Having high hopes for the Chicago Fire this early into the season is a dangerous game, especially considering the dismal performances in recent years; the club has seen only one playoff berth in the last seven seasons, and became the first team in MLS history to finish last in the overall table two years in a row (2015 and 2016).
Still, after snagging three points in their below-freezing home opener, it’s easy to feel like the worst has finally passed.
The Fire slotted away two goals in a shutout over Real Salt Lake last Saturday, claiming the club’s first home opener win since 2011. Following their season opening tie at Columbus a week prior, Chicago is momentarily sitting at second place in the Eastern Conference. Although only two weeks in, this is the best the Fire have looked in a long time, and a glance back at the team’s recent unfortunate history makes it easy to see why fans are eager to get excited.
The seven-year slump
The drought that has plagued Chicago soccer seems to have its roots in the days following the club’s 2009 season. Up until then, the Fire were a team who had missed the playoffs only once since their team’s 1998 inception. However, after losing in the Conference Finals three years in a row (2007-2009), the team lost four of its biggest difference-makers: Justin Mapp, Gonzalo Segares, Chris Rolfe, and the iconic Cuauhtémoc Blanco.
It shouldn’t go unsaid that U.S. soccer hero Brian McBride would remain on the team for one more season, though truthfully there wasn’t much a star nearing the end of his career could do with what was left.
And so the seven-year slump began, complete with temporary coaches and top level players who found their way onto much better, and more internally organized, teams.
There was, of course, that brief glimmer of hope in 2013, when the Fire acquired the Galaxy’s “Mr. November” Mike Magee in a trade. The midfielder made an immediate impact during his debut season in Chicago, one that earned him the title of league MVP. However, a late-season injury the following year kept him off the field in 2015, and in 2016 he rejoined his old club in Los Angeles.
Pieces of the puzzle
Yet, despite the cycle of bad luck and dismal results, three recent additions are beginning to offer new life to a once dominant program.
One of those additions is Dax McCarty, fresh off of what he has self-described as a “blindsided” trade from his captaincy at New York. Although now ex-teammate Bradley Wright-Phillips has been quoted saying that the trade was “horrible news to hear,” the mood is quite different in Chicago. After training with the United States Men’s National Team in January, McCarty is carrying some high expectations, but the buzz around him in Bridgeview is real.
In McCarty’s first two games, ESPN’s “most underrated player” just a year ago has now visibly tightened the Fire’s midfield play since last season. His vision with the ball has already been just as valuable as his aggressive nature without it, as the turnover he forced near midfield in the 72’ at Columbus is what led to David Accam’s season-opening goal.
Speaking of Accam, the 26 year-old Ghanaian striker has already made his case as the attacking component worth shaping the club around. Joining the team in 2015 from Swedish club Helsingborg, Accam has notched 25 goals in 56 appearances – a statistic strikingly similar to that of Magee’s 22 goals in 50 appearances during his short stay in the Windy City.
The third piece of the puzzle, and arguably the spark behind the club’s revival – if indeed the program is in the midst of one – has been Head Coach Veljko Paunović. Taking the place of Frank Yallop (who will be forever remembered by his public apology to fans following the worst defeat in club history at the 2014 U.S. Open Cup), Paunović was officially appointed as coach in November 2015.
Unfortunately, his first year in Chicago was but another forgettable one for the Fire, and the team finished in last place for the second year in a row. However, as low attendance numbers at Toyota Park continued to remain stagnant, Paunović’s coaching style was anything but. Otherwise rare in the MLS, Paunović showed no hesitation in a halftime substitution, and played with a rotation of formations throughout the first leg of the season. “Adaptability,” was something he repeated over and over again to the media during post-game interviews, and by the end of the year the Fire looked almost like a totally different – albeit still not very good – team.
Perhaps this has been Paunović’s plan all along, though. Toward the conclusion of the 2016 season, the Fire continued to follow Paunović’s style of play, making continually ineffective efforts to play out of the back and engage in the possession game. There was an obvious hole between the back line and the attacking third, and the Fire ended up scoring most of its goals from spontaneous Accam counterattacks, but a new 2017 starting lineup that features five new faces – including Dax McCarty’s – is appearing to fill the void.
OK to smile yet?
After the first two games this season, the slow and grinding nature of last year under Paunović is beginning to seem like the patient first strokes of a much larger picture. To jump the gun now could end in heartbreak and more frustration, but nonetheless there is a new atmosphere of energy surrounding Chicago soccer. A much clearer and more definitive outlook, however, will emerge following the next four games.
This Saturday the club will make its way down to Bobby Dodd Stadium to battle the newly introduced Atlanta United, who are reeling after a snowy 6-1 win against a struggling Minnesota expansion team.
In this buzzing Atlanta environment, one gorged with excited new fans who have long-awaited a hometown MLS team to support, a draw would be good enough for Paunović and the Fire. The true test will be the statement the Men in Red can make at home in the weeks to follow, with three straight matches back at Toyota Park. The run will include hosting a very good Montreal team, and a rematch of the 1-1 season debut against the rival Crew.
A safe prediction for the Fire in these upcoming four matches – and one that would suggest that the team is on the right track – would be something along the lines 5 points total: 1 point at Atlanta and 4 points at home. Anything less wouldn’t necessarily be disappointing, just more of the same. Anything better, and maybe Fire fans can finally let their hopes up. Maybe.