Poor end should not overshadow much-improved season.
Before I begin this, to those who pointed out the low attendance on Wednesday night at Toyota Park, you try selling a match that until the final whistle last Sunday, might not even have happened had both Atlanta and Columbus won. Also, it was 49º outside. Plus, it was a Wednesday night which has always been a tough draw for teams founded before 2005. Finally, it was always going to take more than one match to erase the previous five seasons in the wilderness. Let’s see if Red Bull Arena will fill up on Monday night before we pass judgement.
We now join the Fire’s season-in-review now in progress. Yes, it hurt losing 4-0 on Wednesday night. It hurt losing Michael de Leeuw on September 30th in a knee-on-knee collision. It hurt that Bastian Schweinsteiger was only able to play 44 minutes in the last seven matches of the year. It hurt that David Accam and Juninho were not fully fit, either. It will hurt that Djordje Mihailovic ended the season with a ruptured ACL.
All of that hurt, but that should not completely overshadow what was an unbelievable year. It was a year where the Fire improved 24 points in the standings from last year. It was a year where the Fire were relevant for the first time in years. It was a year where it really seemed management was committed to put out a winner for the first time in years. Who wasn’t excited to see Schweinsteiger in a Fire shirt? Who wasn’t excited when Nemanja Nikolic was scoring goals by the boat load and ended up winning the Golden Boot? Who wasn’t excited about the progress of players like Mihailovic, Brandon Vincent, Drew Conner, and others.
This was really a fun season where the Fire made vast improvements almost across the board. That said, let’s hear from Mr. Schweinsteiger from after Wednesday’s match:
“You need to give the team a little bit of time. I think it was a great success, achievement what we did this season. I think we need to add maybe the one or the other piece. If you have ten steps, I think we took seven. Eight, nine, ten, that’s the hardest step. If you do this eight, nine, ten steps, then you can win titles. Toronto, for example, if you watch them the last three years, they did amazing example. You can do it your own way.”
It can be argued that the Fire were not as good as their record from the start thru the Gold Cup break (11-3-5) and not as bad as their record after that (5-9-2). So assuming the Fire have taken seven steps forward to being a championship contender, what are steps eight, nine, and ten? Here are some ideas:
STEP 8: Get a True #1: Whether it was Jorge Bava or Matt Lampson (the jury is out on Richard Sanchez), the Fire did not win many matches because of the goalkeeping. Neither are a true #1 keeper and the Fire would do well to get on in the offseason.
STEP 9: Keep Schweinsteiger: Of course, Schweinsteiger is one of two Fire players whom the club do not have control on whether to keep or dump (the other is Joao Meira). It would be a total shame if he were to depart after just not even a full season. Him (when healthy) and Dax McCarty were terrific to watch in midfield and brought to this club a winning mentality that just wasn’t there in recent years. The club did lose their way a bit after the Gold Cup, but both will be vital as the club now has that playoff experience (not that they should repeat Wednesday night). Besides, more instagrams of him and Anna Ivanovic, please!
STEP 10: Get a true central attacking midfielder: In Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, and Juninho; you have three great midfielders. You have three great holding midfielders. You had Michael de Leeuw help pick defenses apart, but that was gone after he went down injured. The Fire do need a true central attacking midfielder who can create chances for Nikolic and David Accam (assuming he stays as is the annual speculation) as well as create chances for himself. That’s something the Fire have not had since Cuauhtemoc Blanco was with the Men in Red.
If there was one thing the Fire did not do well this past season, it was add depth. They added Christian Dean, but he got hurt (again). The Fire almost got away with not having a true #1 and a true #10, but the injuries, lack of depth, and lack of playoff experience caught up with them. Now, there is another chance to add depth in the offseason and to take those eighth, ninth, and tenth steps toward being a championship contender. The Fire have a core they can build upon with leadership, scoring, and some promising younger players. Now, they have to add to that to change the questions before other teams find the answers come March.
After several steps backward the past five seasons, the Fire took seven steps forward in 2017. In the next few months, the Fire now have to build upon that to take those next three steps forward.