Team: Chicago Fire
Coach: Frank Klopas
Last Season: 9-9-16, 6th East, 11th Overall
Twitter Hashtag: #CF97
In our 2011 preview of the Chicago Fire, I predicted the Fire would either make a surprise long run in the playoffs or miss the playoffs, be stuck in neutral, and just be lost in the near future. Neither of those predictions came true: the Fire did miss the playoffs and looked at a time to be muddling through the season, but hit a hot streak towards the end of the season and barely missed the playoffs.
The Fire now looks like a favorite not only to make the playoffs but to challenge for the Eastern Conference itself. Much of this relies on how well they translate that hot streak to a full season, but also if some of the holes that developed this offseason are gaping or minuscule.
Coaching Staff and Front Office: The Frank Klopas experiment is going strong after the team’s technical director came out of the director’s box and led the team to seven wins in their last ten MLS matches. Klopas is not a cool tactician, but an emotional guy who could be called a “players’ coach”. What remains to be seen is how he does with a full season coaching this team. While the results so far are promising, any time a team replaces a coach with a guy already inside the organization, usually a team is making a hire not to rock the boat and stick with an organizational plan. This is fine if the team is winning, but not when it’s missed the playoffs (right Revolution fans?). The future looks promising, but the jury is still out.
Key Roster Additions: Rafael Roboyo was an interesting signing for this team. He comes from the Colombian first division champions and has been labeled a box-to-box type player who can play a few different positions in the middle. He is expected to challenge for a starting job and make a good midfield even better. The other big signing is Uruguayan striker Federico Puppo. The 25-year old striker is 5’8″ so he adds another speedy diminutive presence to this team. In via the draft are defenders Austin Berry (Louisville) and all-name first teamer Hunter Jumper (Virginia), two players would could see plenty of playing time this season.
Key Roster Subtractions: Diego Chaves departed the team to sign with Palestino after the team did not re-sign him this offseason. His departure certainly hurts the team’s proven depth at forward. Other than Chaves, the team’s departures mainly cleared up cap/allocation space and room on the bench. The team did sell
William Dube’s Wilman Conde’s rights to New York for allocation, which is curious considering their need for a veteran defender.
Projected Starters: Sean Johnson is quickly becoming an elite talent in MLS, finally getting his invitation to the national team and training overseas this winter. Johnson may be the most solid starter on defense. In front of him, veterans Corey Gibbs and Gonsalvo Segares are the two veterans that will anchor the backline. The other two spots will be between the two draft picks, international players, or maybe a few trialists.
The midfield again should be the strength of the team. And the strength of the strength are the two holding midfielders Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause. Pardo is 35 years old but played much younger than that. His re-signing may have been the best signing of the winter. Logan Pause developed into a good MLS players and complements Pardo well. In front of them is the triumvirate of Marco Pappa, Patrick Nyarko, and Sebastian Grazzini with Rafael Robayo pushing for playing time in one of these slots. The combination of speed, passing, and finish are all present with these midfielders but the depth behind them is suspect.
Up front of course is Dominic Oduro, who had such a great year after so many seasons of not living up to his potential. If he can keep finishing the goals he creates, then Chicago will have no problem scoring goals this season.
Player to Watch: With so little experience in the back, the player to watch is Austin Berry. The highly rated defender will have to earn his paycheck immediately and his ability to translate his success at the college level to the pro level will determine whether Chicago will have to outscore teams to win.
Best Case Scenario: The momentum carries over from last season and Chicago starts out strong. The defense is decent to good enough with Sean Johnson taking the next step, and the offense rivals Kansas City for the East’s best. In fact, this team looks alot like Sporting Kansas City last season: exciting and dangerous. In the summer, Chicago swoops in for a big DP signing and the Fire contend for the Eastern Conference title.
Worst Case Scenario: That designated player constantly rumored never surfaces. Dominic Oduru fails to replicate last year’s success and injuries hit the midfield. The defense can’t hold up and Sean Johnson gets serious looks from overseas teams. Chicago misses the playoff for the third straight year.
Prediction: This team will walk a fine line this year. They obviously have the talent to make a run in the playoffs but lack the depth to overcome sustained injuries or poor play. My prediction is that the team stays relatively healthy and continues their strong play from last year, finishing second in the Eastern Conference.