Darkest Before the Dawn
The Fire begin their 2023 season with considerably less hope around the new season than they had a year prior. That year, a new coach and new players - headlined by Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri, the highest-paid player in the league at the start of last season - gave Fire fans a palpable sense of optimism. In addition to Shaqiri, the team also had promising young stars in starting GK Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina and heralded young talent Jhon Duran, fresh off his 18th birthday, and finally added proven MLS talent for the first time under Technical Director Georg Heitz by bringing in striker Kacper Przybylko from the Philadelphia Union. Hope amongst Fire faithful only increased as the team went undefeated through the first five games of the season - then were dashed as the team went on a winless streak that stretched 91 days and included a heartbreaking loss in penalty kicks to third division side Union Omaha in the team’s only US Open Cup match. The team spent the remainder of the 2022 season trying, and ultimately failing, to find its way back into the playoff picture.
Gaga and Duran both departed for the Premier League in the offseason in exchange for eye-watering transfer fees, Przybylko was a bust - scoring only 5 goals and looking a shadow of his former self as he struggled to adapt to Chicago’s system and get back into form from a back injury, and the entered preseason with few replacements for departed players. Many commentators around the league have picked the Fire to be at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, if not as favorites for the Wooden Spoon, “awarded” to the team with the league’s worst record.
The 2023 Chicago Fire Roster
And yet there is hope. Despite last year’s results, there is talent throughout the roster. Eighteen-year-old Chris Brady, fresh off of winning the U-20 CONCACAF championship with last year - and the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper of the tournament - comes in to replace the departed Slonina as starting goaltender, and team sources are bullish on his talent and ability level. Homegrown talent Brian Gutierrez seems poised to have a breakout season and could fulfill a role either on the right wing or playing more centrally. Designated Player Jairo Torres looked healthy and had a full preseason with the team this year after joining the Fire injured last May. Right back Stanislav Ivanov left by mutual consent in the off season, and was replaced by Arnaud Souquet from Montpellier HSC in Ligue 1.
While Ivanov was often a competent left back, he was expensive (at about $600,000 a year) for his ability level, and Souquet looks to be an upgrade in most respects. CB Wyatt Omsberg was having a breakout season with the team, establishing himself as a starter alongside Rafael Czichos - not one of the league’s most heralded center backs but one of it’s most competent, on top of the leadership he provides on and off the pitch - until a season-ending injury ended his campaign. Combined with occasional knocks to Czichos, and the team lacked consistency in its starting defensive corps. Following Omsberg’s injury, the defense looked noticeably less-organized when Czichos was out and the versatile Mauricio Pineda was assigned to cover for an injured midfielder.
In what is becoming an annual tradition, Heitz was able to complete a number of significant signings in the closing days of preseason - bringing in Kei Kamara, currently the 3rd-highest scoring player in MLS history, and just a half-dozen goals behind Landon Donovan for #2 all time. At 38, he is by far the oldest player on the team and with the offseason departure of Jonathan Bornstein, the only one born in the 1980s - but his last season in Montéal was generally a success, scoring 9 goals and adding 7 assists in just over 1561 minutes. Had he done that last season with the Fire, he would have lead the team in both goal production and points per 90 minutes played, beating out Jhon Durán.
On top of that, Technical Director Georg Heitz acquired young striker Georgios Koutisas from Greece on a U22 Initiative deal, hoping that he can make lightning strike twice following Durán’s blockbuster sale to Premier League side Aston Villa.
Koutsias looks promising, but won’t be available for the team’s first game against NYCFC as he awaits his visa, and the team is reportedly still in the market for a DP striker (though at a lower-profile, and price, than say, Shaqiri) as well as a left back.
What to Expect This Season
Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson returns for his second season with the team, and he will likely remain committed to the 4-2-3-1 the team played throughout his first season. Only Austin played it’s starting formation more than the Fire, and Hendrickson really only mixed things up when significant injury troubles forced his hand.
Expect that to continue, but Hendrickson has stressed the importance of having backs move forward more quickly to support the offense. That, combined with - hopefully - having a competent striker throughout the season will go a very long way to remedying the team’s primary issue last year - scoring, as the team managed just 39 goals last season, second-lowest in the league behind DC United.
If the team can increase its goal haul while maintaining defensive competence (the team finished middle of the league in goals allowed), they have every reason to think that they’ll get better results than last year, and won’t go on a 3-month winless drought - and should finish in a much better spot this year than last.