Alright, I’m not going to hit you with the same cliche New Year’s opening paragraph that every other article is doing at this time. You know the deal by now.
It’s a new year, it’s a new dawn, and it’s the perfect time to set goals and aspirations for the 12 months ahead. That’s especially true for the Chicago Fire Football Club, who had a disappointing 2023.
They need to be better, and their fanbase knows it. Supporters have gotten sick of their team wasting their life away, which puts real pressure on the franchise as a result.
So, what would a successful year look like? Well, here are some new year’s resolutions for Chicago.
Home playoff game
This is the simplest goal, and it’s the most important one.
Everyone knows about the Fire’s struggles to make the postseason in recent memory, but it’s still important to highlight how bad things have been.
They’ve only made the playoffs twice since 2010, and both of those runs ended with a loss in the first round. That is two playoff games in 14 years.
That sort of record in any American sport is awful enough, but that’s especially insane in a league like MLS. There’s a ton of parity, and the gap between teams isn’t usually that large. FC Cincinnati went from a laughing stock to the Supporters' Shield winners.
Then there’s the fact that the MLS playoff format is usually so forgiving. This past season saw 9 out of 14 teams make it in some capacity. That’s 64% of teams for crying out loud. You have to be really bad to miss out.
Unfortunately for Chicago, they usually have been really bad.
That has to change. I know this, supporters know this, even the front office knows this. No matter what the Fire has planned for this year or the long-term, their main focus has to be on making the postseason again.
Just squeaking into the playoffs shouldn’t be enough either. There doesn't need to be any final day drama. If Chicago can avoid being awful, then that’ll likely be enough to secure some sort of home match.
Heaven knows the fans need to see one of those again.
So, how is the franchise going to return to that stage?
A DP striker that’s too good to fail
Yes, this one’s still here too.
The Fire hasn’t had a proper number #9 since Nemanja Nikolić departed at the end of 2019. They’ve tried a number of different names and types of forward, but none of them ever stuck. Think of Robert Berić, Kacper Przybyłko, or Kei Kamara.
Last offseason, former head coach Ezra Hendrickson famously said that Chicago was looking for “someone that's a 12-plus, maybe even 15-plus goalscorer” in the transfer window. They wanted someone who was a real superstar, comparable to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández.
That player never came. The front office reportedly took some swings, but they missed all of them.
There’s no reason why that should be the case again this year. In an ideal situation, the Fire finds someone before the start of the campaign, and gets them in early enough that they can have a full preseason. That could happen, and there are some big-time options available, but that’s unlikely.
Chicago’s search for a top target will probably kick into high gear in the summer, when the European season comes to a close and more names are available. They could go for an older icon of the game who will bring in media attention and plenty of fanfare, or they could get a younger forward who’ll light the league up on the field.
Just make sure you get someone who’s guaranteed to work out in some capacity.
Don't take a chance on someone and hope they're the right guy for the future. If there's any doubt or potential for failure, don't sign them.
The Fire has everything in place. They’ve got an owner with plenty of money. They’re in one of the biggest markets in the country. They’ve even got a solid supporting cast to surround the forward, including the popular Xherdan Shaqiri.
They can’t miss out on a DP striker. Not again.
(Literally just throw all the money you have at Robert Lewandowski.)
Figure out Mauricio Pineda
I really rate Mauricio Pineda.
He’s not the flashiest player, and he’s not the biggest name, but it feels like he’s always someone Chicago can rely upon. He’s been solid since he signed a homegrown deal back in 2020, no matter what role he’s put in.
The problem is the team hasn’t really given him a specific role, either on or off the field.
First off, they have to decide if he’s better as a center back or a defensive midfielder. He’s been used in both spots on numerous occasions, and yet there’s still arguments on where he’s best utilized. Even when his contract extension was announced he was labeled as a “defender/midfielder”. The American can always cover whatever position is needed in case of emergency, but figure out where you want him, and try to stick to it.
Then the Fire needs to figure out how important Pineda actually is. Is he a starter, is he one of the first names off the bench, or is he just someone who gets a few minutes every once in a while?
What usually happens is that he gets a chance to start, he plays well, he’s praised for his performance, and then he’s relegated to the bench again. It’s tough to watch from afar, especially when the players starting ahead of him don’t end up playing as well.
I’m down to give Pineda a proper crack at a starting job, but if you want to keep him as a backup off the bench, then make sure it’s clear that’s his role. Don’t tell the fanbase how great he is and then have him sat on the sidelines all night. If he feels like he deserves better, maybe see if someone else in the league can offer him a starting role, and figure out a trade to sort that out.
Just take care of him, please.
Fire II callups
One of the minor success stories of 2023 was Chicago’s reserve team, the Chicago Fire II.
They had a solid regular season, and they did enough to make the playoffs, even if that run didn’t go too well. What was more important was the development of the players, though.
Plenty of Fire homegrowns were able to find minutes on the field thanks to MLS Next Pro, like Missael Rodríguez, Sergio Oregel, and Justin Reynolds. They weren’t the only ones who made the most of the reserve league, though.
Harold Osorio and Omari Glasgow are two names who were bought by the front office and then immediately sent to the Fire II team. Both had breakout campaigns last year, and they’ve each gone on to become full internationals.
Now it’s time for some proper chances with the first team. Either for them, or the homegrowns, or even former collegiate players like Charlie Ostrem or Luka Prpa.
Chicago has done well to develop these talents in the reserve league, but they haven’t taken the next step and allowed these talents a chance to shine in MLS. Charlie Ostrem was “called up” multiple times but never actually got to see the field.
If the Fire end up struggling early on, why not give someone like Glasgow or Prpa a chance to make an impact? Let Ostrem hive rise up, for crying out loud.
Play in the U.S. Open Cup
You’re a professional soccer team in the United States. You have to play in the U.S. Open Cup. Simple as that.
I don’t care what MLS tries to do.
A short leash for Klopas (and Heitz)
Unfortunately Chicago may have already botched this offseason.
They made two remarkably poor decisions at the end of this past season, extending the contract of sporting director Georg Heitz and giving interim head coach Frank Klopas the permanent job.
Plenty has been said about both of those moves at this point, and the Fire has no other choice but to tread onward with those two.
That doesn’t mean they have to give them room for error.
If Klopas struggles to start the campaign, the franchise has to be ready to let him go before it’s too late. They’ve shown that they can make that sort of decision early on, as they fired their previous head coach Ezra Hendrickson at the start of May, with several months of the year left to go.
Klopas isn’t a young manager who’s trying to prove himself. He’s not someone who’s new to Chicago, who might need more time to acclimate to his team and his surroundings. He’s under real pressure to perform. Everyone knows who he is by now, and if he’s not good enough in the first few months, the front office has to make a change.
It should be a similar situation for Heitz. Obviously things are a bit different with him since he’s a sporting director, and those positions are almost never changed during a season. However, he’s still on the hot seat.
This winter offseason is a huge one for him. It seems like he’s already learned from his previous mistakes, and he’s now putting more of a focus on MLS-proven talent. However, there’s a non-zero chance that this transfer window goes as badly as his other ones.
If that’s what happens, why should he be allowed to be in charge of things in the summer when there’s only going to be more pressure on the Fire to land a big-time signing?
Chicago’s made a mistake by keeping those two around, but they shouldn’t compound that error by making another and giving them too much time.
Find Guti and Brady a European home
In a different world, the Fire would have their number 10 and their starting goalkeeper for the next decade plus.
Brian Gutiérrez and Chris Brady have already become key parts of the team, and neither has celebrated their 21st birthday yet. They’re incredible talents, and they’re only going to get better and better.
However, when you snap back to reality, you realize that neither should be in Chicago for much longer. There’s nothing the Fire has done wrong here, it’s just the circumstances they find themselves in. They’re in MLS. These players need to be playing at a higher level sooner or later, and those higher levels are in Europe.
Chicago knows this. They shipped off Gabriel Slonina and Jhon Durán when it was time for both of them to make the jump abroad. Next up will be Gutiérrez and Brady.
Fortunately for the franchise, they know they’ve got some time. Neither should make the move this window, and there’s no guarantee a summer transfer will happen either. The Fire could end up having both for this entire campaign depending on how things go.
Either way, the front office has to make sure Guti and Brady find a nice home somewhere in Europe before the year comes to a close. For the sake of the players.
(The city of Bremen is absolutely beautiful, by the way.)