2016 MLS season preview: Chicago Fire

The Fire are in full rebuild mode under new head coach Veljko Paunovic after a dismal 2015 campaign.

2015 regular season: 10th Eastern Conference (20th overall)

MLS Cup odds: 100/1

Players in: Joey Calistri (Homegrown), Drew Conner (Homegrown), Brandon Vincent (SuperDraft), Jonathan Campbell (SuperDraft), Michael Harrington (free agency), Patrick McLain (free), Joao Meira (free), Nick LaBrocca (free agency), Johan Kappelhof (FC Groningen, undisclosed), Rodrigo Ramos (Coritiba, loan), Matt Lampson (free), John Goossens (free), Arturo Alvarez (free)

Players out: Adailton (option declined), Jon Busch (option declined), Jason Johnson (option declined), Alec Kann (option declined), Jeff Larentowicz (option declined), Lovel Palmer (option declined), Chris Ritter (option declined), Daneil Cyrus (loan expired), Ty Harden (out of contract), Mike Magee (out of contract), Matt Watson (out of contract), Patrick Nyarko (D.C. United, trade), Joevin Jones (Seattle Sounders, trade), Harry Shipp (Montreal Impact, trade), Kingsley Bryce (waived)

With the signings of three Designated Players in Shaun Maloney, David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, the Chicago Fire went into 2015 with high hopes of making a playoff push. Instead, they proceeded to endure their worst campaign in club history, recording a league-low eight wins and 30 points to finish rock bottom of the Eastern Conference. Hailed as a potential franchise player, Maloney spent only eight disappointing months in the US before returning to England, while Frank Yallop was relied of his duties as head coach five games before the end of the regular season. To make matters worse, ownership’s attempts to land a high-profile summer signing failed for the second year running when Didier Drogba turned down a move to Toyota Park in favour of joining the Montreal Impact.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez and new coach Veljko Paunovic have reshaped the roster dramatically this winter, keeping only 10 players from last term, but there are still plenty of holes to fill heading into the new campaign.

Reasons to be positive

Chicago’s squad may look fairly low on quality compared to the majority of the league, but they do have a handful of promising pieces to build around. Midfielder Matt Polster has already earned a US national team call-up following a stellar rookie campaign, and star forwards David Accam and Gilberto are both capable of hitting double-digits in goals.

What’s more, their SuperDraft manoeuvring saw them walk away with an MLS-ready left-back in Brandon Vincent and one of the best centre-backs available in Jonathan Campbell, while fellow stoppers Johann Kappelhof and Joao Meira both arrive with proven track records in top European leagues.

With savvy veteran Michael Harrington and Brazil Under-20 right-back Rodrigo Ramos also coming on board, the backline should be significantly better than the one which conceded a league-worst 58 goals last season.

Trouble on the horizon?

While the cupboard isn’t completely bare for the Fire, their rebuild clearly won’t be a one-season job either. The squad is still desperately thin as opening day approaches, and while the likes of Kappelhof and Meira may well prove fine additions, the lack of proven MLS commodities at Paunovic’s disposal remains serious cause for concern. The Serbian is an intriguing hire, having led his country to the Under-20 World Cup title last summer, but this is first job in club football and comes in a league where foreign managers have traditionally struggled. His one-year playing stint with the Philadelphia Union in 2011 means he is better prepared than some previous overseas imports, but coaching obviously offers an entirely new set of challenges.

Fans certainly aren’t too confident about their chances of a bounce-back season either, especially after seeing the club trade homegrown playmaker Harry Shipp to Montreal last month. A lifelong Fire fan, the Chicago native was seen as a building block to future success after proving one of the team’s few bright spots over the past two campaigns, and 2016 was supposed to be his first chance to get an extended run in his favoured No. 10 spot. Supporters are understandably incensed about losing a homegrown player with US national team potential, and the front office now faces the unenviable task of trying to convince them that it was a move made in the team’s best interests.

Key man: Gilberto

After missing out on Drogba last summer, the Fire got a nice consolation prize when they acquired former Toronto FC striker Gilberto on waivers. The 26-year-old Brazilian returned to MLS after spending five months on loan at Vasco de Gama and he proceeded to demonstrate his worth over the rest of the season by netting five times in 10 games.

An all-round forward, the hard-working front man previously showed plenty of promise during his one full season in Toronto, looking like a better option than Jermain Defoe at times, but fitness issues meant it wasn’t until the second half of 2014 that he began to play to his potential. He was limited to seven goals in 28 appearances as a result, but you’d expect him to easily better those numbers this term if he manages to stay clear of injuries.

One to watch: Brandon Vincent

The Fire took Vincent in the first round of 2016 SuperDraft after trading top selection Jack Harrison to New York City FC for the fourth pick and allocation money, but plenty will argue that they ended up with the better player. The 21-year-old left-back has already made his USA debut as a second-half substitute in last month’s 1-0 friendly win over Canada, and the trade of Joevin Jones to the Seattle Sounders means he should be a regular fixture in Chicago’s starting XI from the outset.

With the potential to develop into one of the top full-backs in MLS, big things are expected of the former Stanford Cardinal.

Predicted regular season finish: 10th Eastern Conference

While the combination of Rodriguez and Paunovic may be able to right the shop in the long run, it’s mightily hard to see the Fire making big improvements on 2015 with their current squad. There simply isn’t enough quality or depth on the roster at present, and they may even struggle to better last season’s eight wins if the new arrivals and rookies fail to live up to expectations.

Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch