It's safe to say the 2018 season did not go as planned for the Chicago Fire. After contending in 2017 thanks to the introduction of Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Fire took a considerable step back in 2018, losing much of the goodwill generated by an impressive run the season before.
It was a season where the Fire's weaknesses were exploited, over and over again. The team's lack of center backs forced Schweinsteiger into the role. A lack of wing depth was apparent all season. The team had no proven goalscorer besides Nemanja Nikolic. With the lack of depth, the Fire struggled to settle on a formation, and it showed.
All of these factors hit the Fire in the face at the exact same time, pushing them out of the playoff picture and back into mediocrity and, in Chicago, mediocrity isn't enough.
The 2019 group still has its weaknesses but there are also some considerable strengths. Can stars like Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Nikolic guide the Fire back to the postseason, or will it prove time for a rebuild in Chicago?
How did the Chicago Fire perform in 2018?
2018 finish: 10th in the Eastern Conference (8-18-8), missed playoffs
The Fire were a whopping 18 points out of the playoff picture when all was said and done, concluding a season that was a major drop-off from the one prior. In particular, the Fire struggled to play well at home, winning just six times in Bridgeview while sputtering to a finish in second-to-last in the conference
Fire’s key offseason losses
Heading into 2018, you would have bet on young fullbacks Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent to be building blocks for years to come, but neither will be with the team in 2019. Polster moved on to Scottish club Rangers while Vincent opted to retire at just 24 years old. Their departures are big losses for the Fire, depriving them of two players that certainly looked to be a part of the present and the future.
They're not the only ones, though. Jonathan Campbell is also gone, now with the Seattle Sounders, as is Christian Dean, another player that retired prematurely. In terms of veteran departures, Michael de Leeuw, Luis Solignac and Yura Movsisyan had their options declined while stoppage-time goal-scorer extraordinaire Alan Gordon announced his retirement as well.
Chicago Fire’s key offseason additions
The Fire knew that center back was an issue in 2018, and made sure to address that issue by bringing in Marcelo to lead the backline. The 29-year-old Brazilian comes from Sporting CP following a more successful stint with Portuguese side Rio Ave, making 198 appearances for the club.
The club also went outside MLS to sign Polish international Przemyslaw Frankowski, who is expected to slide right into a wide spot. Frankowski, 23, has earned four caps with Poland, but will need to step up actual production after providing 28 goals and 15 assists in 155 appearances with former club Jagiellonia Bialystok.
From within MLS, the Fire addressed their goalkeeping issue by adding MLS veteran David Ousted.
The Fire brought in U.S. national team forward C.J. Sapong from the Philadelphia Union to help bolster the forward corps while also bringing in Fabian Herbers and Amando Moreno for further depth.
Full Chicago Fire roster entering 2019 season
Goalkeepers: Stefan Cleveland, David Ousted, Richard Sanchez
Defenders: Jorge Corralles, Johan Kappelhof, Grant Lillard, Marcelo, Andre Reynolds II
Midfielders: Mo Adams, Brandt Bonico, Diego Campos, Raheem Edwards, Przemyslaw Frankowski, Jeremiah Gutjahr, Nicolas Hasler, Alexander Katai, Cristian Martinez, Dax McCarty, Djordje Mihailovic, Amando Moreno, Bastian Schweinsteiger
Forwards: Elliot Collier, Fabian Herbers, Nemanja Nikolic
Chicago Fire’s projected starting lineup
The Fire's front six are certainly a group worthy of a playoff contender. Up top, there's Nikolic, a former Golden Boot winner that has proven that he is a legitimate goalscorer at this level. On either side, Frankowski and Katai should provide a much-needed dose of creativity, while, after shining with the U.S. national team in January, Mihailovic appears to have taken that next step towards becoming a legitimate No. 10 for both club and country.
Behind them, Schweinsteiger and McCarty remain the team's glue for a variety of reasons, and it remains paramount that those two stay healthy. Schweinsteiger is getting up there in age, and McCarty is no youngster as well, but keeping those two together for long stretches will be vital in 2019.
The defense, though, is where questions lie. Neither Kappelhof nor Marcelo are hulking defenders and neither have shown to be overly athletic. The Fire will also be looking to get away with two converted fullbacks as Edwards and Campos slide into newer roles. And then there's Ousted, who hasn't been at the top of his game for several years and has been let go by both the Vancouver Whitecaps and D.C. United in recent years.
If the defense can hold up, the Fire have a chance to be good, but that's a big if for a team that still has deficiencies on the back line.
Chicago Fire’s national TV coverage
- LA Galaxy vs. Chicago Fire - Saturday, March 2 at 8 p.m. ET on FS1
- San Jose Earthquakes vs. Chicago Fire - Saturday, May 18 at 3:30 p.m. ET on Univision
- Chicago Fire vs. New York City FC - Saturday, May 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET on Univision
- Atlanta United vs. Chicago Fire - Saturday, June 1 at 6 p.m. ET on UniMas
- New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire - Friday, June 28 at 8 p.m. ET on UniMas
- Chicago Fire vs. FC Dallas - Saturday, September 14 at 3:30 p.m. ET on Univision