The Chicago Fire are back.
Following a short break in play, Chicago returns to action on Wednesday night as they’ll take on the Portland Timbers. The break was a much-needed one for all involved, as the club, the players, and the fans just needed some time away from each other.
Now the focus shifts to the rest of the season. This break came at a wonderful time since it happened right in the middle of the campaign. It’s given the Fire a chance to look back at their 2023 so far, and look forward to what they have to do next.
It’s been a woeful season so far, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all over already. If Chicago can fix themselves up and reach certain targets, then this campaign might not be a complete failure.
Here are the expectations for the rest of the campaign. (Or, at least, what the expectations should be.)
Simply making the playoffs isn’t any sort of achievement anymore.
MLS changed up the format at the start of the season, and they made it so 9 teams out of 15 in each conference qualify for the postseason. That’s 60% of teams, well over the 50/50 mark. It’s a ridiculous amount, and it’s devalued what it means to actually make the playoffs.
So, the Fire’s goals should be a little higher. They have to secure a home playoff game.
That shouldn’t be that difficult, as it only requires finishing in the top-eight. If they end up in 8th, then they would get to host the Wild Card match. If they end up in 7th or higher, then they’ll be in the first round, which is a best-of-three series that guarantees a home game for both sides.
No one’s asking for a miracle. The fanbase simply wants another chance to watch a playoff game at their own stadium. They want an opportunity to somewhat erase the embarrassment that took place in 2017.
Just don’t be worse than seven other teams.
Give the Leagues Cup a chance
Oh hey there’s a trophy on the line here!
That was a little toxic, my bad.
During Chicago’s Open Cup run this year, the club and its supporters talked a lot about finally adding to the trophy cabinet. They haven’t won anything since they last claimed the cup back in 2006, to be fair. Since there’s little reason to believe this team will win either the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup, the Open Cup was the best chance for them to end their drought.
That narrative ended in bitter disappointment, but there is another chance for the Fire to secure some silverware. The Leagues Cup, a competition between MLS teams and Liga MX teams, kicks off at the end of July. Chicago is in a group with Minnesota United and Club Puebla, and they only need to not finish last in order to qualify for the knockout round.
At that point, anything can happen. Right?
In all seriousness, no one’s really expecting the Fire to go on and actually win the whole thing. They’ll eventually run into a better team, whether it’s an MLS outfit or one from Liga MX. However, Chicago has to try at least.
Back in 2019 when the format was very different, Chicago actually took place in the Leagues Cup. They didn’t care about the contest, though, naming a very weak lineup before losing at home to Mexican side Cruz Azul. While the fanbase wasn’t too upset about it, there was still a slight sense of disappointment that the club didn’t do more with the opportunity.
That shouldn’t be the case this time around. There won’t be any MLS games going on at this time, so the Fire can trot out their best lineup for the Leagues Cup. They can experience a little with the team, or give minutes to certain players, but the emphasis should be on winning.
Who knows, maybe the magic of the Open Cup will actually happen in the Leagues cup.
Get a DP striker
I think Chicago forgot about this one.
Going into this offseason, arguably the club’s main focus was on bringing in a big-name Designated Player to play up top. That became very clear when then-head coach Ezra Hendrickson publicly stated that they were going after a “15-plus goalscorer” in a press conference.
That press conference took place eight months ago, and that DP forward still hasn’t arrived.
Their current crop at striker isn’t awful or anything. Kei Kamara has shown that he’s still got it, while youngster Georgios Koutsias has promise and potential. Even Kacper Przybylko has grabbed a few goals this year. However, none of those guys are real gamechangers at the moment, and that’s what the Fire needs.
That’s why the club has to reignite their search for a star center forward. Every once in a while a name will pop up, but it doesn’t really feel like Chicago is doing everything they can to bring someone in. They need to treat this as a priority.
A new leading man could be what turns this team into a real threat in the Eastern Conference. There’s talent in other areas of the field, they just need someone who can reliably find the back of the net and make a difference in the final third.
Krzysztof Piatek is available, by the way.
Focus on Guti
I’ll keep this section short since I already wrote about the player in the past.
Long story short, the Fire should make Brian Gutiérrez’s development a priority. They’ve not treated him too well this season, and it’s starting to affect his growth. Everyone knows how good he can be, which was proven at the start of this campaign when he was utterly brilliant.
That means having Gutiérrez be one of the first names on the team sheet. That means building the team around him. That means playing him in the number #10 position.
Not only will it make him better, it’ll likely lead to better results for Chicago. Then, when the time comes, the club will be able to ship Guti off to Europe for a lovely bit of money.
Develop Aceves and Torres
Speaking of developing players, there are two players who the Fire need to get more out of.
The first is Young Designated Player Jairo Torres. Everyone knows his story by now. He came to the team with plenty of hype last year, but injuries prevented him from ever getting going. Then he got hurt on opening day of this year, and he’s been on the outside looking in ever since.
There’s been a lot of disappointment surrounding his signing, but that doesn’t mean that Chicago should give up on him. It’s important to remember how excited everyone was to get him. He was an important part of an impressive Atlas side, and he was still only 22-years-old.
The potential is certainly still there, and Torres has shown some glimpses of promise during his sporadic appearances. He’ll have a tough time cracking into the starting lineup, with Gastón Giménez and Federico Navarro holding down the midfield spots and Maren Haile-Selassie shining on the wing.
Then again, the DP doesn’t have to be a consistent starter. Every team needs depth, and considering the amount of games the Fire still have to play, he’ll have opportunities to shine. With his talent and versatility, he could become an excellent first option off the bench no matter the score, or a rotational piece when someone else is unavailable.
Imagine having a guy like Torres in the back pocket.
Then there’s Alonso Aceves. He’s a similar case, as he came from Mexico with lots of potential, but he’s still not fully adapted to life in Chicago. He’s also using up an important roster slot since he’s one of the club’s U22 Initiative signings.
However, he’s someone who the club really should get into the starting lineup.
Look, I know there’s a decent chunk of the fanbase that really likes Miguel Navarro. While he’s grown on me, and I rate him a bit more than I used to, his ceiling is clear to see. He’s a hair above average going forward, and he’s still prone to making silly mistakes at the back.
With Aceves, there’s a chance that he can offer the team more, specifically going forward. He’s been about the same defensively, but he could be a much bigger threat in the final third. His crosses are more precise and dangerous, and he’s better on the ball as well. There’s a reason why the club has even used him as a winger this season.
Even if Aceves is the exact same as Navarro, he’s two years younger, so there’s more room for improvement.
I’m not saying he has to take over the left back spot before the year is over, but the Fire absolutely has to give him a chance at least.
Get a coach
This will likely be the last thing Chicago does this campaign.
They’ve currently got an interim coach in Frank Klopas, and they’ve got him for the rest of this season. It was kind of strange when the club announced that he’d be in charge for the remainder of the campaign, but the move was done in order to give management as much time as possible to find a replacement.
The Fire’s dream targets wouldn’t be available for a while. First was Jesse Marsch, who was still in contention for the USMNT job until recent weeks. There’s Jim Curtin, who’s deal with the Philadelphia Union is set to expire soon. Then there’s the coaches who were out in Europe finishing the season with their respective teams.
It was a move that bought Chicago some time. However, we’re already in the middle of June now. The clock is ticking faster and faster.
We now know that the likes of Marsch and Curtin aren’t getting the USMNT job. Curtin still has work to do with the Union, but Marsch is a free agent. The European season is over by now as well, so that has opened up a host of new options for the Fire.
They don’t have to announce a hiring soon, but they need to have some sort of deal in place by the end of the MLS campaign. They cannot afford to go into the offseason without a coach, because that will just make planning everything else so much harder. There’s also the risk that they miss out on who they really want, and that they have to settle for a different name in the final stages. We know how well that’d work out.
Don’t ruin 2024 before it even starts.
Do something cool
Chicago has been so irrelevant for so long. The fanbase has been crying out for some sort of spark for years and years now. The club can’t do that by winning games, it seems, so they might as well have some fun with it.
The world is their oyster. Let CJ Brown and Zach Thorton coach for a little. Let Twitter decide the starting lineup. Play a random game in Naperville for old time sake. Wear red jerseys, but don’t tell anyone at Adidas ahead of time. Throw Rafael Czichos up top, or let Chris Brady play in midfield. Sign Ola Kamara. Let the Fire II team replace the first team for a week.
That’s only scratching the surface. I’m just one person, imagine what the Fire’s supporters could think of.
Just do something cool, man.