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MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Chicago Fire

After two straight seasons at the bottom of the table, the Fire are desperate to be competitive

The Chicago Fire have been MLS’s worst club for two straight years. In 2015, they lost 20 times, fired coach Frank Yallop mid-season, and did not retain interim boss Brian Bliss. In 2016, after new GM Nelson Rodriguez hand-picked Veljko Paunovic to be the club’s new head coach, they picked up precisely one more point in the standings, and actually won fewer games and had a worse goal difference.

Still, the Fire did at least add some good young players, and they also piled up a ton of allocation money. They’ve made some big moves this offseason, for sure, but is it enough to get them back among the Eastern Conference’s potential playoff teams?

Last season

Regular season: 31 points (7W-10D-17L, -16GD) | 10th in East
Playoffs: Did not qualify

Chicago started their first season under Veljko Paunovic on a 1W-4D-5L run, leaving themselves in a deep hole immediately. A brief “renaissance” - 3W-1D-3L constitutes a good run of form for most recent editions of the Fire - gave them a shot of at least avoiding the basement again, but Chicago only won three games in their final seventeen. They were as bad as you remember them being.

It wasn’t that Chicago had a prolonged two- or three-month winless streak; it was that they kept peppering in a month without a win here and there. The Fire had two separate 0W-2D-4L streaks (near the start and end of the season), another five-game winless run, and two more three game sets without a victory on top of that. They never had a winning streak of any kind, and arguably their best run of form was a 1W-3D-0L run baked into the otherwise dreadful first ten games that we mentioned at the start.

Projected starting lineup

Paunovic tried a lot of things last year, but most of the time he played this 4231 that can often attack like a 442. Michael de Leeuw - who managed a respectable 7 goals in 18 appearances last year despite arriving midseason to play for a train wreck of a team - is the reason for that flexible look. He’s really a forward by nature, and rather than play the attacking midfield role like a 10, he plays it as a goalscoring midfielder. The creative tasks are left to others.

If the Fire midfield has a traditional playmaker, it’s Arturo Alvarez out on the right. Alvarez had a surprisingly good season last year, and he’ll continue starting wide right only to drift inside. Still, this attack will rise and fall with the play of David Accam, who is second only to Ignacio Piatti among MLS’s left wingers. Accam is a scheme-breaker thanks to the fact that he has elite speed, is one of MLS’s best dribblers, and can threaten whether you force him wide or funnel him inside.

We’ll get into the pairing of Juninho and Dax McCarty in a second, so let’s talk about the back four instead. As much as the Fire have piled resources into their midfield and attack, they’re probably going to leak goals. Johan Kappelhof is an average MLS starter at best, and while Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent have promising careers ahead of them, they’re probably not yet capable starters on a playoff team. Joao Meira would have a hard time starting for most MLS teams, and in the case of some squads would have a hard time even getting a contract.

Chicago will still look to play an up-tempo, almost frantic pace when going forward. The job for Paunovic is to make sure that actually happens more often; last year, despite that hurried approach to attacking, the Fire were often dropping deep to defend out of sheer necessity.

Key signings: Juninho and Dax McCarty

One was a key piece for a team that won three MLS Cups and two Supporters Shields during his six seasons with the LA Galaxy returning to MLS in the prime of his career. The other was arguably the key player on a New York Red Bulls team that won the Shield in 2013 and 2015, and made the MLS Best 11 in 2015.

Signing Juninho and McCarty sounds great. What team playing 4231 wouldn’t love to have two potential Best 11 defensive midfielders shielding their back four? I can tell you that if United had landed Juninho or McCarty this offseason, this site would have thrown a party. On paper, it’s a fantastic winter’s work from a club that desperately needed to improve.

However, “on paper” is a key clause here. Both McCarty and Juninho have played their best soccer as the #6 in their team’s formation. They’ve both got experience in a linking role - McCarty was a connector for the FC Dallas side that went to MLS Cup in 2010 - but both are unquestionably better off sitting at the base of the midfield. It’s not clear how Paunovic will sort their roles, and it’s also not entirely clear that they’re totally compatible as a duo.

You can bet that the old “good players figure it out” truism will be trotted out, but that truism belongs in the garbage. Even world-class players can be incompatible, and these two are not exempt. There’s no guarantee that they won’t fit together seamlessly, but there’s also no guarantee that this pairing ends up being less of the sum of the component parts.

And yet another key signing: Nemanja Nikolic

Nikolic is supposed to cure the Fire’s goalscoring woes, and the rumors surrounding his transfer - an alleged $3 million fee, and competition from Hull City and the Chinese Super League - make for high expectations. Chicago is also under intense pressure from their fans to sign a DP that isn’t a complete disaster. For every David Accam to come in, there are flops like Nery Castillo, Kennedy Igboananike, and Sherjill MacDonald.

Nikolic’s success or failure is probably going to define how Rodriguez and Paunovic are viewed for some time, and there are reasons to think he’ll deliver. The rule of thumb used to judge whether a striker is doing well is whether they’re scoring one goal per every two appearances, and Nikolic has done that at each of the four different clubs he’s played for since 2007. After tearing it up in the Hungarian league, he moved to Legia Warsaw - who were just in last year’s Champions League group stage - and had a strike rate that would put him in the frame for the Golden Boot if he can replicate it in MLS.

However, MLS clubs have picked up successful strikers from eastern European clubs numerous times over the years, and very few have been successful. United fans, for example, will remember Hamdi Salihi, who might actually be in the upper half of that cohort in terms of success in MLS. Obviously every player and situation is different, and there’s no reason for the past to hamper Nikolic, but there are other red flags (like, for example, the fact that he has just 3 goals in 23 national team appearances).

Key departure: Sean Johnson

I’m not going to sit here and tell you Johnson is a good goalkeeper. He’s still near the bottom of the list among MLS starters, with his gaffes undoing whatever good his reflexes might bring to the table. However, it’s important to note that the Fire shipped Johnson and third-stringer Patrick McLain out in separate deals and replaced them by signing Uruguayan ‘keeper Jorge Bava and drafting Stefan Cleveland out of Louisville.

Cleveland is probably going to spend the season suiting up for St. Louis FC on loan, so let’s instead focus on Bava. At 35, he’s never appeared for Uruguay’s national team, and his resume is not exactly impressive. Bava has spent time with two of Uruguay’s traditional powers, but both come with an asterisk. With Peñarol, he played just three games way back in 2000, and Club Nacional has let him leave three different times. A year as a starter with Atlas de Guadalajara in Mexico and another as a back-up with Rosario Central in Argentina are the other “impressive” notes on his CV.

So even though Johnson was hardly inspiring, it doesn’t look like the Fire have brought in a major improvement. In fact, given Paunovic’s lack of patience with his goalkeepers last season - Johnson and Matt Lampson traded the job back and forth all year - it wouldn’t be a shock to see Lampson start a chunk of games over Bava. While Chicago has done a lot to improve elsewhere, it looks like they’re still among MLS’s worst between the pipes.

Overall prospects

Chicago is undoubtedly better than they were last year. Even if Nikolic isn’t a roaring success, he should be an improvement over Luis Solignac (who talent-wise is more of an oft-used sub in MLS, which is the role he appears to have on this year’s Chicago side) and lumbering target man David Arshakyan. They’ve kept what is a good attacking midfield trio together, and made major strides in improving their midfield defensively.

That’s not to say they’ve fixed everything. The back four still looks weak, the goalkeeping situation appears to be among the worst in the league, and there’s precious little depth in a lot of spots. There’s also the issue of whether Paunovic’s tinkering (both from week-to-week and within games) is an asset or a problem. I don’t think the Fire are going to make the playoffs, but they will knock off some good teams this year. Chicago fans will, after several years of misery, not go to Toyota Park expecting defeat.