The Fire have done a lot recently to set themselves up for the future. They have returned to Soldier Field, gotten their games on WGN and are trying to undo their notorious logo mistake while becoming a bigger factor in a crowded sports market.
With investments in scouting, infrastructure and young players, they also think they’ve laid the groundwork for success on the field. But what about 2021?
Their opener Saturday night against the New England Revolution begins the second season of the Joe Mansueto-Georg Heitz-Raphael Wicky era. The first year was an underwhelming failure. The remade Fire finished 11th in their conference and missed a 10-team East postseason behind two expansion clubs.
But after a somewhat quiet offseason during which they maintained that continuity will equal success, the Fire are looking for better results.
“The expectations are higher this year,” Mansueto said. “We need to make the playoffs, that’s pretty black and white, and then hopefully have a deep playoff run. We were good last year, but we need to be even better this year, and I’m confident that that will be the case.”
Indeed, the Fire will have to be better this year, and not just by a little bit.
The only reason they were even close to the playoffs in 2020 was the expanded format. The postseason is back to seven teams in each conference, meaning the Fire will have to improve in all facets. The inconsistent finishing must be more dependable, and the lapses that led to demoralizing goals need to be corrected.
The Fire picked up exactly a point per game last year, which would’ve been good for 34 points in a normal season. In 2019, seventh-place New England had 45; Montreal picked up 46 in 2018.
Will the Fire improve enough to gain at least 10 points and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017? And what happens if they don’t get considerably better and show real improvement?
The answers to both questions are unclear, but they think they’ve gotten better just by staying intact.
Wicky, whose contract has a club option for 2022, said he’s excited the core of the team is back. Unlike last year, the Fire aren’t starting from scratch and trying to get players into the country just as the season begins. There probably won’t be pandemic-related stoppages, and Wicky wants to build off what they worked on last year.
“We said that we believe in continuity; we believe in this group,” Wicky said. “That’s also why we didn’t change too many players. I’m excited we are not starting like a year ago from scratch. Most of the players know what we want, how we operate, how we are as human beings and also as coaches, and then the other way, as well.
“We know the players better. We know the strength and the weaknesses of the players better.”
New winger Stanislav Ivanov will miss half the season with a knee injury, and it’s unclear how much the Fire can depend on fellow young newcomers Jhon Espinoza or Chinonso Offor this year as they get acclimated to a new league. Jhon Jader Duran, perhaps their most exciting signing, won’t join the Fire until 2022 after he turns 18.
That means any progress the Fire made in 2020 will have to continue, though Heitz said that was difficult to quantify.
“It was simply also the impression that they left during the games, you know, the number of chances that we created grew in my opinion, increased throughout the season,” Heitz said. “So I think overall, it was really a fact that we were better in the second half, but we have to admit we were not good enough to make the playoffs.”
The Fire’s offseason strategy left behind questions. With three designated players under contract and a pretty full roster, perhaps they didn’t have room to make more changes and bring in instant-impact talent. But at the same time, it’s fair to wonder how they’ll fare if they suffer more injuries or improvement doesn’t come.
They also won’t be able to use a pandemic, a rebuilt roster or a stop-start season as a crutch. It’s clear what they view as the bare minimum for success in 2021.
“There aren’t any excuses,” defender Miguel Navarro said. “We are focused on having a good season, and we are ready to go. We know that this year there aren’t any excuses for not getting into the playoffs.”
5-10-8, 23 points (11th in Eastern Conference).
RB Jhon Espinoza, M Stanislav Ivanov, F Chinonso Offor.
M Djordje Mihailovic, F CJ Sapong.
The Fire didn’t add much to their roster because they believe continuity will bring success, and that’s proven true in 2021 as Alvaro Medran and Mauricio Pineda take another step forward. The late-game mistakes that cost them points in 2020 won’t be made this year because of that familiarity, while the young players add elements that were missing. Not only will the Fire make the playoffs while playing an attractive style of soccer, but they won’t have to sweat their spot.
Already beaten up from an injury-riddled preseason, the Fire’s depth won’t be enough to overcome any further injuries to key players. Because of the injuries and a lack of top-end talent, the Fire won’t be able to take advantage of a first-half schedule that’s predominantly at home, forcing them to search for points on the road later in the year. And that won’t end well, leading to hard questions about the plan put in place by Georg Heitz and Raphael Wicky.
The Fire simply didn’t do enough this offseason to make up ground in the Eastern Conference. Yes, they narrowly missed the 2020 playoffs, but that was a 10-team field. This year, it’s back to seven, and it’s hard to see the Fire leaping into the postseason. Instead, they’ll finish 10th in the East.