heading into the offseason.
What can be considered improvement in 2019?
In short, improvement for the Fire in 2019 would be for management to mend their fences with their fanbase. At the same time, get a team together that can realistically get back into the top half of the Eastern Conference.
The first big news of the 2018/19 offseason came with the announcement that Bastian Schweinsteiger is staying with the Fire in 2019. The german states in a video message that he believes the team can ‘raise a trophy.’ Giving the current squad, it is hard to tell if this is a genuine belief. Following the contract option deadline day, on November 26, for all of the teams not participating in the MLS Cup Final, the Fire roster is comprised of just 15 players. The Fire’s path to a trophy appears unclear.
The Fire will, yet again, need to yield a bumper crop of new talented players. At minimum, the Fire will need to add at least six new starting level players to push on in 2019. Their top three targets should include two new defenders and a creative midfielder. At the time of writing, it appears the Fire will be extending contracts for both General Manager Nelson Rodriguez and Head Coach Veljko Paunovic. Fire Fans will be hoping to see their team be active in each and every MLS player draft this winter. While hoping that the same management can produce new results.