Fire

On the eve of playoffs, Fire drawing eerie similarities to 2012

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USA TODAY

On the eve of playoffs, Fire drawing eerie similarities to 2012

The last time the Fire made the playoffs was 2012 and there are a few striking similarities between that year’s Fire team and the 2017 version.

In 2012, the Fire had a second-year coach (Frank Klopas) and were coming off consecutive years of missing the playoffs. The Fire missed the postseason in 2010 and 2011, but stormed through the regular season with 17-11-6 mark. That was the best points per game record since the Fire’s Supporters’ Shield-winning 2003 team.

The ‘12 Fire began the season with a so-so record, going 5-5-3 to start the season. During that period, the Fire lost on the road to a minor-league team, the Michigan Bucks, in extra time in the U.S. Open Cup.

Then the team got hot with an 11-3-2 run through summer and into the early fall. The Fire were as high as second in the Eastern Conference standings, but lost a big showdown with conference-leading Kansas City before dropping a home match to a Philadelphia team well out of the race the following match.

The Fire went 1-3-1 in the final five matches of the regular season and fell to fourth in the standings, just missing out on a first-round bye (this is when five teams made the playoffs from each conference so there were three byes on each side as opposed to the two now). In the playoffs, the Fire hosted a Houston team in the first round that had lots of playoff experience and had made the MLS Cup final the year before. Houston won 2-1, ending the Fire’s season earlier than expected.

Entering this year, the Fire had a second-year coach (Veljko Paunovic) and were coming off missing the postseason for the previous four years, but easily qualified for the playoffs with a 16-11-7 record. That’s the best record since that 2012 season.

This year’s Fire began the season with a so-so record, going 3-3-3 to start the season. Then the team got hot with an 8-0-2 run through late spring and into the middle of summer. During that period, the Fire lost on the road to a minor-league team, FC Cincinnati, in penalty kicks in the U.S. Open Cup. The Fire were leading MLS at the peak, but dropped off a bit and lost a big showdown with league-leading Toronto before dropping a home match to a Minnesota team well out of the race the following match.

The Fire went 5-8-2 in the final 15 matches of the regular season and fell to third in the standings, just missing out on a first-round bye. In the playoffs, the Fire host a New York Red Bulls team in the first round that has lost of playoffs experience, having made it to now eight straight postseasons.

Will the end result be the same?

USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

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USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

Stadium talk is always circling around Major League Soccer and that goes double for the Chicago Fire, which has been criticized for playing in suburban Bridgeview since Toyota Park opened in 2006.

That's why the Chicago Tribune's story about a United Soccer League expansion team playing at a proposed 20,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof in Chicago is such a big deal. According to the report and confirmed by a USL spokesperson, real estate developer Sterling Bay has purchased the rights to a USL expansion team. The stated goal is to begin play in 2020.

The details of the stadium are not finalized so the features and capacity could still change.

The proposed location of the stadium is along the North Branch of the Chicago River between the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the Kennedy Expressway. The stadium was previously mentioned as part of Sterling Bay's bid to bring Amazon's second headquarters to Chicago. A spokesperson for Sterling Bay confirmed that the stadium being built is not contingent on Amazon coming to Chicago, it will happen regardless.

Further information from Sterling Bay said that "announcements on ownership and team structure will come at a later date." The team does not yet have a name, but fans will be included in the naming process.

A 20,000-seat stadium and a retractable roof will make for a fancy and impressive, but also expensive venue and a USL team as a primary tenant may prove difficult to justify the cost. The location itself would be an easier sell to draw in fans than Toyota Park out in Bridgeview. However, minor league soccer may not excite local residents in large number.

The USL had 30 teams in 2017 with eight more teams planned to join by 2019. This past season, only two USL teams averaged above 10,000 in attendance: FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC. Both of those are prime MLS expansion candidates and Cincinnati beat the Fire in the U.S. Open Cup in front of 32,287 fans in June.

Many USL clubs are either owned/operated by MLS teams or are affiliated with an MLS team. The Fire switched from Saint Louis FC to the Tulsa Roughnecks as its affiliated club in 2017, sending players to Tulsa to gain playing time as opposed to sitting on the bench with the Fire.

According to the Tribune's story, the stadium would also try to attract other events such as international soccer matches, college football, college basketball and concerts. Rugby and lacrosse were also named in documentation sent by Sterling Bay. Sterling Bay has also yet to present formal plans and still needs to gain zoning approval.

At the Fire's end of the season media availability on Nov. 7, general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked about the proposed stadium and if he or MLS had been contacted about it.

“I can’t speak about MLS," Rodriguez said. "I don’t know if they have or have not. I have not. I haven’t spoken, been approached by anyone. I’m not sure I would be the person they approach or speak to, but I’m not aware of any conversations.”

The Fire moving to this stadium could be an ideal solution for both parties. An MLS team with an existing fan base would have an easier time drawing big crowds. Boosted by the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Fire drew crowds of 20,000 or more six times in 2017. The regular season average of 17,383 was the highest since moving to Toyota Park and highest since the club's inaugural, championship-winning season in 1998.

However, things aren't that simple. The Fire are locked into a 30-year lease with Bridgeview and Toyota Park, which the Fire have played in since 2006. Getting out of that would require a significant buyout or a breach of contract.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.