Chicago Fire: The curious case of Nicolas Gaitan

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 20: Chicago Fire midfielder Nicolas Gaitan (20) celebrates with fans after game action during a game between the Chicago Fire and the Colorado Rapids on April 20, 2019 at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 20: Chicago Fire midfielder Nicolas Gaitan (20) celebrates with fans after game action during a game between the Chicago Fire and the Colorado Rapids on April 20, 2019 at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Nicolas Gaitan has provided intermittent moments of greatness this season, but did he produce them frequently enough for the Chicago Fire to make him a designated player this upcoming offseason?

When rumors linking Nicolas Gaitan with a move to the Chicago Fire initially surfaced, supporters were quick to dismiss them. The midfielder had experience at the highest level, playing for Benfica and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, while representing Argentina at the international level. He was wasting away in the Chinese Super League, but Gaitan was still only 30, with plenty of quality years ahead of him. Why would he move to Chicago?

Fire fans had earned the right to be pessimistic. The club had messed up countless big-money moves in the past, with the list of players they failed to sign growing every year — the likes of Juan Quintero, Jermaine Jones, and Didier Drogba had already turned down Chicago in the past. And so, sensibly, many expected Gaitan to do the same.

However, this time around, things would be different. The Chicago Fire landed their man, signing Gaitan to a one-year deal with a club option for a second. Twitter erupted with supporters celebrating the acquisition, with many thinking the Argentine would be the guy to really lead the Fire going forward.

But now, after almost a full season in Chicago, the jury is still out of Gaitan.

When he is on his game, he is simply unstoppable. He single handley won the Fire a handful of matches this season. Think of past games against the New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids, or even last weekend’s victory over FC Dallas. Gaitan controls the game, dictating possession and the pace of play. His ability to dribble and drive the ball forward breaks down defenses and he can make the final killer pass to finish off an attacking move.

His statistical return has not been too shabby either. Gaitan has provided 11 assists so far this season, which is tied for seventh-best in all of MLS. He’s grabbed a relatively low total of four goals, but only CJ Sapong and Nemanja Nikolic have scored more for the Fire. His impact is much more than the box score shows, of course, but the numbers on the surface still back up his sometimes stellar play.

That is especially impressive when you remember that this is only his first year with Chicago. MLS is a unique league. The matches are played at a higher pace, with athleticism espoused over technical quality, there is a lot more travel, and the schedule is different to most European leagues also. Many players fail to adjust properly in their debut season, needing time to get used the rigours of an MLS season. If Gaitan has been this good to start, imagine what he can do once he’s fully acclimated.

That said, Gaitan has never shown true consistency. And this is what currently sets him apart from the best in MLS. The likes of Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Josef Martinez are excellent on a weekly basis, carrying their teams up the standings. The same cannot be said for Gaitan.

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There were stretches over the course of this season where he went missing. In a four-game span during the summer, with the Chicago Fire chasing a playoff spot, Gaitan only registered one assist. Chicago suffered because of it, only picking up two points in that time as they sank lower and lower in the standings.

His lack of defensive work rate doesn’t do the Fire any favors either. When Gaitan was at Benfica and Atletico Madrid, he was allowed almost total freedom going forward since those teams were so strong at the back. That isn’t the case in Chicago. Everyone knows about their defensive frailties and plenty of opponents have looked to exploit them. Consequently, it is crucial that every single player works hard to support the backline, defending from the front and not just relying on the back five or six players.

It is not like Gaitan is lazy or is refusing to track back. The problem is that he does not have the speed or stamina anymore to get up and down the pitch. If he does drop deep to help the defense, he struggles to affect play further up the field. Since he’s best used as an attacking midfielder, Gaitan is needed closer to the forwards. That means only more pressure is put on the defense and holding midfield.

One of the biggest questions facing the Chicago Fire front office this upcoming offseason is what they will do with Gaitan. As things stand, Chicago has the option to extend his contract for another season. However, if they do that, Gaitan will receive a pay raise, making him a Designated Player in the process. That’s going to be a big call to make. There are only three DP slots available. Gaitan has the quality to justify occupying one of those spots, of course, but he will be 32 years old by the time next season starts.

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Ahead of a marque move to Soldier Field, many are expecting the Chicago Fire to make an elite level signing. Whether that player comes in to play alongside Gaitan or is the one to replace him, is all up to management. But this is a curious case of a talented player with an inconsistent record, and that makes decisions regarding his future all the more ambiguous.