2017 Record: 16-11-7, 3rd in Eastern Conference, Eliminated in Knockout Round
Coach: Veljko Paunovic
Key Additions: M-Aleksandar Katai (Alaves), M-Tony Tchani (Vancouver Whitecaps), D-Rafael Ramos (Orlando City SC)
Key Departures: M-David Accam (Philadelphia Union), G-Matt Lampson (Minnesota United FC), M-Arturo Alvarez (Houston Dynamo), M-Juninho (Tijuana)
Key Question: WHAT ARE WE DOING?!
Apologies to Taylor Twellman, but even general manager Nelson Rodriguez has admitted that the Fire’s roster is ‘incomplete’. In fact, there are a lot of key questions right now for the Fire:
Is Katai an adequate replacement for David Accam?
Is Schweinsteiger, McCarty, and Nikolic enough?
Are Jon Bakero, Grant Lilliard, Diego Campos, et al ready for prime time?
Is Nelson Rodriguez doing everything he can to add to this roster?
Are the Fire going to be on local TV? (Still no deal announced as of March 5th.)
What doesn’t help are injuries to players like Daniel Johnson and Richard Sanchez. Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic are still out until at least June due to ruptured ACLs.
Fans have every right to be anxious as there are a lot of question marks that still need to be asked of the Fire and it doesn’t appear that the Fire are in too much of a hurry. However, time’s-a-wastin’. Last week’s friendly against Tulsa did not really quell anxieties despite the win.
Area to keep an eye on: All of them!
Richard Sanchez did not play due to injury and Stefan Cleveland committed a howler against Tulsa to give the Roughnecks the opening goal. There is no third keeper at the moment.
On defense, who will pair with Johan Kappelhof in central defense? Right now, that appears to be Christian Dean. The wings seem to be okay with Brandon Vincent, Rafael Ramos, and Matt Polster-assuming he’s healthy.
In midfield, Tony Tchani will be alongside Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger. None of those men are pure #10s and Nikolic benefits greatly from having one. Michael de Leeuw did yeoman’s work in that position before his injury and Djordje Mihailovic showed promise in that position before he got hurt. Luis Solignac and Aleksandar Katai are the probable wings at this point.
What does Nemanja Nikolic do for an encore up front after scoring 24 goals en route to the Golden Boot last season? Hopefully, something as similar. Elliott Collier has been showing some promise in preseason, but how will the Loyola alum do when and if he comes onto the pitch?
Outcome: Fifth Place
Right now, there is not enough to challenge the likes of Toronto FC, Atlanta United, and NYCFC. Columbus may surprise to be up there as well. However, the Fire need to add depth at every position still. Nelson Rodriguez prefers to do things right rather than fast, but time’s a wastin’. The club built up a lot of goodwill after last season, but all of that can erode if the Fire go back anywhere near the two seasons before it and fans in the Chicagoland area will wish the new USL team coming in 2020 would come a bit sooner.