My final piece for Gapers Block was one taking a look at the positive moves made by the Chicago Fire.
The time for Chicago Fire fans to rejoice is once again nigh, as the 2015 Major League Soccer season is but days away from drawing to a close. The playoffs are all but done and dusted, and only this Sunday’s MLS Cup is in the offing. It is doubtless then that supporters of The Men In Red—like pagans gathering at Stonehenge in anticipation of the winter solstice—are feeling the frisson of excitement which signals the coming of their annual celebration of change and growth for the team: the annual roster shake-up and its attendant transfer frenzy.
Take heed, as these words do not come from a place of snark. The offseason player movements have become in many ways the most thrilling event of the year. There are many reasons for why this has become such an interesting and exciting time for the team and its fans, but it mostly boils down to the mystery of it all. Which players will find themselves suddenly on the outs? Who can Chicago manage to snag in the offseason? Might it actually be Mexican star Carlos Vela?
For starters, in a mid-major soccer league like MLS, player scouting and acquisition is something that must practiced extremely judiciously. Given the looming spectre of the salary cap enforcing a sense of league-wide parity, the players that are targeted are often those in the middle of the sport. Quality players on the verge of becoming great, playing in a similarly positioned league on the world stage. Rather than detract based on a lack of name recognition, these factors seem to imbue each player signing with a sense of wonder. There is no preset expectation of how any one player will perform.
It is almost an understatement to say that the team has just weathered its worst season. The Fire finished their campaign dead last in the league managing a dismal 30 points through 34 games, for an average of just 0.88 points per game.
If there is to be found a silver lining in such thick cloud cover, one needs to consider three main factors. The first is that the 2015 Chicago Fire team didn’t end up on this Paste Magazine list of the 10 worst MLS teams, though they certainly qualify. The second is that hitting rock bottom puts the Fire in the admirable position of having the number one draft pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, which will likely see them select Joshua Yaro, the Georgetown defender and best player of the incoming crop not named Jordan Morris. Third, and perhaps most important, was that it also spurred team brass to trigger a nuclear option-style reset of the culture and approach. The house cleaning that has occurred since September has been resolute and near total, seeing not just the departure of head coach Frank Yallop, but also that of several other key on-field staff including goalkeeping coach Aron Hyde whose work with Sean Johnson had led to the pair being brought into several U.S. national team training camps.
These whirlwind moves also saw the appointment of longtime MLS company man Nelson Rodriguez to the role of General Manager, a position which had been vacant in Bridgeview since the days of the legendary Peter Wilt.
As the days wound down toward Thanksgiving, several sources began reporting that Rodriguez and his staff would be announcing the new head coach of the Fire before the holiday itself. This came as sweet relief, as discussion and speculation over who would land the top spot had nearly reached a crescendo. Names that had been associated with the head coach position ranged from plausible options such as Jason Kreis and Mike Petke, to more blue sky fare like the Columbus Crew’s legendary Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Heck, at one time even less-than-stellar former Fire player Pavel Pardo was apparently in the mix.
Surely enough though, on the morning of November 24th the news began to trickle across Twitter that the Fire had subverted expectations by signing Veljko Paunović to lead the rebuilding on the field. Paunović may be new to coaching, but his has been an auspicious beginning to say the least. This summer Paunović was head coach of the Serbia U-20 national team at the U-20 World Cup, a run which saw them winning the tournament. He has his bona fides in place as a player as well, having spent the majority of his career in La Liga with various clubs including Atletico Madrid, before ending his playing days with the Philadelphia Union in 2011 giving him that all important quality of MLS experience, however fleeting.
In the past week now, news has come out that the team has exercised options on only four of its players, Kingsley Bryce, Matt Polster, Harry Shipp, and Patrick Doody. This leaves the team with around 14 currently-filled roster spots, including all three Designated Players with Gilberto, David Accam, and Kennedy Igboananike. The players whose options have been declined are not necessarily on their way out the door just yet, though time will tell. Also without contracts at this time are Ty Harden, Matt Watson, and most disconcertingly, Mike Magee.
The so-called “silly season” is upon us now, and fans can only hope that those who are now in charge of club stewardship are as focussed on creating a winning club as they claim to be. The coming roster moves will hopefully provide much excitement in the absence of domestic soccer to watch. If nothing else, it is bound to be more fun than watching the team in 2015.