The 2016 Major League Soccer season is just three days away. Every team’s opening match will be on Sunday, March 6.
The Chicago Fire kick things off at 1 p.m. against New York City FC on CSN Chicago. What will the team look like when it takes the field?
So many new faces have come in. More than half the roster was acquired in the offseason. That makes for a lot of question marks about the team.
With that in mind here are five of the biggest questions facing the team as the 2016 season unfolds.
How will the brand new defense fare?
General manager Nelson Rodriguez said reworking and improving the defense was a top priority in the offseason. Only two defenders, Eric Gehrig and Patrick Doody, are back from last season. First round draft picks Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, internationals Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos and MLS free agent Michael Harrington have been added.
After conceding the most goals in the league in 2015 (58), how this unit fares will have a massive influence on how successful the Fire are in 2016.
How will Paunovic’s system look?
First-year coach Veljko Paunovic has the tough task of turning around a last place team with a largely rebuilt roster. The changes may be for the best, but that means the team will have to learn quickly how to play in his style. Based on the preseason it appears the Fire will try to build out of the back and high press. Paunovic showed some tactical flexibility, something he has talked about throughout the preseason, in Saturday’s win at Portland. How well his adjustments and style work will be something to watch.
What midseason moves will be made?
Rodriguez said on Monday that the team is still looking to acquire players and is in negotiations with some foreign-based players. After focusing on defense in the offseason, Rodriguez said that central midfield is the new priority. In addition, there aren’t many wide players on the roster. Only David Accam, Arturo Alvarez and rookies Joey Calistri and Alex Morrell appear to be primarily wide players.
On top of that the Fire only have two forwards, three if you count Accam as a forward, in Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike. Rodriguez has mentioned wanting to add depth at forward, but that sounds like a lower priority at the moment.
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Can the young players step up?
The Fire have five rookies and three second-year players. Nine players are 23 or younger when you throw in 20-year-old Ramos. Given how much has been said about Paunovic’s history working with younger players, it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
How much will they play? Will they make notable improvement throughout the season?
If the preseason is any indicator, only two or three of the younger players will start the season opener. If more are able to crack the starting lineup in the short-term that could be a sign of Paunovic’s willingness to play youth.
Will the Fire make the playoffs?
This is ultimately the biggest question. None of the above matters as much as the bottom line.
The Fire have been a struggling franchise, going six years with just one postseason appearance. A playoff appearance would restore some excitement in the fan base and give hope that the team is headed in the right direction. Enough pieces have been added to believe things will change, but how much improvement can be made in one offseason?