I’m finding it really hard to care about the Chicago Fire football club right now.
Following the end of the 2023 season, I knew I needed a break from covering the team. There was some work left to do, like writing about the team’s decision to keep sporting director Georg Heitz and head coach Frank Klopas. After that, though, it was time to disappear for a month.
I thought once the calendar turned to 2024, I’d be ready to fly out the blocks and get back to writing and writing and writing about Chicago. There weren’t any plans in particular, but I assumed I’d just go off of what the franchise was doing.
It’s been two weeks, and I’ve written one article. Even that was a simple “New Year’s resolutions” piece that almost every sports writer does.
There’s just nothing there.
A quick recap
Let me go over what has happened since then, real quick. It’s not been a lot.
I already wrote about the Tom Barlow deal, which is still a weird one, but whatever.
The Fire made another trade in MLS around that time, sending away Miguel Navarro and $450k of allocation money to the Colorado Rapids in exchange for former academy talent Andrew Gutman. This move makes a lot more sense.
Chicago is bringing in someone who is proven in this league, both at tracking back and going forward. He can be a left back or a left wing back, and he’s a local kid as well. It’s not a gamechanging acquisition, but it’s still pretty good.
Then came the Superdraft, which has become a relatively unremarkable event. It seems like the Fire did well, as goalkeeper Bryan Dowd is a solid addition no matter how he’ll be used, and Olu Oyengule is an exciting player to keep an eye on. There’s also Jason Shokalook, who has a phenomenal name.
Nothing happened for a while after that. Fans were left waiting for news, but like waiting for a bus they ended up getting two new signings in a row.
First was Tobias Salquist, a centerback from the Danish league. I’m not going to pretend like I’ve ever heard of him, and not many in the fanbase have either, but that doesn’t make him a bad signing. A lanky defender, he uses his extended frame to slide into challenges and win aerial duels. He should be a solid, reliable option for the backline. (He also just sounds like a centerback, if that makes sense.)
Then was Allan Arigoni, who will play right next to him at the right back position. This is another deal with sister-club FC Lugano, who have loaned him over for the 2024 season, with an option to buy at the end of it.
He shines physically, as he’s fast and strong, and has a pretty big frame as a right back, which allows him to cover centrally if need be. Arigoni is more likely to be a starter on opening day, and his European experience should make him someone the team can trust on a weekly basis.
In terms of the rumor mill, there’s not much concrete information on the search for a new striker, while Chicago are in the fight for free agent and U.S. international Kellyn Acosta. They were even reported to be frontrunners, but that case is still wide open.
So there’s that.
Rinse and repeat
Now, those are a series of sensible moves, and a number of those players could make a real impact this year.
Nothing there is too exciting, though. There’s no massive name coming in, and other than Acosta there’s not any solid links either. The Fire are failing to shake up the soccer world, as they once infamously said.
The rest of the league isn’t doing much more, but most of them don’t need to. Chicago’s under real pressure to turn things around, and supporters are desperate to have something to sink their teeth into.
Well, Chicago should be under real pressure at least.
This is where I think my disconnect is at the moment.
It feels like the Fire has been “under pressure” for years and years now. They underperform during the season, the fanbase grows tired of watching their team lose, and there’s a demand to change things in the offseason.
That offseason then comes and goes with some moves of various importance, but there’s a promise of more to come in the summer window. Nothing happens, and the team underperforms again.
Everyone then does this whole song and dance again and again and again.
This whole situation reached a climax when Chicago re-signed both Heitz and Klopas despite it being clear that neither was the best man for the job, especially the former. The team had the perfect chance to finally make wholesale changes, and they simply refused to, taking the easy way out.
Fire fans were disappointed, but there wasn’t much outcry in the weeks after. Supporters have become so accustomed to being let down by the team that they’ve learned how to accept it and move on. It didn’t take long for the feeling of optimism to rise once again ahead of a new year, even though there shouldn't be much reason to be hopeful.
The fanbase is loyal to a fault. They’ve been tossed aside time and time again, but they always hold out hope that things will be different next time. They’ll do whatever it takes to support the team in the hopes that it’ll have any sort of impact. The fact that anyone’s still around following the rebrand disaster of 2020 says it all.
This offseason has been more of the same, and no one should be surprised. Maybe the big-name DP striker that everyone’s been dreaming about finally arrives, but if history is indication, then fans will have to keep dreaming.
At this point, it’s become clear that Chicago is happy with being a regular MLS team at best.
They know they can get away with being a bad team. There’s no real risk in this league thanks to the refusal to adopt promotion-relegation. What happens if the decision to keep Klopas and Heitz goes horrifically wrong? Literally nothing. The team will be back next year. There’s no real stakes.
Another factor is the parity of MLS. Sure, it’s a great thing for neutrals that any team can beat anyone else on any given matchday. The issue with that is that there’s no real incentive to take chances unless you want to be a bonafide contender.
The Fire can beat a random team like Charlotte FC or Real Salt Lake on a Wednesday night in June whether they have Georgios Koutsias or Robert Lewandowski up top. The difference between the middle of the pack in MLS isn’t much. In the Eastern Conference only three points separated 8th and 13th place at the end of the campaign.
Why even take any risks then if you can get away with doing the bare minimum and still find some success? Chicago nearly made the postseason in 2023 despite being pretty bad, so a minor improvement would be enough to play in the playoffs.
The fact that supporters dream of making the playoffs is another thing altogether, but it’ll take years to raise those expectations. Ignore the fact that the team plays in the 3rd biggest market in the country, in a city that’s incredibly passionate about the sport and would kill to have a winning team to follow.
(Also, Inter Miami is going to easily win everything if they stay healthy anyway.)
So yeah, that’s how life is feeling right now.
Time is marching at an unrelenting rate, as the Fire have already started their preseason preparations. The regular season doesn’t begin for another month and a half, but the next thing we all know we’ll wake up and it’ll be opening day.
Will Chicago have their DP striker by then? Will they have any new signings that’ll grab the attention of the rest of the league? Will it pretty much be the same exact team?
Who knows? Does it even matter anyway?
The Fire will play a full season. They will win some games, they will lose some games, and most fun of all, they’ll tie some games. Maybe they’ll make the playoffs, maybe they won’t. I might write about it, I might sit at home and play video games all day.
Either way, there’s nothing we can do about it except sit back and watch.