The Twilight Zone: Chicago Fire 2021 Season Preview

The Chicago Fire returned to Soldier Field. (Photo by Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images).
The Chicago Fire returned to Soldier Field. (Photo by Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images). /

The preseason approaches for the Chicago Fire and with it come plenty of questions.

And, not many answers.

Despite it being a bit later than originally expected, it’s still coming at the start of next month, with players reporting for quarantine on March 1 and camps actually starting a week after that. So now is the perfect time to start actually discussing the coming season and what we should expect from it.

But first, there is the need to talk about last season.

Obviously, last season for the Chicago Fire came in three separate editions. There was the pre-lockdown regular season where the Fire blew a 1-0 lead in the second half in Seattle for a 2-1 loss in the opener and then struggled to get an equalizer in their second match against the Revolution, a 1-1 draw. Then came the MLSisBack Tournament.

The tournament started well, with a 2-1 revenge victory over Seattle, but it fell apart when the team lost 2-0 to San Jose. In the final game of the group stage, all the Fire needed to do was not lose by more than one goal to still have a chance at the knockout stage. They were playing against Vancouver, a team that was down to their third string goalkeeper and had been gutted of their best players who had chosen not to play in the tournament. In a game that included an extended weather break in the second half, the Fire somehow lost 2-0 despite dominating both in possession and shots.

Finally, the Fire returned to an empty Soldier Field for the rest of the regular season. Despite winning the long-awaited home opener 3-0 over Cincinnati, Chicago never seemed to pull anything together. The best they played was a 7 point stretch of games in late September where they demolished Houston and Atlanta by a combined score of 6-0. But due to ever changing rules from a league office dealing with running sports during a pandemic, the Fire went into the last couple weeks in pole position to sneak into the playoffs. This final stretch would net the club two draws and a final, disappointing 4-3 loss to NYCFC.

So what has the Chicago Fire changed from the 2020 season going into the 2021 season? Well, everything and nothing. This offseason, the biggest visible needs for the Fire appeared to be a true starting goalkeeper and attacking depth. Leadership problems aside, those would be the two positions I’d point out that the Fire needed desperate help in. And they filled one of those needs. Maybe. Chinonso Offor provides immediate relief at the striking depth need with future arrival Jhon Jader Duran set to be even better when he becomes available in 2022; but the club has lost a veteran presence in CJ Sapong’s release. The goalkeeper need has been left completely unaddressed, now with Kenneth Kronholm and Bobby Shuttleworth still trying to claim the spot, as well as homegrown Chris Brady having a standout 2020 in the USL with Forward Madison. Instead, the club brought in winger Stanislav Ivanov and fullback Jhon Espinoza as the other signings, with no other transfers appearing likely going into the preseason.

With that lack of extra change in the roster, there’s a lack of change in expectations for the next season. The Fire is just as enigmatic as ever. We understood nothing before the season, we understood nothing during the season, and I feel as though we know even less about them now. Last season the team needed to make a big splash to enter Soldier Field, make up for the years of failure, and make up for an incredibly unpopular rebrand. This year, on the other hand, the Fire aren’t legally allowed to fill Soldier Field, are proving a new willingness to spend money and commit to a sound signing philosophy, and are waiting to finish a fan-driven re-rebrand. So the same questions remain about the team’s ability to gel and develop, but the pressure seems to be taken off to prove anything in 2021.

The Chicago Fire have entered this “Twilight Zone” for the 2021 season. The team doesn’t fully feel complete, but at the same time it’s hard to blame them for not having a finished product yet, especially when most of the players are incredibly young. Meaning from this season will not be derived from wins and losses. Progress will be decided in how the team can play together. The way playing relationships develop, how the players themselves develop, and how the tactics develop in a way to suit the players. Last season appeared as a failure in this regard as it didn’t really feel like Chicago was playing with any sort of coherent “identity”, both tactically and emotionally due to the lack of fans or veterans instilling the persistent club culture.

2021 will not be about 2021. It might not even be about 2022. This season is so shrouded in a mix of confusion and quarantine-induced apathy that it’s hard to say where the Fire should even be at this point. At the very least, the 2021 season will be seen as a statement on how Georg Heitz and Raphael Wicky are planning on running the team for the foreseeable future. On April 17th we once again step into the unknown in hopes that something better will be on the other side.