2013 Chicago Fire Preview: Time is now for a deep playoff run
2012 record: 17-11-6 (57 points); 46 GF / 41 GA (+5 GD)
With less than a week left until opening day, MLSsoccer.com is halfway through previewing each of the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, beginning with the clubs that brought up the bottom of the table in 2012 and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. This is part one of two previewing Chicago's 2013 season. You can find Part 2 here.
Setting the Scene
The Chicago Fire could have held steady this offseason. Frank Klopas could have kept his starting lineup nearly intact after an up-and-down 2012 season.
Instead, the Fire continued a makeover project that started early last year.
Chicago revamped their midfield, adding Joel Lindpere, Jeff Larentowicz and Dilly Duka. Only three starters remain in similar positions from the beginning of 2012. The new midfield may allow Chris Rolfe to push up higher into the attack, which wasn't always the case last year, and should allow the team to build through the middle of the field.
The Fire were satisfied last season with a return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. This year, only a deep playoff run will be satisfactory.
In and Out
IN: F Maicon Santos (12/7/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 1); M Joel Lindpere (1/4/13 - trade from New York); M Jeff Larentowicz (1/16/13 - trade from Colorado); M Brendan King (1/31/13 – free); M Dilly Duka (2/4/13 - trade from Columbus)
OUT: GK Jay Nolly (12/3/12 - option declined); M Pável Pardo (1/19/13 – retired); F Guillermo Franco (1/21/13 - option declined); M Álvaro Fernández (1/25/13 - loaned to Al-Rayyan); F Federico Puppo (1/26/13 - loaned to LDU Quito); F Dominic Oduro (2/4/13 - trade to Columbus); D Tony Walls (2/22/13 – waived)
Star Attraction: Chris Rolfe
The Fire draftee returned, and he was as good as ever.
After three seasons in Denmark, Rolfe came back to start 19 games in 2012, scoring eight goals and tallying three assists. The 2012 team MVP will look for his first double-digit goalscoring campaign in his first full year back in Chicago.
Teams keyed on Rolfe throughout the end of last season, but with the addition of Lindpere and Larentowicz, expect Rolfe to play more as an out-and-out forward.
Unsung Hero: Patrick Nyarko
Before bumps and bruises slowed him for the latter part of 2012, Nyarko was possibly the Fire's most dangerous attacker.
The Ghanaian led the Fire in assists in each of the past three seasons, and he could reach double digits this season with quality finishing from his teammates. The only returning starter in a revamped midfield had an inactive offseason because he was recovering said injuries, so it may take a bit for him to regain his early 2012 form.
Ready for Primetime: Sherjill MacDonald
Now is the time for MacDonald to prove his worth.
The Fire's only Designated Player repeated over and over last season that he would be a different player after a full preseason. After scoring four goals and combining nicely with Rolfe in 12 starts last year, the Dutch striker will need to find a sharper finishing touch for Chicago to compete for serious hardware.
Chicago need a consistent goalscorer, and they hope MacDonald can be their man. If he can't, the club may have to look elsewhere during the summer transfer window.
Storylines to Watch
1. Larentowicz, Lindpere look to ignite Fire attack: The Fire had two dependable central midfielders last year in Logan Pause and Pável Pardo, but the pair didn't exude attacking flair or mobility. This year, Chicago may look to build their offense through the middle of the field with the new duo. The 2010 New York Red Bulls MVP and 2011 Colorado Rapids MVP will try to ignite an offense that has relied on the counter the last two seasons.
2. Pause takes on a new position: Pause played plenty of right back in his younger days, and the Fire captain will revert back to the position in 2013. Whether he stays there may depend on the first few games, but it's unlikely the unquestioned leader will start on the bench at any point this season.
3. Can MacDonald find a finishing touch? The Fire have had just one double-digit goalscorer in the past eight seasons, so no player has as much riding on his shoulders as MacDonald.
What He Said
“We're trying to win championships and make the best team possible. Sometimes that calls for adding pieces outside the league, but sometimes those players don't necessarily pan out. … I think there's definitely value in what we've seen this past offseason, going to get guys who have proven themselves in this league, who have played six, seven, eight, nine years in this league and proven themselves.”
– Team captain Logan Pause
If Everything Goes Right
Nothing but a deep playoff run would be satisfactory this year.
The Fire have a solid backline, with Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry bolstering the middle of defense, and Sean Johnson is as confident as ever after gaining the third goalkeeper stop for the United States' most recent World Cup qualifier.
If Larentowicz and Lindpere can jell in the midfield and MacDonald and Rolfe can put up double-digit goals, the Fire have no limits this season. If Duka regains the attacking flair that made him a top-10 draft pick and Nyarko returns to his early 2012 form, the midfield will be one of the best in the league.