From one point of view, the Fire improved by collecting 40 points for the first time since 2019.
From another point of view, the Fire got worse by finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference after finishing 12th in each of the previous two years.
From all points of view, they missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and never looked any sort of serious threat to challenge for a trophy. So it was sadly just another typical Chicago Fire season.
Head coach Ezra Hendrickson paid the price, losing his job a third of the way through. Picking up just two wins from the first 10 games will have that effect. Frank Klopas then took over for the rest of the year, and while things briefly got better in terms of the results – they went 6W-4L-3D over their next 13 – I don’t think they ever got better in terms of the process or, really, the potential this team had.
And so they ended the season even worse than how they started it, with two wins and two draws from 11 games as any hopes for a playoff berth faded into the autumn air.
A lot of the rest of this column will be about tactics and high points and bright young homegrown stars, but none of that should obscure the fact the problem for Hendrickson and Klopas, and for the coaches that came before them, and for the club overall, is that the roster is not good enough. And the roster is not good enough because the high-end talent has not been good enough.
The buck should stop with sporting director Georg Heitz who, in his four years, has flubbed signing after signing, from TAM guys (CB Rafael Czichos has not been the backline anchor he was billed as) to U22s (Federico Navarro is still much more potential than productivity) to – especially to – the DPs.
Xherdan Shaqiri had just 5g/5a in 28 games this year, and his FBRef radar is hilarious. Check out that “defending” quadrant:
Gaston Gimenez (originally signed as a DP but shuffled into a TAM spot this season) is the rare d-mid who needs another d-mid to do the defensive work for him. And Jairo Torres… the kid was signed two years ago to be an attacking winger or a No. 10. He has yet to register either a goal or a primary assist.
Two years! He might be the worst DP signing of all time.
Even below-average contributions from these guys would’ve led to a spot in the playoffs.
But it wasn’t that way. It was the other way. Again.
Formation & Tactics
Both Hendrickson and Klopas favored a 4-2-3-1 with a No. 10 (usually Shaqiri; sometimes homegrown Brian Gutiérrez) and an emphasis on the counterattack. Their field tilt (the share of final-third passes they hit) of 43.6% was 27th in the league, as was their share of possession at 45.9%.
Only Toronto and Dallas won the ball high less often. Only four teams completed a lower percentage of their passes from the defensive third (not great for a counterattacking side). Only two teams had a worse expected goals differential.
In the midst of all of the above, there were two moments of real hope. The first came in early summer when the Fire won five of six heading into the Leagues Cup break, which catapulted them above the line for what seemed like the first time since 2017.
The second came two-and-a-half months later. After going 0W-5L-2D in seven regular-season games following a tepid Leagues Cup showing, they went to Harrison and snuck out with a 1-0 win over the Red Bulls in late September. Four days later they hosted Inter Miami with both teams’ seasons on the line:
Messi didn’t show up, but a record crowd did, and so – amazingly – did Shaqiri and the Fire. They steamrolled the Herons right out of the playoff hunt with a 4-1 win that's probably Chicago’s high point of the past 15 years.
And now they had momentum heading into the final two must-win games!
Nothing sums up the Chicago Fire experience better than the fact they followed up that landmark win over Miami, one that gave the fans reason to cheer and reason to hope, with a limp 2-0 home loss to a not-very-good Charlotte team. On Decision Day, facing slim playoff qualification odds, they lost 1-0 at NYCFC.
It was… predictable.
Gutiérrez took a big step forward, putting up 2g/9a as he locked down a full-time starting job (mostly as a winger, sometimes as a 10). I think that was a reasonable expectation for this season.
It would not have been considered reasonable to expect 19-year-old Chris Brady to be even better than the teenager he replaced in goal. But he was.
This is no slight to Gaga Slonina, who earned his eight-figure move to Chelsea last winter, but Brady – by both the eye test and the underlying numbers – was better this season than Gaga was last at both shot-stopping and claiming, which (IMO) remain the two most important things a ‘keeper can do.
I would be shocked if the Fire didn’t net another massive transfer fee here.
The DPs. Shaqiri is what he is at this point in his career, obviously, but Torres… he was legit good for Atlas two years ago when they broke their decades-long title drought. You could chalk up 2022’s woeful performance to injuries and a prolonged adjustment, but he was just as bad in 2023.
Five Players to Build Around
- Brady (GK): Had the best season of any teenage goalkeeper in MLS history.
- Gutiérrez (AM/W): Grew into his body and grew into a larger role. Should be the centerpiece of next year’s team.
- Maren Haile-Selassie (W): The Swiss winger, in Chicago on loan with a purchase option, provided good two-way energy.
- Chris Mueller (W): Missed most of the season via injury, but should be back next year.
- Federico Navarro (DM): As I said above, he’s still more potential than productivity. But that potential remains.
All the reporting thus far indicates Heitz is going to get another chance to dig out from this mess, which is… well, no one can ever accuse owner Joe Mansueto of lacking patience.
Job No. 1 is finding a coach, and job No. 2 is embarking upon a near-total roster teardown and rebuild. All the DP slots, any of the U22s, all the various types of allocation cash… it’s all got to be on the table this winter.