Chicago Fire: Breaking down a disaster of a season in 2020

Chicago Fire. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago Fire. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports /

Here’s a breakdown of what went wrong with the Chicago Fire in 2020

In a year where sports probably shouldn’t have been played at all, Major League Soccer somehow has found a way to not only finish the regular season but is now in the playoffs. One team that didn’t make it however, was the Chicago Fire who missed out on the post-season by 0.04 points per game (I’ll explain later). But for 2020, what was the preseason outlook for the club?

The Chicago Fire got busy in the off-season incredibly quickly, but not really in the way normal teams do. On September 13th, before the 2019 season ended, Andrew Hauptman sold the club to Joe Mansueto, a move that was met with mass celebration from fans. A month later, the official move to Soldier Field was announced, another move that was met with general praise from support. The start of November was a mixed bag, with Dax McCarty being traded and coach Veljko Paunovic being fired, but things were pretty much as expected. Then on November 21st, the rebrand was announced.

The Chicago Fire rebrand was met with not only outrage from fans of the club but confusion and ridicule from the rest of the league. All the good-will that had been re-developed over the past few months was instantly thrown out the window. But the change was made and there was still a new team to build. Fans would wait until late December for a new GM to be named, Georg Heitz, who’d appoint Raphael Wicky as the new head coach. The team scrambled through the 2020 preseason trying to finalize deals for essentially an entirely new starting lineup.

At that point, the Chicago Fire were a complete mystery to the league. The players they had signed appeared to be of high quality, but they would be coming into an entirely new situation and new league and most of them wouldn’t even make it onto the squad until a few weeks into the regular season. For fans, it was the same mix of optimism and pessimism as there had been for many seasons prior, but it felt like there could be more upside, especially with the team being such an unknown.

A season later, everyone was proven right that the 2020 Chicago Fire season would be surprising. After a shaky first few games, fans hoped to finally see the completed new roster at home in Soldier Field for the first time in a decade. This wasn’t meant to be as COVID-19 forced the entire world into a shut-down and fans have yet to set foot in the stadium. Instead, Chicago would play in the MLSisBack Tournament in the summer and return to empty stadiums to close out the season in the fall. And despite being given every advantage to make the playoffs, the Fire simply refused to comply and now see themselves as one of the only four teams in the East to miss the playoffs (out of 14 total teams).

Let’s look at some key things that the Chicago Fire lacked in the 2020 season:

Lack of Consistency

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The Chicago Fire are consistently the greatest enigma in all of MLS. How can a team be so good on paper for so long with nothing to show for it? For the past few years, the blame has been placed on Veljko Paunovic’s tactics. He’d change the way the team would line up and the way they’d play so often that it was hard to pin down exactly what he wanted to do. This season there was a bit of the opposite happening.

In the first few games of the season, it seemed like everyone was still trying to figure out what Raphael Wicky the Chicago Fire were trying to do. So when things didn’t work against Chicago, they didn’t work, and when things did work, opponents took note. And by the time the regular season started back up, it seemed like the Fire had settled into a certain style of play. A style of play that somehow garnered different results against different teams, despite having nothing change for the Fire themselves.

It seemed like the Chicago Fire really weren’t in charge of their own fate. When they played well, it mostly because their opponent wasn’t. When they weren’t playing well, it was because their opponent was. While there’s something to be said about consistency in tactics, what’s more, important is consistency in results. And if the “consistent tactics” aren’t getting “consistent results”, then you just aren’t consistent. Going into the future, the Fire needs to be able to win games because they can win them, not because the other team couldn’t.

Lack of Cohesion

One of the other things that seemed troubling this season was the seeming lack of cohesion for the Chicago Fire. Now, the Fire actually have a good excuse. Much of the team didn’t really get in the same place for an incredibly long time. Much of the signings were rushed going into the season and couldn’t make it to Chicago until a few games into the season and even then, that’s when COVID hit. The team had such little time to fully practice together that it’s not surprising that they spent most of the season unable to fully come together.

But that’s just an excuse. The thing that felt truly missing was a leader. It’s really hard to define a leader or even define their effect on a team, but a general idea is that a captain leads by example, is vocal both on the pitch and off, and stands out as the face of the team. Francisco Calvo just doesn’t seem like the guy. He’s shown to be a liability on the pitch and he doesn’t really stand out as “the leader” for the Chicago Fire. But at the same time, it doesn’t really seem like anyone on the Fire stands out that much.

While it’s an incredibly specific gripe, it’s something that is incredibly important to look at. Going into the off-season, a major target should be a proven leader who elevates the team. Dax McCarty was an incredible leader for the Chicago Fire for the past few seasons and the club has a strong history of good vocal leaders like Piotr Nowak, Chris Armas, and CJ Brown. If the Fire wants to start building a championship squad, a good leader is pivotal in that endeavor.

Lack of Luck

When you look back on a season, you try to look at it all as a whole. But when you are experiencing the season in real-time, you see each game separately. You live from moment to moment. And speaking about the season without coming to terms with both the big picture and the smaller picture would be doing a disservice to the fans who experienced the entire season as it happened. So the final big point I have to talk about is just how unlucky the Chicago Fire was this season.

The Chicago Fire didn’t play a single home game until August 25th, it seemed like more than half of their games saw a Chicago goal called back due to VAR, and despite being in the Top 3 in xG (38.9), they barely made it into the Top 10 in goals scored (with 33). And that difference between the two numbers is especially the sign of an unlucky team. The Fire didn’t just have a higher xGA than most teams this season (35.4), but they actually ended up almost giving up more goals (38) than their original xG.

The problem is that, once again, this is just an excuse. Teams that win don’t talk about VAR and xG. VAR is an excuse and xG is a metric that is used by those who hope to distract from a lack of actual scoring. While a difference between xG and actual goals scored can be seen as unfortunate, it can also very well be a sign that the team is unable to finish the ball. So it might be that the Chicago Fire are unlucky, but it could also very much be a visualization of how many opportunities the team wasted throughout the season.

Expectations for Next Season

So with all that being said about the last season, the only thing to really take from the Chicago Fire’s 2020 season is that it was a transition season. With a lot of changes to start the season, it was to be expected that there would be issues. Without the interruption of COVID, there might have even been some more summer transfer players. Instead, the team remains roughly the same as it was at the beginning of the season.

However, this off-season should prove to be much more fruitful. With the new Chicago Fire leadership fully installed and the rebrand reportedly being rolled back in some form, fans seem to be much more open to optimism. According to Georg Heitz’s end of the season press conference, Chicago have 7 players designated as internationals in the final stages of getting their US green cards, meaning that the Fire would have 7 international slots instantly open to them to use on new starters. They’ve already started working on the roster for next season, signing Chinonso Offor, a 20-year-old Nigerian striker previously playing in Latvia.

The main goal for Heitz seems to be growing a young team and consistently developing players. This is the sort of strategy that’s going to take a while to truly see much return on. But Heitz has proven to be the sort of GM that can do this, helping to maintain FC Basel’s reign over the Swiss League while discovering some incredible talents like Mo Salah and Ivan Rakitic.

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At worst, the Chicago Fire will simply move on from this vision after an extended period of mediocrity. At best, Chicago might just become the American Ajax. We all need optimism these days, so hold onto that thought going into 2021 and hope for the best.