Chicago planned big, spent big, and dreamed big.
A GIF is worth a thousand words…
Another Fire season has come to its seemingly inevitable conclusion, as they’ve now missed the playoffs for a club-record fifth straight year and the 11th time in the past 13 seasons.
I can’t really knock them for the thought process behind their offseason spend, as both Xherdan Shaqiri and Jairo Torres had DP-caliber résumés, and Rafael Czichos seemed like the type of CB who’d thrive here, and Kacper Przybylko had scored double-digits in MLS in each of his full seasons in the league. Plus Ezra Hendrickson was the most experienced, high-level MLS assistant coach around – the exact kind of guy who seemed ready to make the jump to the big chair (a la Pat Noonan going from Philly to Cincy).
But the season ended where Fire seasons basically always end.
Formation and Tactics
Hendrickson comes from the Brian Schmetzer school of coaching, in which both the introductory and master’s-level courses are titled “play your best players in their best positions and don’t get too cute.”
For the Fire that meant a 4-2-3-1, mid-block defensive shape that, when going forward, was supposed to revolve around Shaqiri getting on the ball a ton and carving out space for both himself and his teammates.
“Put the ball on the foot of your best player as much as possible” is a tried-and-true tactic in this league – the Revs won the Shield with it last year, and the Sounders have obviously had incredible success during the Nico Lodeiro era.
It didn’t work in Chicago this season, though.
But the real answer is the start of the season, when they came out of the gates throwing zeros. Five shutouts, two wins, one loss and only two goals allowed through seven weeks. Obviously the record wasn’t incredible, and there were real (and, it turns out, entirely valid) concerns about the attack, but the supposition was that by simplifying the team shape and approach, Ezra had axed the club’s long history of defensive flammability (heh).
Gaga Slonina was even talking about breaking Tony Meola’s 22-year-old single-season shutout record. And hey, there’s another highlight! Slonina’s sale to Chelsea for up to $15 million makes him one of the most expensive teenage goalkeepers in the history of the sport. That’s a feather in the club’s cap, even if Meola’s record is still standing.
That five-game unbeaten stretch in mid-summer ended real quick once the schedule got tougher, and immediately turned into a five-game winless skid that all but ended their playoff hopes. They followed up their 3-2 win over Charlotte (that’s what that clip above is from) by getting smoked 4-1 by the Union, then 2-0 by NYCFC, then 2-0 by Montréal, then a pair of good-but-not-good-enough away draws.
And then the last nail in the coffin came this past weekend when they turned a 2-0 home lead against Charlotte into a 3-2 loss. None of that defensive solidity they showed back in March seems to exist anymore.
Jhon Duran’s got 6g/3a as an 18-year-old, and after spending most of the year as a deep reserve – I think it’s very fair to criticize Hendrickson for integrating him too slowly – he broke out in late summer and started looking every bit the high-level prospect he was billed as when the Fire signed him two winters ago.
There’s still work to do with developing his overall game, as there is for almost any young forward. But there can be no question who the top name on the No. 9 depth chart is heading into next year, and there should be no surprise if Duran is Chicago’s next eight-figure sale to a big European club.
Shaqiri wasn’t bad, per se, and despite a few effort-related lowlights, he actually did put in some ok work (he rates around the 50th percentile among attacking midfielders in most per-90 workload-related tracking data from Second Spectrum, though I don't think I saw him put in one single challenge all year. And, um, he was the league leader in distance walked per 90 among attacking midfielders, which seems like some low-hanging fruit if you're looking for ways 2023 could be better).
That said, Shaqiri wasn’t the Best XI-caliber No. 10 that guys who’ve made the “put the ball on the foot of your best player as often as possible” approach work have tended to be – the Lodeiros, Carles Gils and Emanuel Reynosos of the world. They all find the ball more and do more with it than Shaqiri did this year.
The other Fire DPs, however, were, in fact, pretty bad. Torres never got fully healthy, I don’t think, and never looked anywhere near fully comfortable, and Gaston Gimenez’s defensive contributions as a No. 8 were, uh, lacking. Fede Navarro, meanwhile, couldn’t develop enough to compensate for that.
These pieces actually do fit together on paper. It just turns out maybe these pieces aren’t actually good enough on grass.
Five Players to Build Around
- Shaqiri (AM): It’s not unreasonable to assume that he’ll be a little bit more influential in Year 2. It’d be especially good if he was more goal dangerous from open play. Occasionally sprint directly at goal, Xherdan!
- Duran (FW): Get him on the field for 2500 minutes, get him 15+ goals, and get those offers rolling in.
- Chris Mueller (LW): Didn’t put up big numbers but his relentlessness on both sides of the ball is irreplaceable.
- Czichos (CB): Not a Defender of the Year-caliber guy, but was solid enough in his first MLS season.
- Mauricio Pineda (DM/CB): He’s been a capable starter at either d-mid or CB over the past few years.
Notice that two of their DPs aren’t on that list of players to build around? Yeah, that’s a worry. I’ve still got hope for Torres, but I find it hard to imagine that Gimenez will be back for a fourth season.
They also have to figure out how to replace Slonina (which might be from within given how highly rated Chris Brady is), and what kind of ceiling Brian Gutierrez has, and same for both Fede and Miguel Navarro, and even Wyatt Omsberg (Chicago gave up less than a goal a game when he and Czichos started in central defense together).
What I’m saying is that they need to figure out how to be a team that gets their young players to fit together collectively and improve individually. There are too many question marks to imagine 2023 ending in any other fashion than how this season ended if they don’t address that.
The other obvious thing they have to address, which probably comes before everything listed above: Sporting director Georg Heitz is reportedly in the final year of his contract. So is Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey, who just so happens to be a Chicago native.
This could be the most consequential free-agency sweepstakes in league history.