It was another year of Chicago Fire soccer!

A gif is worth a thousand words:

Given the big money multi-year deals sporting director Georg Heitz handed out like candy in his first offseason, back in the winter of 2019-20, the Fire were basically locked into running it back with almost exactly the same team that finished 11th in the East in 2020.

They are currently 12th in 2021. They have missed the playoffs for the 10th time in 12 years. Not much about MLS is predictable, but this was.

Formation and tactics

Raphael Wicky really did seem to want to be a coach whose team constantly got on the ball and flowed, back-to-front, like (for example) that great 2017 Toronto FC team. If you’re going to try to emulate an MLS side, that’s not a bad place to look.

But the Fire just couldn’t do it with any sort of consistency, and even when they did put together a solid 90 they were undercut by their ongoing and inexplicable propensity for massive errors, as well as at times mind-breaking profligacy in front of goal.

So the 4-3-3 switched to a 4-2-3-1 and eventually to a 3-5-2.

It didn’t work. Wicky was fired with a month left in the season.

Highlights

It's actually wrong to say “it didn’t work” because, for a few minutes, it actually worked really well! The Fire scored what might be my favorite team goal of the year just five minutes into the season, and did so against a New England side that seems a good bet to set a new single-season points record.

This is champagne football with a splash of Malort:

Hnnghh. That is so, so good. I am absolutely certain that’s the type of soccer Wicky wanted to bring out of his team every single week, and I applaud him for his ambition even if the execution was sorely lacking.

Chicago’s best stretch of the season came in early summer when they went 4-2-4 over 10 games, so I suppose that’s the real highlight. But none of it was as pretty as that goal they scored to open the season.

Honorable mention to the dope new crest. They went from one of the worst logos in the league to maybe the very best. Nicely done on that.

Lowlight

The Fire blew a 2-0 lead in that first game against the Revs and managed only a draw. Then they lost their next four.

Then they finally won one – a 1-0 home squeaker over Inter Miami – before logging three more losses and a draw.

So yes, over the first three months of the season the Fire won just one game. By the time July arrived a third of the year was in the books and the Fire were 1-8-2 with only seven goals scored and a -10 goal differential.

Chicago fans, who had already seen this movie nine times in the previous 11 years, turned off and tuned out. They already knew the ending, after all.

Revelation

And yet, a glimmer of hope! The Fire have long neglected, under both Heitz and the previous front-office regime, to properly value their academy kids and potential for contributions from homegrown players. All you have to do is look at the season Djordje Mihailovic is having in Montréal, or how consistently good Andrew Gutman has been over the past two years for FC Cincinnati and now the Red Bulls.

There are signs that maybe Chicago’s valuation of their homegrowns is changing. Mauricio Pineda is – appropriately IMO – starting every game at center back, while young attacker Brian Gutierrez was getting regular minutes before picking up an injury

But the real prize is 17-year-old goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina. On August 5 he became the youngest goalkeeper ever to start an MLS game, and to post a shutout. A month-and-a-half later he became the youngest goalkeeper to ever record a win in MLS when the Fire beat NYCFC 2-0 in Wicky’s final game in charge.

Slonina’s played just 720 minutes, so it’s a small sample size. But thus far he looks every bit the elite prospect folks around the Fire (and U.S. Soccer) have billed him as whenever asked. And the underlying numbers thus far agree.

Disappointment

Can I still be disappointed that they traded Djordje and never bothered to sign Gutman? Or that they have repeatedly let good-to-elite domestic players like Matt Polster, Dax McCarty and CJ Sapong walk over the past half-decade? It’s unconscionable.

If we’re not going to accept that as this season’s disappointment – and let’s not, since those are more wide-ranging, ongoing disappointments – let’s point a finger at the DPs. Gaston Gimenez is a d-mid who needs another d-mid next to him to do the dirty work he can’t (or won’t), while young Ignacio Aliseda has all of 5g/3a in 2700 minutes across two years. He’s actually played less in 2021 than he did in 2020, and his contract was not structured in a way to knock him down off a DP slot and onto U22 Initiative status (like, say, Dru Yearwood’s was with the Red Bulls).

Gimenez and Aliseda have both been busts.

Meanwhile, poor Robert Beric, who did yeoman’s work with his hold-up play in 2020 and finished among the league’s leading goalscorers, has gone ice cold in front of goal. I have, at times, felt genuine anguish for that man.

Anyway, it’s hard to be anything other than very poor when none of your DPs deliver even average productivity.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Slonina (GK): There will be rough patches. Whoever’s coaching the Fire next year has to have patience enough to let the kid play through them.
  • Pineda (CB): He has learned the position on the fly despite the veterans underachieving around him and in spite of the upheaval brought by two years of a pandemic. I don’t think he’s a future Best XI guy, but he certainly has the makings of a long-term starter.
  • Federico Navarro (DM): The sample size is small, as Navarro only arrived in September, and has played fewer minutes than Slonina. But I like what I’ve seen from the 21-year-old Argentine, who was brought over via the U22 Initiative.
  • Carlos Teran (CB): He is raw – his reads are slow and his angles need a lot of work. But Teran checks a lot of boxes physically and, seemingly, as a competitor, plus his passing is better than most realize. A good coach should relish the chance to work with a young defender with these baseline traits.
  • Boris Sekulic (RB): Quietly the best player on the team this year, maybe? Sekulic is just a very good two-way fullback who’s in his prime. No reason for the Fire not to keep him.

Offseason Priority:

There are lots, but as with many of the other teams down around this part of the table, job No. 1 is to make sure they find the right long-term successor to Wicky. If this comes hand-in-hand with Heitz (who, it seems, is going to get a third year) being more clear-eyed about the value of domestic players as well, that’d be pretty great.

But if they continue to be 0-for-3 on DPs that really won’t matter all that much. Will Beric and Gimenez be back? I don’t know for sure – Beric seems gone, and I wouldn’t count on Gimenez, but can’t rule it out. Will Aliseda be bought down? Can he even be bought down? Again, that’s not clear, though it seems like the answer is no. And that doesn’t even touch on the status of Alvaro Medran, the Spanish playmaker who has actually been quite good, but probably not DP level, and seems to want to come back only on a DP contract.

Things are tough, man. I’m not sure I see a clear path up the standings right away.