Chicago Fire: Making the case to finally add a captain in 2021

Chicago Fire. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago Fire. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Fire are in dire need of a new captain for 2021

The 2020 Chicago Fire season was supposed to be so much more than what it ended up being. After a complete overhaul, not just of staff and players, but of the team’s branding, people were expecting a lot more of… something. But not only did the club not succeed, but they also didn’t even fail in some spectacular fashion. In fact, the team wasn’t bad, they just felt lifeless. There was a sort of lack in the way the team not only performed but in the way the fans connected.

Every season, the Chicago Fire’s official independent supporters’ group, Section 8 Chicago, holds a poll to decide the Supporters’ Player of the Year. The award honors the player who has not only performed exceptionally on the pitch but has engaged the community off it. Usually, the supporters can find a player who ticks both boxes, but this is the first year in my own memory where the supporters seemed almost reluctant to give the award to anyone.

Whether it was the lack of community interaction due to the troubles of life in 2020 or the lack of performance on the pitch, it seemed like no single player stood out in both categories. This apprehension got me thinking of how these two things connected: The perceived listless play on the pitch and the perceived disconnect from the fan base. And I realized that while the issue is complex and nuanced, there is one thing that the Chicago Fire can do to fix both issues: Acquiring a true leader, a captain.

The Chicago Fire are a team whose history is filled with a massive amount of players who spent their entire careers on the club, eventually becoming captain at some point. CJ Brown and Logan Pause spent their entire professional careers with the Fire, while Chris Armas only spent two seasons with the LA Galaxy prior to being traded to Chicago for their inaugural season.

All three of them, as well as the team’s first captain Piotr Nowak, held and continue to hold a special connection with the fan base. Their tenure with the club should also be noted, with Nowak having the armband for 4 years, Armas with 4 years of his own, and Pause also spending 4 years with the armband. As for CJ, he may have only gotten the armband in his final season, but that was after 12 years of service to the club during which he earned two different Humanitarian of the Year awards from the US Soccer Federation.

So that makes a great jumping-off point to describe what a “True Captain” looks like. As I’ve been trying to describe these great legendary players for the Chicago Fire, you’ll notice a couple of things that keep coming up: The length of time spent on the club and the connection to the fan base. One is very quantifiable and the other is not. This is only a personal opinion, but based on the players considered to be the best leaders and the best captains in the history of the game I believe that a captain should: be a long-standing veteran, vocal both on and off the pitch, and have a certain connection to the city and/or the fans.

These qualifications seem pretty easy for a team that’s going into its 23rd season. In theory, there should be a veteran player who has spent their entire career with the team, developed a relationship with the city and fan-base, and hopefully has developed an ability to lead after learning from his own former captains on the team. But, the Fire have spent the past five or six years periodically purging the team.

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Currently, the Chicago Fire’s longest-serving player is Johan Kappehof with 4 seasons under his belt. But with recent trade rumors, the crown would fall to Elliot Collier, the former third-round pick in the 2018 SuperDraft with only 37 appearances and a single goal to his name.

And even before that, in the 2018 season, the longest-serving player was another draft pick signed only 3 years prior: Matt Polster. This lack of consistency on the roster leads to these sorts of problems with being unable to find the right guy to lead.

But even with that massive handicap, it’s still possible to find good leaders. Guys like Mike Magee and Dax McCarty were able to instantly walk into Chicago and become “The Guy” for the Chicago Fire.

Magee was born and raised in Chicago and Dax had experience in not only being captain for the New York Red Bulls but also with being vocal and connected with the fan base while he was still in New York.

Magee was never officially captain, only vice-captain with Jeff Larentowicz, and Dax split armband time with Bastian Schweinsteiger, but both were able to be that true leader for their teams. In terms of being vocal, their post-game interviews never held back or down-played the team’s performances and they would be the first player in the official’s face to defend their teammate.

It’s easy to point out examples of legendary captains in the rest of world soccer history, but MLS actually has a few great examples of players who were able to become these idyllic captains. There are the players whose names have become synonymous with their teams: Michael Bradley with Toronto FC, Chris Wondolowski with the San Jose Earthquakes, and Kyle Beckerman with Real Salt Lake.

Then there’s the long-time captains in new places with Dax McCarty in Nashville, Osvaldo Alonso in Minnesota United, and Luis Robles on Inter Miami. And finally, two players who have exemplified what it means to sign and develop a captain: Diego Valeri and Alejandro Bedoya.

Both players came to their teams after various strange things happening with the Chicago Fire. Bedoya was involved in what he himself described as a “shady” deal that saw his destination in MLS switch from Chicago to Philadelphia and Valeri was actually on trial with the Fire before they chose let him go to Portland.

With his hometown only 100 miles away (a short distance in MLS), Bedoya developed into the team’s all-important veteran presence to mentor Philly’s fantastic young crop of academy players and became a matter of pride for much of the club’s fan-base as a result of his outspoken positions on social justice.

As for Valeri, he is almost unrecognizable from who he was back in 2013 when he first signed for the Timbers. Not only does he look the part of a native Portland-er, but he has been outspoken with his love for the club and the city that has taken him in.

I’ve spoken a lot about how the Chicago Fire lacks a captain, but obviously, there is someone out on the pitch with the armband for the club currently. That man is Francisco Calvo. And on paper, it’s not a bad move. Calvo was the captain in Minnesota at the time he was traded to Chicago in the middle of the 2019 season and is in the classic leadership position of center back.

But, something just hasn’t felt “captain-y” about him. Maybe it’s the lack of post-game interviews and interaction with fans that makes him feel like a captain out of obligation rather than a captain chosen to lead. But this disconnect has an effect on the club both on and off the pitch.

More than in any other sport, the captain in soccer is the most sacred position on the squad. They don’t need to lead with stellar play, but they absolutely need to instill an identity into the team around them. That’s what makes veterans and players with deep connections to the club so important.

To be taught that team identity and pass it on is an important task. And when a team lacks that identity, they go out on the pitch handicapped. That identity is that mystery variable when a team becomes more than the sum of its parts and the lack of that identity is what makes a team less than what they should be.

So the problem’s been identified and explained. How can it be fixed? Well, that’s the part that gets complicated because of how difficult it is to define “leadership” and what a “True Captain” is. As for developing a young player to become a captain, there can be an attempt made. In the recent past, Harry Shipp actually looked to be set to be the newest captain of the Chicago Fire until he was traded away in 2016.

Shipp was a local homegrown player who learned under Mike Magee and was already becoming the team’s biggest voice to the media even as he was being traded. Then there was first-round draft pick Matt Polster, but he never quite held the same control and was also let go too soon.

There are currently homegrown players on the team like Mauricio Pineda and Andrew Reynolds that have gotten a lot of attention from fans, but they have a long way to go before they could be considered for the position. The only homegrown player for the Fire who seems to tick all the right boxes to be captain is Drew Conner, but he was also let go a long time ago.

Then what can the Chicago Fire do? Well, they can try to sign a captain. This is much riskier and could set them back in many ways. This previously has worked out for them, with their original Designated Player signing of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Larentowicz’s tenure in the Yallop era, and the aforementioned Dax McCarty/Bastian Schweinsteiger pairing.

But most of those signings were done for actual tactical and positional needs, not specifically for leadership. That’s why this signing needs to be done carefully, with consideration for the team’s needs on the pitch. As for suggestions, there are a few players who could possibly work out.

First of all, there’s the fairly safe option of current Sporting Kansas City captain: Matt Besler. Besler recently announced that he was going into the free-agent market and he clearly fills the Chicago Fire’s need for an experienced MLS veteran presence on the back-line. He would be free to go wherever and while his home is KC, Chicago can give him a new home.

On the international market, there’s Mesut Ozil, who has been surrounded by rumors of movement for a while now. While not to an exact degree, Ozil’s situation at Arsenal mirrors that of Schweinsteiger’s situation at Manchester United when he was preparing to sign for the Chicago Fire. Having been left on the bench for almost two seasons now, it doesn’t seem like he’s really doing anything anymore. While he doesn’t seem to have ever been given the armband, Ozil has shown an ability to connect to fans, with his recent offer to save Gunnersaurus as an example. The Fire have been in need of a quality 10 to run the offense for a long time and Ozil would absolutely be able to do just that.

My final suggestion is a bit weird but run with me on this: Maya Yoshida. Yoshida is a Japanese center back who’s best known for playing with Southampton for 8 years. Once again, the Chicago Fire need a veteran center back to bring experience and confidence to the back-line. Not only that, but Yoshida brings some much-needed size to the defense. Yoshida has been captain of the Japanese national team since 2017 and even got the armband while with Southampton a few times. He has since moved on to Sampdoria earlier this year, but his contract runs out this coming summer making him an interesting possible target.

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All in all, the main point here is that the Chicago Fire are lacking a true leader. And while Calvo is the current leader, there just doesn’t seem to be enough about him to be the captain that this team needs. However, there should be some hope that with criticism, there might be a change. It’s always possible that he or any other current Fire player can step up and be “The Guy”. Until then, it will be tough for fans to see themselves in a team that has already changed so much.