Stejskal: After years in the basement, Fire finally have reasons to hope

Veljko Paunovic - looking back

The Chicago Fire may not end up making the playoffs in 2017, but after three years in the cellar, it looks like they’ll finally be back in contention this year.

In a league like MLS, where 12 of the 22 clubs qualify for the postseason, that isn’t an accomplishment. But for a club like Chicago, who have missed the playoffs in six out of the last seven seasons and finished dead last in 2015 and 2016, it’s just about cause for celebration.

The Fire have been the early winners of the MLS offseason, making a trio of heady acquisitions that should push them back toward relevancy.

About a week before Christmas, they signed Hungarian international striker Nemanja Nikolic – who has an astronomical goal rate – to a Designated Player deal from Polish club Legia Warsaw. They landed central midfielder Juninho a couple of days later, trading up in the allocation order to bring the former LA Galaxy man back to MLS after a year with Tijuana. On Monday, they pulled off their most buzzworthy addition yet, nabbing center mid Dax McCarty from the New York Red Bulls in exchange for $400,000 in general allocation money.

The Fire may not be done, either. The team have three DPs on the books in Juninho, Nikolic and David Accam, but they can buy either Accam or Juninho down using targeted allocation money to make way for another DP signing. Club GM Nelson Rodriguez told me at the MLS Combine last week that the club is “pursuing and investigating” several DP targets as they continue to try to strengthen their spine.

Even after sending $400,000 to New York in the McCarty deal, Chicago still reportedly have plenty of GAM left. That money could be especially useful on the backline, particularly if the club wants to make a play for a certain occasional USMNT defender/Chicago-area native.

As things currently stand, the Fire have promising midfield and forward lines. Chicago like to be flexible with their tactics, so I doubt we’ll see one setup dominate at Toyota Park, but it’s easy to see them lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with McCarty and Juninho shielding the back four, Accam and Arturo Alvarez manning the flanks and 2016 TAM signing Michael de Leeuw playing underneath Nikolic up top.

I’m not sold on goalkeepers Matt Lampson and Jorge Rodrigo Bava, they need more depth all over the field, their backline could use an upgrade or two and I’d still love to see them go after a true No. 10, but Chicago – after years in the basement – finally have some positive momentum.

I’d be shocked if their current roster contends for one of the top four spots in the East, but, with a couple more additions, they should be right in the mix for the fifth and sixth seeds in 2017. That’s not their end goal, of course, but you rarely go fast when you’re starting out on the road to respectability. Chicago have a direction now, and the last month has been a solid first step.