Why are the Chicago Fire trading for Tom Barlow?

This is a trade, that's for sure.
Charlotte FC v NY Red Bulls - Playoffs
Charlotte FC v NY Red Bulls - Playoffs / Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/GettyImages


When MLS insider and journalist Tom Borget broke the news that the Chicago Fire were trading for New York Red Bulls forward Tom Barlow on X/Twitter, there was a pretty sizable reaction from Chicago’s fanbase.

Some of it was positive, some of it was negative, and most of it was somewhere in-between.

The best and most fitting response came from a man called “Nice boy” aka @agoodniceboy. He quote-reposted the news with a simple, “Sure.”

That sums it all up really. Of all the roster moves made by the Fire in their history, this is certainly one of them.

Fast facts

Let’s get the facts out the way.

Tom Barlow is a name a decent amount of MLS fans will know. The 28-year-old has been in the New York Red Bulls system since the start of 2018 when he was drafted in the 2nd round of the MLS SuperDraft.

He started out with the Red Bulls II team, who played in the USL Championship at that time. After a promising first season, he exploded in his second campaign, scoring 11 goals in 15 appearances. That led to a contract with the first team.

Barlow has failed to hit those same heights since then. He’s never scored more than four goals in an MLS regular season, and he only had three this past campaign. However, he did add two to his yearly tally in the playoffs.

The forward’s impact goes beyond the box score, to be fair. A presence in the final third, he stands at a relatively impressive 6’2”, which helps him battle for the ball in the air. He’s a willing fighter as well, running tirelessly around the pitch to press opposing defenders and lunge into challenges.

Like former Liverpool number 9 Roberto Firmino, Barlow is more of a defensive forward than a pure goalscoring frontman. His best attribute is his pressing and his physical attributes, like his height and speed. He’ll run and run and run some more for the team, but he’s not someone you’ll park in the opposing penalty area.

According to Bogert’s report, Chicago will be sending New York an initial $250k in General Allocation Money, and they’ll potentially send up to $150k of GAM in add-ons. In all honesty I don’t even know the value of Major League Soccer’s funny money anymore. The Fire got Dax McCarty for $400k back in 2017, and that was a hell of a deal.

Alright, so that’s the context.

Now to the bigger picture.

Nice, but not necessary

Why is this trade happening?

That’s not supposed to be a major criticism of Barlow himself. He’s a fine player, and although his goalscoring record leaves a lot to be desired, he is a useful asset to have around.

He’s just not someone Chicago really needs right now.

As mentioned prior, Barlow is a striker. He could float out wide or play a bit deeper if need be, but he’s coming in to play up top. The Fire only have two other first-team center forwards on the roster, and one of them is Kacper Przybyłko, who fans want to leave and who probably wants to leave himself.

That should make the Red Bulls player a smart acquisition. It’s more complicated than that, though.

Chicago needs a true superstar number 9. A big name player, somehow who’s a real gamechanger. As useful as Barlow can be, he’s simply not that guy. His stats show that.

So, that would make the American the backup to whoever that eventual star signing is. That’s more of his sort of role, as his aforementioned pressing ability and speed on the counter would make him a really solid super sub, and he’s still good enough to start on occasion if need be.

The problem is the Fire already has someone for that role. Introducing Georgios Koutsias. He’s someone who’s incredibly quick, full of energy, and loves to fly at the opposing defense, either on the ball or off of it. The 19-year-old is an impressive prospect, and although he still needs to develop a bit, he’s a very good backup.

Koutsias was second-in-command for most of 2023, and he even started for extended periods. He had some really promising moments during that time, and there was hope that he'd only get better with more chances in the lineup the following year.

You can’t have two backups. You could try to balance the minutes between the two, but then no one wins. So, are you going to make the guy you just traded for the 3rd choice option, or are you going to do that to your exciting European youngster who’s already shown his potential?

There’s an option to push one of them out wide, but that’s not an ideal solution either. Throw them out there in case of emergency, and that’s it. Barlow is more of an aerial presence, but he’s not really the sort of target man you throw up top when you're desperate for a goal, like Alan Gordon used to be.

Chicago also has a lot of other things they need to worry about at the moment.

They still have to actually hire a head coach. As mentioned earlier they need a star striker. They really need help at fullback, and there’s a lot of questions in terms of the center of midfield.

In their defense, bringing in Barlow is a much easier acquisition. It is still weird that he’s the first move of an incredibly important offseason, though. They prioritized him, but they probably could’ve gotten him, or someone else like him, later in the window. Kei Kamara only joined weeks before this past season.

It’s still a move that will cost the Fire up to $400k worth of GAM. That’s not an obscene amount, but it’s an amount that could’ve gone to a position that needs more help instead.

At the end of the day, trading for Barlow isn’t a bad move or anything. He’s a reliable option to have, he won’t cost too much, and he shouldn’t have any truly awful performances.

Maybe he’s the first step in Chicago’s grand plan. Maybe he’s someone the new coach really wants to have around. It’s still early in the offseason, so many things could change before the 2024 campaign kicks off.

However, at the moment, it’s an uninspired move, and it’s a move that doesn’t quite make sense considering the rest of the roster.

All things considered, the fairest reaction from a Fire fan would be to look at this move, shrug your shoulders, and see where we go from here.

In other words: