bogert-3-big-questions-CHI

As the 2022 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.

Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club (Chicago Fire FC version). Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

The big picture

Chicago Fire FC tore it down and rebuilt again last winter under new ownership. A new head coach (Ezra Hendrickson) came in and Switzerland star Xherdan Shaqiri led the group of reinforcements, which included some big, big transfer fees paid.

Chicago got off to a hot start behind Gaga Slonina and the defense… but that goodwill quickly faded by the spring and the club missed the playoffs for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons. 

Slonina is off to Chelsea in the winter in a historic deal worth up to $15 million, to kick off another winter of change in Chicago. What else will the offseason bring about?

1
Should (or how can) Chicago build around Shaqiri?

“Should” the Fire build around Xherdan Shaqiri probably isn’t a question. He’s just wrapping up his first MLS season and is under contract through 2024. He’s among the league’s highest-paid players. He’s going to the World Cup with Switzerland. He turns 31 in October and is at the end of his prime.

Shaqiri had fine boxscore numbers this year – 7g/11a in roughly 2,150 minutes at the time of writing – but he’s a bit of a limited player at this stage of his career, in that there’s not a lot of defending or sprinting.

For all the stats below, you want to be in a higher number percentile. The 99th percentile means league-best, 1st percentile is league-worst.

Shaqiri is in the 19th percentile in distance covered per 90 minutes, 11th percentile in distance sprinting, 4th percentile in total sprints and 2nd percentile in distance covered sprinting, per Second Spectrum. He’s in the 2nd percentile for attacking midfielders/wingers in pressures, per FBRef. He doesn’t run a lot, which would indicate he’s got to play as a No. 10 with runners around him.

This can still work, but the team has to be built around it. And the trade-offs have to be huge attacking output. LAFC's Carlos Vela and FC Cincinnati's Luciano Acosta have a similar distance covered per 90 minutes (though both sprint a bit more).

Shaqiri is in the 89th percentile or better among attacking midfielders/wingers in assists, xGA and shot-creating actions. He’s not shooting as much as one would expect for a player with his ability/history of goals, but perhaps that can be adjusted next year, as four of his seven goals have come from the penalty spot. At the beginning of the season he was dealing with an injury to his dominant left leg, which could help explain it.

Chris Mueller (free from Scotland’s Hibernian) was a good fit stylistically with Shaqiri, bringing his verticality and direct running. Jairo Torres has not looked like the $6 million rising Mexico international No. 10/winger they signed from Liga MX’s Atlas in May, with 0g/1a in just under 700 minutes so far. He likes to occupy some similar spaces as Shaqiri. That’s an issue.

Former Philadelphia Union striker Kacper Przybylko has had easily his worst season in MLS, which is another issue, but 18-year-old burgeoning Colombian international Jhon Duran has shown encouraging signs up top.

While Shaqiri deserves his share of blame in attack (and off the ball), there’s simply not been enough around him, either. Ezra Hendrickson and his staff have to figure out how to get the most out of their DPs and attack.

2
How many new starters will arrive in defense?

Chicago underwent another rebuild last season, but the defense was largely untouched outside of Rafael Czichos arriving centrally from the Bundesliga. Gaston Gimenez surprisingly remained in the midfield pivot next to rising talent Federico Navarro, while the fullbacks (Boris Sekulic, Miguel Angel Navarro) and Carlos Teran in central defense played the most minutes in their respective positions. All of those players were already here.

The Fire had solid goals against/expected goals against… but didn’t seem to balance defensive stability with attacking creativity. They kept some clean sheets, but it came at the cost of attacking impetus. Then when they opened it up a bit more, goals started pouring in. That elusive balance will go a long way in determining whether next season sees the club below the playoff line once again or not.

Chicago had an offer rejected this summer for Danish center back Tobias Salquist from Silkeborg IF, but they remain active in that pursuit. Whether it’s Salquist or someone else, it seems they’re in the market for another center back. Sekulic (starting RB) is out of contract, so there’s the possibility of movement at right back. What about defensive midfield next to Navarro?

After a complete overhaul in attack last winter, the focus will probably be on defense this time around. Which brings us to goalkeeper…

3
Is Chris Brady ready to replace Gaga Slonina?

Chicago are likely to replace their homegrown, US youth international goalkeeper who had a ton of interest from European clubs with… their other homegrown, US youth international goalkeeper who had a ton of interest from European clubs.

Chris Brady, 18, is a big talent and a regular with the US Under-20s. Chicago have already rejected a bid from Belgium’s Club Brugge before Brady played a minute in MLS. The club let Slonina have a chance at 17. Brady is likely to get the chance at 18 in February.

Brady leads MLS NEXT Pro in goals minus expected goals by a mile, at -7.92 (second-best is -4.72). Essentially, American Soccer Analysis is saying Brady conceded almost eight goals fewer than expected based on the chances in front of him in just 1,171 minutes. There’s not much more you could ask for in seeing if a player is ready for a jump to MLS.

But it’s still a jump. Chicago could – unlikely, but they could – add another veteran to the group to compete with Brady and Spencer Richey. But the assumption is it’s Brady's job to lose.

It’s always possible that Chicago could ask Chelsea for another half-season or full-season loan of Slonina. Sporting director Georg Heitz didn’t rule out that possibility.

Depth chart as of Sept. 19
Bogert year-end - CHI depth chart

A couple more thoughts:

  • Przybylko was reportedly close to agreeing to a new contract when he was acquired in January, but nothing has been announced.
  • Gimenez signed a new two-year DP deal last winter. Unless there’s a new figure for 2023, his deal cannot be bought down to free up a DP spot.
  • Can Brian Gutierrez build on a promising 2022? What about any of the other homegrowns?
  • Can Federico Navarro take The Leap next year? How long until he’s sold to Europe or one of South America’s biggest clubs?