The standings in Major League Soccer paint a clear picture for the Chicago Fire, and it’s not a pretty one.
The Fire sit all alone in last place in the league and time is running out to make the playoffs. The Fire have to make up a nine-point deficit with just six games remaining and pass four teams in the Eastern Conference along the way. There are four road games left on the Fire’s schedule and the team has won once away from Toyota Park all season so any furious closing rally seems unlikely.
Coach Veljko Paunovic will surely continue to talk about wanting his team to play hard in every game and playing to win each match as it comes. As for the players, they should remain motivated because most of them aren’t guaranteed for 2017.
The club confirmed that currently six players have guaranteed contracts for 2017: David Accam, Michael Harrington, Johan Kappelhof, John Goossens, Michael de Leeuw and David Arshakyan. Every other player has a 2017 club option, although some of those could become guaranteed before the end of the season by hitting triggers in their contracts.
So with that in mind, here’s a few things Fire fans can look for in the rest of 2016:
Can David Arshakyan settle in and provide the Fire a different dynamic up top?
Arshakyan made his first start with the Fire in Friday’s draw with D.C. He showed some glimpses of good touch and hold up play, but wasn’t a major factor. He is 22 and adjusting to a new league, country and club so patience is warranted.
He is under contract for 2017 so the rest of this season can provide him the settling in period so theoretically he can hit the ground running next season. If he can prove to be a threat in the air and give the Fire another reliable option up top, that could change how general manager Nelson Rodriguez approaches the forward position in the offseason.
Will more young players see more playing time?
The Fire’s USL affiliate, Saint Louis FC, has one game left in its season and is already eliminated from playoff contention. Patrick Doody, Collin Fernandez and Alex Morrell have been on loan with the club, but Morrell is recovering from a hamstring injury. None of those three has made a start with the Fire, but all three have had to overcome injuries throughout the season. Doody hasn’t appeared for the Fire all season after making seven appearances, six of which were starts, last season. Fernandez has made two substitute appearances with the Fire this season totaling eight minutes. Morrell has come off the bench four times for the Fire, but hasn’t appeared since June. Drew Conner began the season on loan in St. Louis, but hasn’t seen any action with the Fire since he was recalled in June.
Rodriguez and Paunovic have both said that the Fire will continue to put out the strongest lineup the rest of the way, but that could be tested if the team is officially eliminated from playoff contention.
“We don’t play guys because they’re young,” Rodriguez said on Aug. 30. “We don’t play guys because they have an option. We play guys that we think give us the best chance to win.”
Will on-loan players Khaly Thiam and Rodrigo Ramos make a positive impression?
There are two foreign players on loan with the Fire in Thiam and Ramos. Both have recently run into tough times with the club.
Ramos seemed like a revelation as a 21-year-old Brazilian right back earlier in the season, but hasn’t played in the past eight league matches and was not in the list of available substitutes for five of those matches. He has not played since being subbed off at halftime of the U.S. Open Cup semifinal at New England on Aug. 9, when he committed a foul in the box for a penalty kick.
Paunovic hasn’t said what changed, but clearly something has. Ramos played in 18 of the club’s first 20 matches and hasn’t played in any of the last eight. Unless something changes in the final six matches, it doesn’t look good for Ramos to be retained on a permanent basis.
As for Thiam, he had become a regular contributor in midfield since joining the Fire on loan in May. A red card in D.C. on Aug. 27 may have changed that. After serving the suspension for the red card, Thiam sat out the match against Toronto on Sept. 10 and came off the bench last Friday. It’s not yet long enough to know for sure if Thiam has damaged his status with the team, but he hasn’t started since the red card. If Thiam can play well down the stretch, it could make a case for the Fire to keep him for 2017. If not, he is likely headed back to Hungary.
Will the team finish with some positive momentum?
The Fire finished with 30 points and were dead last in MLS last season. Right now the Fire have 27 points and are dead last in MLS. The Fire already snapped the road winless streak this season. Improving upon last year’s point total and league position would be notable just to show some form of progress, even if it is only marginal. The roster is just over a year younger than it was at the close of the 2015 season (average age of 26.8 then vs. 25.5 now). If the Fire can improve on last year in a season when the club turned over the entire technical staff and got younger, that would be something positive the club can claim heading into 2017.