Which team in the Eastern Conference is the only one worse than the Columbus Crew right now? The Chicago Fire, because the Fire have been the worst team in all of MLS for the past two years.
The Crew were staring down elimination from the MLS playoffs on Saturday with a draw or loss in Chicago, depending on other results. But the Fire, who also have the distinction of becoming the first team eliminated from playoffs last week, played badly enough that the Crew not only won, they won emphatically at 3-0.
This thunder-strike from Harrison Afful pretty much summed up the evening:
Now the Columbus Crew’s playoff hopes remain alive (albeit barely) and the Chicago Fire fall deeper into last place and into the embarrassment abyss.
Chicago finished 2015 in last place by a whopping seven-point margin and they are on track for a similar finish this season. That’s despite bringing in a new coach, Veljko Paunovic, and a massive roster turnover in the offseason that got rid of 15 players from the 2015 roster. This year, just like last year, the Fire are near the bottom of the league in goals scored. Last year, Chicago was tied for allowing the most goals in all of MLS and this year, their defense still is one of the worst, with only two teams having allowed more (and one of those teams has played one more game than Chicago so far).
Clearly, some Windy City soul-searching is in order. But where do you start with a team as bad as the Fire?
They have attacking talent in the form of David Accam, who can be inconsistent but capable of sparking magic, among others. But they don’t have anyone dictating the tempo of the attack and creating chances for their forwards. Imagine the Fire bringing in a world-class No. 10 playmaker like Nicolas Lodeiro, who has single-handedly turned the Seattle Sounders from a losing team into a winning one. The Fire signed Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw in May and forwards Luis Solignac of Argentina and David Arshakyan of Armenia in August, but they still don’t have anyone they can count on to get them involved. The Fire too often resort to going direct with long balls because there is no one in the midfield capable of acting as the playmaker through which the attack flows.
Chicago Fire forward David Accam hasn’t been able to make as much of an impact as the Fire would’ve wanted after he returned from an injury in the spring. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports)
The Chicago Fire have two Designated Player spots sitting open, waiting for some talent that can reignite a listless Fire attack. But DP slots, which don’t count against the team’s salary cap, require some willingness to pony up cash, which the Fire haven’t always been wont to do. (Technically, one of their DP slots is tied up by Kennedy Igboananike, who was traded to D.C. United and still counts as a DP on the Fire salary cap, but it will open up next season.)
It’s not always for lack of trying. The Fire did attempt to to sign Jermaine Jones in the “blind draw” mess of 2014 (which was not successful) and then last year, Didier Drogba refused to go to Chicago, despite their discovery claim on the former Chelsea man, in favor of Montreal. Recently, some reports suggested the Fire were interested in Manchester United midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, although he isn’t exactly in his prime. But the Fire have been far from aggressive in the open market when it comes to landing the type of talent they need to turn things around. They are better known for their failed attempts at signing talent than any players on their roster right now. That’s a problem.
The Fire made their share of moves in the college draft before the start of the season, but they also haven’t paid off. They selected winger Jack Harrison with the No. 1 overall pick and promptly traded him away for left back Brandon Vincent and centerback Jonathan Campbell. But rookies Vincent and Campbell just weren’t good enough to solidify their leaky defense, while Harrison has been excellent for New York City FC — perhaps the best rookie to come out of the draft. Letting him go looks like a huge mistake now. Chicago did get a bunch of allocation money in the deals, which they eventually put to use to sign players like De Leeuw, but crucial pieces in the defense and midfield are still missing, even now in October. The talent drop-off in the college draft can be significant, which is why the Fire’s strategy to give up the best available player will have to be scrutinized now.
Veljko Paunovic was named Chicago’s new coach after the team missed playoffs last year. Photo by Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports)
“We are aware of the issues we have this season, and we have to fix it,” Paunovic said on Saturday after the loss against the Columbus Crew. Chicago Fire fans will be hoping Paunovic is up to the task.
There is a silver lining though. While awful, the Chicago Fire have looked better lately than they did early on in the season. It would be asking a lot for Paunovic to spur a massive turnaround in a single season — he’s clearly still trying to put the pieces together and figure out what works. The upcoming offseason, which includes transfer windows and the college draft, gives the Serbian coach ample opportunity to build upon what he has started this season.
But if the Fire don’t start getting more aggressive with their cash and if they don’t look at bringing in a true No. 10 of quality, it’s hard to see how much better 2017 will be compared to 2016. After years of mediocrity out of Chicago, something has to change soon.