National Writer: Charles Boehm

Acosta, Cuypers join Chicago Fire: "There's something special brewing here"

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No team has been less familiar with the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs over the past decade or so than Chicago Fire FC, who carry a six-year postseason qualification drought – and as their fans would be the first to point out, this is a proud club that only missed out on that milestone once during their first 12 seasons of existence.

But the Fire go again in 2024, this time with real bullishness about the talent at head coach Frank Klopas’ disposal, headlined by winter acquisitions Hugo Cuypers and Kellyn Acosta, who were officially introduced to media at Swissôtel Chicago in the heart of the Windy City on Tuesday.

"For me, the whole atmosphere is different. The mindset is different," said sporting director Georg Heitz.

"These two players here, they are proven winners. They will bring a winning spirit to this team; a mentality that maybe in the past we lacked sometimes."

On the one hand, Cuypers represents the latest big-ticket splash by Fire owner Joe Mansueto, a prolific scorer in Belgium’s top flight who won that league’s Golden Boot last season with 34 goals in 56 matches across all competitions with KAA Gent, costing Chicago a club-record transfer fee of reportedly $12 million plus incentives.

He’s reportedly on the radar of the Belgian national team, currently ranked fourth in the FIFA World Rankings and a dark-horse contender at this summer’s Euros. Now he’s a Designated Player, charged with spearheading a resurgence at one of MLS’s sleeping giants.

"It's already something I thought would be really nice a couple years back, and then the opportunity came this winter transfer window for me, because of the European calendar, to come here," said Cuypers, who will don the No. 9 shirt for the Fire, of his Stateside adventure. "And it was a very conscious decision, because I think the league is growing. Everybody knows it. Everybody sees it. It's also, I think, a league that suits my style of play as well.

"I'm at a stage in my career where I needed and I was looking for not only a great project, but also an environment where – because I feel I still have growth potential, and I felt that Chicago was really giving me that environment to progress. The efforts they are putting to make the franchise grow are just massive, the new training facility they are building, the staff that's growing, and their ambition is just really big."

Mansueto has invested aggressively since taking leadership of the Men in Red in September 2019. All of the top five most expensive signings in Fire history have arrived since then, including star Xherdan Shaqiri, whose general underachievement in his first two seasons Heitz and Klopas hope can be reversed with the presence of a more reliable finisher like Cuypers.

"Many, many reasons," said Heitz when asked why the Belgian was the right choice. "First of all, his numbers are amazing, I think in a very competitive league. Also, the data, the metrics, when you compare how he covers a lot of ground; he is a very speedy player. He’s a highly intelligent player. He knows where to run. He not only runs, but he knows where to run. He can score goals with both feet, with headers, he's only 27.

"So he should be in his prime, and I think he can also handle the pressure because the Belgian league is not an easy league."

Acosta represents the other side of the coin: An MLS veteran with deep knowledge and a proven track record of success in the league. Chicago craved his box-to-box skill set and free-kick expertise – the Fire added a full-time set pieces coach to their staff this offseason – and courted him assiduously from the moment he became a free agent after helping LAFC reach the final of both Concacaf Champions League and MLS Cup last year.

"Everybody is just super excited, and you can feel that energy and you can feel it with the team. Just being part of the group for the last couple weeks, there's something special brewing here," said Acosta.

"From my standpoint, I've won, I think every trophy in the league besides Champions League," added the FC Dallas academy product, who won a Supporters’ Shield-US Open Cup double with his hometown club in 2016 and a Shield-MLS Cup double with LAFC two years ago. "For us as athletes, you always want to build a legacy, and being here is an opportunity to do just that. I've been in different environments but like I said, there's something just truly special here. I've never been part of a team where there's a collective voice of really wanting to drive the sport forward in the city. And I know the city is eager to have a winning team, right?

"There's trophies out there for us to win, and it would be a disservice for us if we are not putting our best foot forward and competing and doing just that."

Given another chance to navigate a path to success after four underwhelming years in his post, Heitz emphasized the accumulation of MLS experience in this winter’s business, marked by Acosta, native-son fullback Andrew Gutman, Tom Barlow and Chase Gasper.

That concept will get a rugged first test when the Fire visit the Philadelphia Union, the league’s most consistently successful team over the last half-decade, for opening weekend on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). And from the outside it’s uncertain whether both Acosta and Cuypers will be ready to start that match, given they joined up in the latter stages of Chicago’s preseason, in which the team lost just one of their games.

Whatever transpires at Subaru Park, however, the Fire believe they can be a legit contender.

"I'm not here just to sneak into the playoffs. If that's the case, I'd be on the sidelines enjoying family time with my wife and summer times in the Greek islands. I came back, I love the club, I will do whatever it takes to help this club and I'm here because I want to win," said Klopas, one of Chicago’s longest-serving icons as a player, coach and executive.

"We are here because we want to compete and win, not just to sneak in in the playoffs."