Fire

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

In the playoffs, big moments in a game are magnified and the smallest things can get huge amounts of attention.

However, the Fire’s 4-0 loss on Wednesday was not about fine margins. Two early defensive breakdowns and the inability to seriously threaten the Red Bulls’ goal led to an embarrassing loss.

The emotions Fire fans are enduring right now cover up an important fact: this season was ultimately a solid step forward for the Fire.

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as general manager at the end of the 2015 season, the Fire were a laughing stock. That was the third straight season the club missed the playoffs and in 2015, the team finished dead last in MLS.

Even after sweeping changes that included bringing in coach Veljko Paunovic and revamping a roster that began the year with no players who had been on the team for even two years, the Fire finished dead last again in 2016.

During the losing, Rodriguez continued to preach patience. He repeatedly talked about “getting it right, not getting it fast.”

[RELATED: Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit]

Only this year did it become apparent that some of the foundation was in fact put in place in 2016. That wasn’t so easy to see when the team continued to lose on the field, and often looked bad doing so. Players that were key in the team making the playoffs this year were acquired in 2016. Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira proved to be a solid center back pairing, 2016 first-round pick Brandon Vincent emerged as one of the better left backs in the league after a mistake-filled rookie year, Luis Solignac found a niche on the wing and Michael de Leeuw, although injured for the playoffs, embraced his role as supporting striker while Nemanja Nikolic took all the glory on the way to winning an MLS Golden Boot.

This offseason brought more good acquisitions that helped put the team over the top, including Nikolic. Dax McCarty, Juninho and of course big name star Bastian Schweinsteiger revitalized a midfield that was among the league’s worst a year ago.

So while Wednesday’s ugly defeat marked an earlier end to the postseason than the Fire expected, a wider view should allow for the season as a whole to still be viewed as a success, even if only when considering the context of previous seasons.

Just ask Schweinsteiger, who pointed out the surprise of the team’s regular season success.

“I have to say that this team did an amazing job this season,” Schweinsteiger said. “We were third in the league. I know the players decide everything, but you have to be realistic. Before the season if someone told you guys Chicago Fire would be third after 35 games you would probably say, all, that would not be the case.”

McCarty, who has been on playoff teams eight straight years, called making the playoffs “the bare minimum requirement for success.” The Fire reached that bare minimum and nothing more, but after back-to-back last place finishes, it’s noteworthy progress and brings with it the hope for more progress in the future.

If 2018 mirrors 2017, things might not get such a positive shine, but in the grand scheme of things, 2017 was better than expected and brought life back into what appeared to be a lifeless MLS franchise.

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.