Back in the winter, when the Chicago Fire were making new acquisitions left and right, and when "what might be..." is often divorced from "what will be...", one of the questions I was asked most frequently was "Will the Chicago Fire be good?"
My answer, then: I'm not sure if they'll be "good," but they'll definitely be "better."
Three months into the season, and two-and-a-half months into the Bastian Schweinsteiger era, and I am officially off the fence. The Chicago Fire aren't just "good," they're "very good." Schweinsteiger is at the heart of it (volume up for analysis):
Armchair Analyst: Chicago rope-a-doped Atlanta to death, with Schweinsteiger conducting pretty much everything pic.twitter.com/1EBZzjzliq— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) June 10, 2017
They consistently held the ball deep in order to drag the Atlanta United backline upfield, and created chance after chance after chance like that in a 2-0 win that probably should have been 4-0 or 5-0. It wasn't raw, counterattacking soccer, but rather a form of possession-based aikido that used Atlanta's aggression against them. Players like Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Dax McCarty in central midfield make it possible, and obviously the numbers produced by attackers Nemanja Nikolic, David Accam and Luis Solignac speak for themselves.
But the above is also possible because of the improvement, both on and off the ball, by fullbacks Matt Polster (deserving of his spot on the preliminary USMNT Gold Cup roster) and Brandon Vincent (also deserving of a spot, and I'm bummed he didn't get one). They provide balance and options, as well as relentless two-way play on the flanks.
If Chicago have a question that still needs answering, it's in central defense. Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira have been solid but not spectacular, and as he showed on Saturday, sophomore Jonathan Campbell has mostly shaken off the early-season yips that cost him a starting job. He's looked more comfortable coming off the bench and playing at the heart of a 5-4-1 to salt away results than as part of a central pair in a back four, which is just fine. There's nothing wrong with having a defensive specialist to call upon when needed.
Beyond those three, there's not much depth, which is something I suspect Nelson Rodriguez & Co. will address in the summer window.
Regardless, Chicago are now second in the East and in the Supporters' Shield standings, just a point behind their more celebrated Great Lakes neighbors, Toronto FC. Their record since Schweinsteiger's arrival (7-2-3, +11 goal differential) suggests that "very good" may soon morph into "title contenders."
So the winter signings worked. A decade of discontent in the Windy City should turn into a summer of real contention for the first time since 2008. The title drought may not end this year, but the long wait for respectability has finally come to an end.