The Fire were flatly woeful in 2015. So sad was the once-proud club’s season that it stopped being fun to make jokes using puns on the ‘Fire’ name. Despite a handful of exciting young players and a mild spending spree that brought in some higher-priced talent, Chicago never put together an effective group of 11 players during anything approaching a meaningful stretch of the season.
Scottish playmaker Shaun Maloney came and went. DP striker Kennedy Igboananike underwhelmed. Harry Shipp suffered through a sophomore slump due to being played out of position. Even David Accam, probably the team’s most exciting player over the course of the year, was limited in his influence by the general ineffectiveness of the team.
After Frank Yallop failed to make it through 2015, the club has a new head coach in Veljko Paunovic to go along with a new general manager in Nelson Rodriguez. It’s a new day in Fire Land, but with the fans having suffered more than their fair share of burns in recent years, no one is going to get excited until they see better results on the field.
The Big Question
Is Paunovic the right choice? The Fire definitely went outside of the box with their choice of new head coach. The hiring of Paunovic represents a 180-degree turn from Yallop, a long-time MLS head coach who was nothing if not the easy, tired, unimaginative choice.
Paunovic, on the other hand, is a foreign coach in a league that typically punishes foreign coaches and a man with no senior-level coaching experience (although he did lead Serbia to last year’s U20 World Cup title).
The new-coach spotlight will be brightest in New York, where Patrick Vieira is also new to MLS, but Paunovic won’t get a free pass in Bridgeview. Fire fans are tired of suffering through season after season of poor finishes and painful irrelevancy. Visible progress is an absolute must; this being MLS, where parity reigns and the worst teams are given tools to get better, that might mean making the playoffs.
Ghanaian attacker David Accam showed enough flashes of quality in 2015 to prove he can be the driving force behind the team’s efforts in the new season. Given the right system, Accam can become to the Fire what Sebastian Giovinco was to Toronto FC.
It’s a big claim, and Giovinco’s numbers are probably unattainable, but there’s no reason to the think the 25-year-old can’t be just as influential and important for the Fire as Giovinco was for Toronto last year. Accam’s speed, dribbling, and finishing make him the obvious choice for central figure as Paunovic works to build an effective side.
Slashing in from the wing, he’s a nightmare for speed-shy MLS defenders. If he can stay healthy through the season, and something resembling an effective style takes shape under Paunovic, he should do better than his 10 goals in 24 games from 2015. A great year from Accam will smooth the transition to the post-Shipp era for the Fire after the club traded the hometown kid to Montreal.
From The Dugout
Sweeping changes from the ground up – but a welcome dose of hope. That's the reality for the Chicago Fire in 2016. So far this winter, 14 players have left “the Men in Red” – including popular Homegrown playmaker Shipp – and 11 newcomers have arrived, including two Fire academy products and foreign signings Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos. And more are still to come as Chicago try to win back fans disillusioned by years of underachievement.
But the biggest change may be off the field as new general manager Nelson Rodriguez and his chosen coach Veljko Paunovic try to reverse the fortunes of a proud club fallen on hard times of late.
“We want to have a good combination between youngsters and experienced veteran players… internationally experienced players who can give support and knowledge to the youngsters,” said Paunovic.
“Because what we are building is a culture. We are building a team for a long period, not only for one season or three seasons. I think that's the difference we may have missed in [previous] years. But the point is that we have to build a team, a culture, and you have to have youngsters, experienced guys and veterans, international players. And that's the culture we have to implement inside our locker room.”
From the Locker Room
Moving from one coach to another can cause problems, but Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, a veteran now starting his seventh season with the club, was philosophical about the the transition. “Change is something that defines you as a person; embracing it is the only way to go about it,” stated Johnson.
Perhaps understandably given that the Fire finished dead last in MLS last season, new coach Paunovic has changed the team's approach to games in 2016. “Our style of play completely different from what we’ve done in the past,” said Johnson. “We have a lot of young and exciting players.”
Johnson missed the end of the season with a shoulder tear, but until his injury had been one of the few bright spots for the Fire. “I’ve rehabbed my shoulder and I’m ready,” Johnson said. “Trying to be better than I was the year before.”
Johnson hasn’t let the Fire’s frustrating past season let him get jaded. Instead, he talks about taking a greater leadership role with the team and setting an example by being the first one to practice in the new season. “Everybody is different,” said Johnson. “I’ve developed a good state of mind.”
This is Home
- TOYOTA PARK
- CAPACITY: 20,000
- OPENED: June 11, 2006
- LOCATION: Bridgeview, IL
Fan’s Insider Tip
Nicole Hack (@nikhak): The streets in Bridgeview aren’t lined with popular tourist attractions, but they home Portillo’s – a restaurant serving Chicago-style food. They’re best known for their hot dogs, Italian beefs, and their chocolate cake shake. Down the street, just outside of Toyota Park, is Grand Duke’s where Traditional Lithuanian and Eastern European fare is served.
Since the stadium is located outside of Chicago, Pub To Pitch buses transport countless fans to the stadium to and from the city. Meeting new supporters is a favorite aspect of home game days for many fans.
Tailgating before any home match is a must. Section 8 Chicago (S8C) hosts a tailgate in the north lot of the stadium before every home game. Supporters’ groups volunteer to run the tailgate for specific games – food menus range from Chinese takeout, hot dogs, tacos and even an annual Oktoberfest-themed spread. In addition, S8C supporters have been known to have multiple bottles of Malort and homemade Spirytus to pass around. The latter is best served after two or three weeks’ storage and often prepared in flavors like cherry, honey-lemon, and caramel – so you’d never know it contains near 95% alcohol.
It’s obvious that S8C tailgates unite fans over food, spirits and socializing, but it goes without saying that inside the stadium, ice cream nachos are the fan favorite treat of choice.
The game itself is, of course, the most important aspect of game day at Toyota Park – where fans encourage one another to participate in a “first in, last out” culture and have been known to impress the crowd with large-scale choreographed visual displays at kickoff continued by 90 minutes of singing in The Harlem End or with Sector Latino until the final whistle is blown.