For all the deserved focus on the additions of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic, the Fire’s defense also took a solid step forward in 2017.
The Fire went from allowing 58 goals in each of the previous two seasons, which was tied with Orlando (an expansion team for the first of those two years) for the most goals allowed in the league over that span, to surrendering 47 in 2017. The 47 goals allowed tied for sixth fewest in the league.
The additions of McCarty and Schweinsteiger (and the now departed Juninho) helped to protect the defense from the onslaught of pressure it faced in 2016, but the defenders themselves also took steps forward. At left back Brandon Vincent turned into a solid starter after struggling in his rookie season. When options at right back looked bleak, Matt Polster turned into a revelation at the position and has earned national team call-ups. Neither Vincent nor Polster are without weaknesses, but added steady play to positions that had been major weaknesses.
The Fire also return center back Johan Kappelhof, easily the team’s best defender the past two seasons and an All-Star in 2017.
Returning players (2017 MLS regular season stats)
Johan Kappelhof (33 games played, 33 starts, 2,881 minutes, 4 assists)
Brandon Vincent (27 GP, 26 GS, 2,341 minutes, 2 goals, 5 assists)
Matt Polster (22 GP, 21 GS, 1,769 minutes, 1 goal, 7 assists)
Jonathan Campbell (24 GP, 8 GS, 1,009 minutes)
Christian Dean (3 GP, 2 GS, 220 minutes)
Jorge Corrales (signed with Fire on Sept. 14 but remained with Tulsa)
Rafael Ramos (trade with Orlando)
Grant Lillard (homegrown signing)
The three returning starters appear set to be staples again in 2018. The other center back spot next to Kappelhof is up in the air, but injuries appear to have given Christian Dean the first crack at it. Dean and fellow lefty Lillard appeared to be the favorites for the spot until Lillard suffered a knee injury in preseason that has kept Lillard out for a couple weeks. Campbell, who led the Fire in minutes as a rookie in 2016 and then lost his starting job to the now departed Joao Meira last year, is out for at least the first month of the season due to a facial fracture. Lillard is expected to be back soon, but Dean will in all likelihood start the opener against Sporting Kansas City.
Lillard could be an upgraded depth option, but may not be an impact rookie. Ramos gives the Fire improved depth at fullback and could be valuable given Polster’s past of knee injury flare ups.
The players behind the defenders will have a more different look than the defenders. Richard Sanchez and Stefan Cleveland return, but don’t bring much MLS experience to the table. Sanchez made two starts with the Fire last season as an in-season replacement once it was known Jorge Bava would miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury. Matt Lampson is also gone and is now starting for Minnesota.
The Fire still don’t have the typical three goalkeepers under contract, but Patrick McLain, the No. 3 in 2016, has been trialing with the team and played in the second half of Saturday’s preseason finale at Toyota Park.
As it stands, it’s a younger, less experienced group than what the Fire had in previous years with Sean Johnson and then Lampson and Bava in net, but having a more proven defense will help. Sanchez is likely the starter, but he has had an elbow injury that kept him out of action Saturday and has limited him in training. Cleveland, a second-round pick a year ago who hasn't appeared in an MLS match, could start the opener.