As we approach the start of the Chicago Fire’s 24th season in MLS, the club will be looking to bounce back from a rollercoaster of a 2020 season that saw them miss the postseason yet again despite an expanded 10-team playoff field in the Eastern Conference.
The outcome marked the 4th time the Fire have missed the playoffs in the past five seasons.
If you want to take it a step further, the club has only qualified twice since 2010, with their last playoff win coming in 2009. Needless to say, it’s been a bleak decade or so to be a Chicago Fire fan. However, with a new era beginning in 2020 with new ownership and a revamped front office, the club has taken a whole new approach towards building its squad by stressing continuity and youth.
With that being said, let’s take a deep dive into what this squad’s ceiling is for 2021 based on the following criteria: the front office’s approach to building the roster, the results and performances from the 2020 season, schedule breakdown, and the takeaways from this year’s preseason action.
Front Office Roster-Building Approach
In the offseason, we heard general manager Georg Heitz and head coach Raphael Wicky put an emphasis on roster continuity due to the large overhaul last season that saw the Fire bring in numerous new signings. More recently, they both have taken a pretty firm stance that there will be no more signings before the start of the season on April 17, with the roster at 29 players. So, this is the team, folks.
Aside from a few additional faces and the return of Johan Kappelhof and Luka Stojanovic from injury, this Fire side will look very similar to last year’s squad who missed the playoffs last year. Is that to say that will be repeated this year? Not necessarily.
2020 Season Review
A big factor will be if this team can take it up a notch from last season and learn what worked and what didn’t in 2020. They will need to be better defensively. They will need to limit the number of points dropped from winning positions. They will need to win on the road. It was a new league for many players last season, and they were compared to an expansion side given the roster overhaul.
I won’t call it an excuse, but it’s understandable how a team that had a complete overhaul can have some growing pains, especially in a truly one-of-a-kind year like 2020 with the pandemic and the circumstances that came with it. However, it’s a new year, a more “normal” year, and as Miguel Navarro said in an interview recently, “there aren’t any excuses.”
Following the league’s announcement of the regular season schedule, it was revealed that 7 teams will qualify for the playoffs in each conference despite an expanded format in 2020. The East will once again have 14 teams which doesn’t do the Fire any favors.
With that being said, I expect the Fire will need to earn at least 46 points to qualify for the postseason.
New England got the 7th spot in the East with 45 in 2019, and Montreal had 46 in 2018. Hypothetically, if the Fire can beat each of their Eastern conference opponents once, mix in some ties, and take 3 points from one of their Western Conference opponents, they will be right around the playoff line. On paper, this sounds doable given that they never really got run off the field in 2020 outside of a couple of away games early in the year. However, you don’t have to be a long-standing fan to know the Fire always makes it more difficult on themselves.
Many will argue the Fire have not improved the roster enough to make a big enough jump from their 11th place finish last season. They have replaced CJ Sapong and Djordje Mihailovic with Chinonso Offor and Stanislav Ivanov, respectively. They also added some much-needed depth at the right-back spot with Jhon Espinoza. Having Luka Stojanovic will help, for it is certainly possible to fit into the starting lineup somewhere in the midfield. However, the Fire’s ceiling will mostly be determined by how much the existing players can raise their game.
Can Gaston Gimenez put himself in the conversation as one of the top holding midfielders in the league? Can Francisco Calvo limit his defensive errors? Will Miguel Navarro take the next step in his development after an underwhelming first season? Can Frankowski and Ignacio Aliseda become consistent scoring threats?
These are the most notable players that will have to raise their game if the Fire are to have a chance at a playoff spot this season.
The preseason has come to a close, with the Fire going 3-1-2 after six exhibition matches. They posted wins against NYCFC, Philly, and Forward Madison, lost to Cincinnati and Vancouver, and picked up their draw against Orlando. Although there’s no sense in overthinking preseason results, we could get a good idea of how the Fire will play this season and where we will see new faces and young homegrowns within the lineup. Raphael Wicky utilized a high-pressing defensive style despite the heat and humidity in Florida. We saw it work effectively against most of their opponents where forced errors in the attacking third turned into chances and even goals.
We also saw plenty of minutes from the homegrowns and some impressive moments from them as well. I would expect Brian Gutierrez, Andre Reynolds III, and perhaps even Javier Casas Jr. to see increased minutes this season. On the flip side, we have seen guys pick up some injuries in the preseason. The most notable is Stanslav Ivanov, who only played limited minutes in the first preseason match and is expected to miss many months. Fabian Herbers, Elliot Collier, Carlos Teran, Miguel Navarro, and Ignacio Aliseda have all picked up minor injuries as well, which will take a toll on a young, relatively thin depth chart.
It seemed like an extra-long offseason, but It counts for real this weekend when the Fire take on New England at Soldier Field WITH FANS.
So, after all this breakdown and conjecture, what’s the verdict for 2021?
Although the roster continuity makes sense given the major overhaul last season, I believe this team is still missing a couple of important pieces in order for them to make the necessary jump from 11th to 7th in the East with the playoff format back to normal. On paper, it doesn’t sound ridiculous for this team to make the playoffs (see a breakdown below), but as a lifetime supporter, I know to never get my hopes up or set my expectations too high.
Whereas I believe in Rafa Wicky’s playing style, I’m still not sure he will have all the pieces to truly get the most from it.
He still lacks a true playmaker in the midfield, a gritty leader in the backline, and supplemental goal-scorers to support Robert Beric. The supplemental goal-scoring piece could change if we see the likes of Stojanovic, Frankowski, and Aliseda hit the ground running. They will need to show some consistency that was lacking in all areas last season.
Ultimately, if all the questions mentioned in this piece are answered with a resounding “Yes,” this season, the Fire could surprise some people with maybe a 5th or 6th place ceiling in the East. However, if the whole team can’t raise their game and still can’t find a way to win a few road games, it will be another year of heartache and missing out on the playoffs for the 4th straight season.
Having suffered as a Chicago Fire fan year after year, I know this year will be another emotional rollercoaster filled with a few highs but a few more lows. They will do relatively well at home and be among the worst in the league on the road. Francisco Calvo will continue to have crucial mental lapses that will cost the team points. Ignacio Aliseda will have a much better 2021 if he can stay healthy.
I hope I’m wrong, but those are my thoughts. What are yours?
- Ceiling: 6th
- Floor: 12th
- Prediction: 10th
Below is an idea of how the Fire will need to perform against each opponent to have a chance at a playoff spot:
- Columbus: 3 times (2A, 1H) – 3pts
- Philadelphia: 3 times (2H, 1A) – 3pts
- New England: 3 times (2H, 1A) – 4pts
- NYCFC: 3 times (2H, 1A) -3pts
- NYRB: 3 times (2A, 1H) – 4pts
- DC United: 3 times (2A, 1H) – 4pts
- NSH: Twice – 3pts
- Orlando: Twice – 3pts
- Montreal: Twice – 4pts
- Cincinnati: Twice – 4pts
- Miami: Twice – 4pts
- Atlanta: Twice -3pts
- Toronto: Twice – 3pts
- RSL: Once (Home) -3pts
- SKC: Once (Away) – 0