The Major League Soccer season is just two days away, which means the season previews have been flowing in from various outlets.
As far as the Chicago Fire are concerned most of the attention has been paid to new coach Veljko Paunovic and for good reason.
Not only is Paunovic, along with general manager Nelson Rodriguez, trying to change the culture of the Fire, but it’s difficult to write about the roster in any substantive way due to all the unknowns around it.
Sure, it’s easy to rattle off a bunch of information about the names the Fire acquired and who figures to play a big role in the season. There could be an attempt to analyze each unit of the team, what they should be good at and what the weaknesses could be.
That would be one way to write about the upcoming Chicago Fire season, but in all honesty, that’s not very useful.
Any reasonable attempt at predicting the 2016 Fire season is a total shot in the dark at worst and a slightly educated guess at best. Outside of exhibition games in front of mostly empty stadiums - the lone exception being the preseason finale accompanied by the always bustling crowds of Portland - most Fire players have barely been tested in the team’s jersey.
Most of the Fire roster wasn’t with the club even three months ago. Almost all of it wasn’t with the club even 15 months ago.
That’s not to say the Fire can’t succeed with all that turnover and a new coaching staff. It just means no one knows what the team will look like. Even Rodriguez, who put this collage of a team together in a few short months, admits that.
“I don’t know yet because we know that we’re still looking for some pieces,” Rodriguez said on Monday. “Then even after you acquire them, it takes some time to see how it comes together. It’s part science, but in large part it’s also art.”
An undefeated preseason has left the Fire still in the honeymoon stage. This group hasn’t won an official game together, but it also hasn’t lost a game of any kind together.
“We haven’t been punched in the face yet, we haven’t lost four games in a row yet, we haven’t lost 4-0 yet, we haven’t had the media criticize us yet,” Rodriguez said. “The real test of that character is when we face genuine adversity, but for the moment we’re very pleased at how the character of the group has come together.”
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The preseason success likely helped reinforce what Paunovic was preaching to the players. That’s part of what makes Sunday’s game so important.
Obviously it’s always nice to start a season with a win, especially under a new coach. Failing to win the opener could make for an early hole with a game at a rocking Orlando crowd looming five days later, but winning would keep the positive vibes the team is feeling right now.
Watching this Fire team during practice a few times there is an undeniable excitement within the team. Few in the national or local media have picked the Fire to make the playoffs, but they don’t care what anyone says about them. They’re having fun.
“I think there’s been a lot of energy that’s been injected into the team and the organization from Pauno and his staff,” said goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who is the team’s longest tenured player. “It’s definitely a positive change for us and we’re adapting and trying our best to get up to speed before March 6.”
Paunovic and his staff have created a loose atmosphere. Paunovic and assistant Marko Mitrovic are young enough and good enough to be able to compete in some training drills.
Their desire to have fun with the group helps the players have fun. Paunovic doesn’t turn down a chance to show off with a fancy flick or flashy skill move when a ball comes to him casually or when the team is playing a monkey in the middle drill.
“We believe that they worked very hard during the preseason and they worked really well,” Paunovic said. “Right now I think that they are not only trying to do what we are asking of them or demanding. They are doing that and they want to do it and they believe. I think we achieved that so far by the games that we played in the preseason and how we performed and how they could feel that the system can work. Everything is on players in the end. Obviously we have to prepare them, we have to give them that support, we are there to serve them and in the same time guide them and demand them.”
If the team’s losing history in the past six seasons didn’t weigh so heavily on the minds of fans and media, there might be a genuine belief that something special is brewing under Paunovic. However, good vibes and fun atmospheres don’t win games alone.
There are so many unknowns about this team that the Fire could make the playoffs or finish last again and neither outcome would be overly surprising.
On Sunday everyone can start to find out what this team is.