The Chicago Fire had one goal in mind when this season began. Their sole vision for 2016 was to set up a competitive team in future seasons. From the trading away of homegrown hero Harry Shipp before the season, to sending Kennedy Igboananike to D.C. United in the middle of the summer, the Fire were only thinking about the future while letting 2016 go by the wayside.
Chicago Fire 2016 Season Review
That isn’t to say the season was a waste. Yes, the Fire finished dead last in the league with all of 31 points, but there were a few reasons to think that this team will be competitive in the not too distant future.
What Went Right
On the pitch, nothing much went right for Chicago. As stated earlier, they finished dead last in MLS with seven wins and only 31 points. Only the Portland Timbers had fewer road wins and only Houston Dynamo were worse at home. This is the second straight last place finish and their fourth year in a row, and sixth time in the last seven seasons, of missing the playoffs. Life has been pretty miserable in the Windy City lately, but let’s at least try and find some upside.
The emergence of Michael de Leeuw was certainly a positive sign. He made 17 starts for the Fire after coming over in the summer from Dutch side FC Groningen. He scored seven goals in MLS over that timespan, including one in each of Chicago’s last three games. He’s 26, so not exactly a hot young prospect, but he still has plenty of life left in him to lift the Fire towards playoff contention.
There’s also 31 year old Arturo Alvarez, who was tied for fifth in MLS with nine assists. The trouble with him is his age. Yes, he helped a bad Fire team now, but he can’t possibly figure into too much of their future plans.
David Accam had another strong season. He led the team win nine goals.
The Fire also made the semi-finals of the U.S. Open Cup for the fourth year running. It’s almost a shame they haven’t been able to get into the final with a shot at a CONCACAF Champions League place.
They did have a couple of fun wins. Their 2-1 win over New England in their home finale effectively kept the Revolution out of the playoffs. They also took down playoff qualifiers Philadelphia Union 3-0 back in September and Montreal Impact by the same score in August.
What Went Wrong
Where do we start with this team. The defending was a nightmare for most of the season. The Fire conceded 58 goals on the year, second worst only to Orlando City. They also had the fewest goals scored in the Eastern Conference. Their 42 goals scored were one fewer than last season.
Last year’s seventh overall pick Matt Polster looked more or less average throughout most of the season. It certainly didn’t help that they struggled to find a good position for him. A naturally more defensive player, manager Veljko Paunovic would throw him into more attacking roles from time to time.
Their goalkeeping situation was never quite solid. Sean Johnson had the most appearances between the sticks, but Matt Lampson may have been slightly better. Neither one truly stood out as a spectacular keeper, though.
Their season was, more or less, doomed from the start. They were never expected to be any good this year and the thought of them coming out of nowhere like Philadelphia Union and Colorado Rapids did was never realistic. This season was about building for the future, and in that light, it was somewhat of a success. There’s still a ton of work for the front office to to, though.
With the problems on defense mounting, the main concern for Chicago should be securing some help in the back line. Alvarez could be a valuable trade chip as a means to pick up a draft pick and/or somebody a little younger for the midfield. He might be the most tradable player on the roster. A couple teams may be interested in a playmaker like him, and a move to a team with more attacking talent than just Accam and de Leeuw might benefit his career as well.
Chicago will look to build their team more through the MLS Super Draft and their own academy. The main goal is to stock the roster with young players with high ceilings. These two mechanisms are the best way to do just that. They should look to develop their current academy products like Collin Fernandez more as well. The 19-year-old midfielder made only two substitute appearances this season, where he played only about ten minutes total. He’s not ready for the big time yet, but he needs to be soon.
However, they can’t possibly rule out the addition of anther designated player. Accam was the only one on the roster last year. Another high priced talent, particularly in the midfield or back line, could make a big difference for a team that had trouble scoring and keeping goals out of their own net. They got some GAM and TAM from the Shipp and Igboananike trades that they could spend on somebody bigger.
Overall, Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez were brought in a year ago to reform the Chicago Fire back into the contending force they were when they made four of five Eastern Conference Finals from 2005-2009. They took a no holds barred approach to constructing a roster to his exact specifications. Expect another tumultuous offseason of roster turnover for this club as they look to do just that.