Chicago Fire: Don’t forget about the defense

Clearwater, FL - FEB 01: Fire Head Coach Raphael Wicky talks to his team during the pre-season match between the Chicago Fire and the Philadelphia Uniion on February 01, 2020 at Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Clearwater, FL - FEB 01: Fire Head Coach Raphael Wicky talks to his team during the pre-season match between the Chicago Fire and the Philadelphia Uniion on February 01, 2020 at Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Chicago Fire seem to be building a roster with potential going forward, but that could all be useless if they don’t get the backline right as well.

After a tumultuous start, the 2020 offseason has gone relatively well for the Chicago Fire, all things considered. The club absolutely butchered their attempted rebrand, but since then, it has been promising.

The front office underwent some much-needed changes as Georg Heitz was named the new sporting director, while Raphael Wicky became the new head coach, replacing Veljko Paunovic. They also got their first Designated Player of the new era, signing Robert Beric from Ligue 1 side AS Saint-Etienne.

The Chicago Fire have been linked with a countless number of names, the majority of them attacking players. Some rumors are more concrete than others, of course, but fans still aren’t quite sure who will be coming in before the season starts. There is reason to be excited, though, as a new influx of offensive talent is needed prior to the team’s move to Soldier Field.

However, all this good work could be for naught if the Chicago Fire do not improve defensively. They were not great in that area last season. Since then, they have lost their best defender. Few were happy to see legendary midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger playing center-back, but he was excellent in his new role. The German retired in the offseason and the Fire now need to find his replacement.

The club did benefit from some addition-by-subtraction when they released Marcelo from his contract. Fans had hope for him when he initially signed, but the Brazilian flopped hard and simply needed to go.

Chicago has made some smart moves to boost the defense, to their credit. It started with the signing of academy product Mauricio Pineda, who spent the last four years playing collegiate soccer at the University of North Carolina. He captained the team during his senior year and picked up a number of personal honors during his time there.

They followed that up with the acquisition of Miguel Angel Navarro. Coming in from Deportivo la Guaira, the Venezuelan full-back loves to fly forward whenever the chance comes, but he still has a lot to work on defensively. Thankfully, he is still only 20 years old, so there is plenty of time left.

That is not enough, however. Both players have bright futures ahead of them, but the Fire need someone to come in and fix things now. The expected starting center-back partnership of Johan Kappelhof and Francisco Calvo has plenty of potential. Kappelhof has become a stalwart for Chicago, and even though Calvo has his moments of madness, he is an elite-level player in MLS when at his best. There is depth with Pineda and fellow homegrown signing Nicholas Slonina, but another body will likely be needed since injuries will inevitably strike.

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There are more worries at the respective full-back positions. Jonathan Bornstein came in to play left-back at the end of last season and was able to get the job done on a consistent basis. He is already 35, however, and his age will catch up with him eventually. On the other side of the spectrum is his backup, Andre Reynolds II, who is only 18. He was impressive at times in his rookie year but can’t be expected to carry much of the workload already in his young career.

There are even more questions at right-back. Someone new definitely needs to come in. The aforementioned Navarro will likely play a part, but he’s still very unproven. If the Fire make him do too much too soon, it could ruin his confidence and stifle his development. There are some rumors that Brandt Bronico could fill in on the right side this season. That should only be a last resort, though, as he’s much better suited to playing in midfield. Investment, then, is necessary.

But even right-back is not the biggest issue. The biggest worry comes in goal. I’ve previously written about Kenneth Kronholm and why he shouldn’t be the starting keeper next season. However, it seems like that will be the case, which could cost Chicago down the line. He’s incredibly error-prone and, unless he magically improves over the offseason, will hurt the team much more than he helps.

The Chicago Fire have a new crop of backups to fight for the number one spot, but neither seems to be much better. Connor Sparrow was brought in first. He has only found success at the USL level. After him came Bobby Shuttleworth, who has got plenty of MLS experience but has never quite become a solid and reliable option to turn to. There is a reason why he was eventually dropped by both Minnesota United and the New England Revolution. Despite the doubts, though, that is the trio that Chicago seems to be rolling with, so fans will just have to hope at least one of them steps up to the plate.

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The Chicago Fire have less than a month until the regular season kicks off with an away game against the Seattle Sounders. The clock is certainly kicking. But there is still time to get things right. To do so, though, they cannot afford to forgot about the defense. If they do, their return to Soldier Field could be a disastrous one.