After back to back last-place finishes, 2018 was an emphatic comeback season for the Chicago Fire. Boosted by several key additions, second-year head coach Veljko Paunovic led the Fire to third place in the Eastern Conference.
Although the Fire were swiftly bounced from the playoffs in a 4-0 knockout-round defeat to the New York Red Bulls, there were plenty of positives to be taken from 2017.
Newcomer Nemanja Nikolic scored 24 times to clinch the MLS Golden Boot, Dax McCarty provided a stabilizing veteran presence in the midfield and Bastian Schweinsteiger, when healthy, provided star power and added plenty of class on the ball.
The challenge for the Fire in 2018 will be to build on their momentum from last season and avoid taking a step backwards. With many of Chicago's Eastern Conference rivals strengthening considerably in the offseason, and injuries affecting the club's depth, keeping pace will be no easy feat for the Fire this season.
How did Chicago perform in 2017?
2017 finish: Third in the Eastern Conference (16-11-7), eliminated in the wild-card round by New York Red Bulls.
The Fire were Major League Soccer’s worst team in 2015 and 2016, but rebounded in a big way in 2017. The club’s newcomers led the way, but steady improvement from holdovers like outside backs Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were also key to the Fire’s turnaround.
Chicago's key offseason losses
David Accam had his best MLS season in 2017, notching career highs in both goals (14) and assists (eight). However, the Fire shipped Accam to Philadelphia last month, receiving $1.2 million in allocation money in return.
The Fire also traded starting goalkeeper Matt Lampson to Minnesota and regular midfield contributor Arturo Alvarez was moved to Houston. Defender Joao Meira, who started 27 games for the Fire in 2017, did not have his contract renewed. Juninho, who was a part-time starter in central midfield, had his loan from Club Tijuana expire but could still potentially return on a new deal.
Chicago's key offseason additions
This section is very much a work in progress, with few additions in the offseason thus far and the allocation money acquired from Accam still mostly unused.
Serbian international Aleksandar Katai was signed on loan from La Liga side Deportivo Alaves, and the club hopes the 27-year-old will help replace the sizable hole that Accam left in outside midfield.
The Fire did add a pair of potential contributors through the draft in forward Jon Bakero and midfielder Mo Adams, as well as homegrown defender Grant Lillard, who could step in and make an immediate contribution.
Full Chicago Fire roster entering 2018 season
Goalkeepers: Stefan Cleveland, Richard Sanchez
Defenders: Jonathan Campbell, Jorge Corrales, Christian Dean, Johan Kappelhof, Grant Lillard, Rafael Ramos, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster
Midfielders: Mo Adams, Drew Conner, Brandt Bronico, Daniel Johnson, Aleksandar Katai, Dax McCarty, Djordje Mihailovic, Bastian Schweinsteiger
Forwards: Jon Bakero, Michael de Leeuw, Nemanja Nikolic, Luis Solignac
Chicago's projected starting lineup
After losing regular starter Matt Lampson and backup Jorge Bava, the Fire appear set to give former FC Dallas youth product Richard Sanchez a shot as the team's starting goalkeeper. Sanchez has plenty to prove as he thus far has failed to live up to the promise he showed as a Mexico youth international.
Meira's departure means there will be a battle for the starting center-back spot next to Johan Kappelhof, with veterans Jonathan Campbell and Christian Dean, along with rookie homegrown Grant Lillard all in the mix.
In midfield, the Fire will be forced to scramble in the early season with both Djordje Mihailovic and Michael de Leeuw coming off ACL tears suffered at the end of the 2017 season. Daniel Johnson and Drew Conner, who were used sparingly last season, could each be forced into a bigger role early in 2018.
Chicago's national TV coverage
Chicago Fire vs. LA Galaxy - Saturday, April 14, at 3:30 p.m. ET on Univision Deportes
New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire - Saturday, April 21, at 2 p.m. ET on Univision Deportes
Chicago Fire vs. Houston Dynamo - Sunday, May 20, at 4 p.m. ET on UniMas
Chicago Fire vs. San Jose Earthquakes - Saturday, June 2, at 3 p.m. ET on Univision Deportes
Chicago Fire vs. Orlando City - Sunday, Sept. 16, at 5 p.m. ET on FS1
Chicago Fire vs. Los Angeles FC - Saturday, Sept. 29, at 3:30 p.m. ET on Univision Deportes
D.C. United vs. Chicago Fire - Sunday, Oct. 7, at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN