EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
It’s still too early to guess with any confidence how good Chicago Fire FC will be this year, or even how they’ll play. Rebranded, re-situated and completely rebuilt under new ownership, they're effectively an expansion side.
I can state this much about the Chicagoans with some certainty, however: The challenge of keeping pace in the MLS Eastern Conference is the least complicated of the many tasks on the club’s plate in 2020.
After shelling out striking sums of money to acquire the Fire, new hometown owner Joe Mansueto has invested many millions more to leave SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Bridgeview and return to lakeside Soldier Field as their matchday home, shedding their old crest and colors en route and picking up that “FC” tag. He’s reinforced the front office, moved it downtown and hired a new technical staff, then presented them all with the sports business equivalent of jumping out of an airplane and building a new one on the way down.
Fire FC seek not only to return to the East reckoning on the pitch, but to do so with a changed culture, offering an entertainment product and matchday experience compelling enough to charm fans old and new alike, and regain relevance in a crowded, hard-bitten sports market grown accustomed to overlooking them. They’ve got an NFL-sized stadium to fill, a deeply frustrated supporters scene to reconnect with and a decade or so of painful underachievement in one of the continent’s biggest metropolises to put behind them.
Here’s where I am obligated to refer to the words of architect Daniel Burnham, one of the fathers of modern Chicago, who once proclaimed “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood,” a Chitown civic treasure of a phrase that aptly suits the Fire’s current mentality.
Talk to Fire employees and it’s clear they believe they have the resources, plans and personnel to progress. The big question seems to be how long it will take to show results, for the green shoots of spring to poke out through the ice and snow, if you will.
European imports Alvaro Medran and Robert Beric are the key reinforcements thus far, joining incumbent attacking talent like Djordje Mihailovic, Przemyslaw Frankowski and CJ Sapong. Johan Kappelhof and Michael Azira are dependable veterans in line to take up the leadership mantle from Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty. A suddenly-budding youth movement shows promise, as epitomized by signing college standout Mauricio Pineda to a Homegrown deal – an achievement rich in symbolism given the frustrating Fire career of his older brother Victor, the club’s first-ever HGP.
With two weeks to go until opening day, the cupboard still looks a bit bare in roster terms, and we may see players come and go all season as the new staff figures out both the group and the tactics that work best. The half-clean slate they inherited makes them look shorthanded now, but may prove a blessing in the months to come.
Head coach Raphael Wicky is a promising soccer mind with encouraging data points on his resume even if the most recent – his US Under-17 side’s three-and-out humbling at last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup – is unflattering. His teams have shown a capacity both for organized, proactive possession and efficient, pragmatic play. In his single season in charge of FC Basel’s first team, he more than held his own against far bigger and richer adversaries in UEFA Champions League.
With the Fire he’s being supported by familiar faces in sporting director Georg Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer, who weren’t hired until mid-December and are hustling to make up for lost time. With mere weeks on the job so far and big transfer deals often months or years in the making, they can’t be fairly evaluated until the close of the Secondary Transfer Window at the very earliest. But that, in itself, must coexist with Chicago’s need to make a positive start as they re-introduce themselves to their city.
This new Fire may beguile fans playing pretty soccer. They might seek to connect as a hard-working collective with compelling personalities. Winning would surely help, too. And perfection involves doing something close to all of the above.
Make no little plans.