Published on February 16th, 2017 | by Jeff Engelhardt1
Five Burning Questions for 2017
A new season always brings new faces, new story lines and new questions. For the Fire, those questions loom large. Very large.
There is a cloud of depression, despair and distrust that hangs heavy over the club after it claimed the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first team in MLS history to finish dead last in two consecutive seasons. The lengthy playoff drought has led to a fan base that is starving for wins. Toyota Park is emptier and quieter than anyone would like.
But like every offseason, there is a glimmer of sunshine penetrating through the proverbial cloud. Supporters have reason once again to think maybe this year can be different. The front office has made savvy decisions, bringing in sensational striker Nemanja Nikolic, MLS stalwart Dax McCarty and MLS Cup champion Juninho. It is a holy trinity that many have already put faith in to deliver salvation from the valley the Fire has been stuck in for years.
But with great expectation comes great risk. Another failed campaign will only make the cloud darker, angrier and more encompassing. If the Fire is to rise from the ashes, they will have to answer these questions.
1) Is Veljko Paunovic the man for the job?
Don’t let the big-name signings fool you, this is the most important question of the season. Veljko Paunovic came to the Fire with plenty of promise after winning the U-20 World Cup with Serbia. He received a tough lesson in his maiden campaign, learning even the most encouraging motivation and sharp tactics are not enough to overcome the unrelenting grind of an MLS season and a team that seemed to lose belief. It would be unfair to hold him solely responsible for last year. He can shoulder some blame, but he was learning on the job and needs time to make this team his own.
Now is that time. The front office has handed Paunovic more quality than the team has had in years. Paunovic is a year smarter and should be more comfortable navigating everything that comes with the grind. If the team unravels at the first sign of struggle, if infighting occurs, if he loses the locker room, there will be no excuse. Paunovic has the on-field leaders he needs, he has a scorer and there are supporting pieces in place to make his system come to life. Anything less than a legitimate playoff push will be a less than rosy reflection on Paunovic. I think he has the ability to be a good coach in this league. He needs to show it this season.
2) Is Nemanja Nikolic the man we’ve been looking for?
The Fire think they have found their man. Nikolic has scored everywhere he has ever gone. 87 goals in 149 appearances in Hungary’s top flight with Videoton and a stunning 40 goals in only 56 appearances for Poland’s Legia Warsaw, where he also gained Champions League experience. On paper, it looks fantastic. But a lot of teams think they found their key to success this season. Atlanta brought in a pair of highly regarded South Americans as well Trinidadian star Kenwyne Jones. The Galaxy brought in Romain Alessandrini, RSL is hoping Albert Rusnak is a star and FC Dallas is looking to Cristian Colman to get them over the hump.
The point is a lot of teams think they outsmarted the other 21 teams. But there are no guarantees. Houston thought they had an answer with Cubo Torres and Portland thought they had a difference maker in Lucas Melano. And of course, the Fire have a history of striking out on Designated Players.
Nikolic will need to prove he can replicate his past success elsewhere in MLS. There seems to be plenty of reason to believe he will deliver, but he’ll need to adapt to a league that has derailed more than a couple “sure things” in the past. Get to 15 goals and I’ll be happy.
3) Does the Fire have a goalkeeper?
In football, they say if you have two quarterbacks you don’t have one. We’re going to find out if there should be a similar saying in soccer about having three goalkeepers. The Fire moved on from longtime keeper and fan favorite Sean Johnson after a strange 2016 that saw him start the year on the bench. Chicago is now putting their faith in little-known Jorge Bava and the inconsistent Matt Lampson. Rookie Stefan Cleveland is also around and it’s not impossible, though extremely unlikely, he could emerge in this hodge-podge group.
Bava, a 35-year-old keeper from South America, probably will not inspire much excitement from supporters but is likely the opening day starter. If Nelson Rodriguez and Paunovic had enough interest to go to another continent to get him despite America regularly producing top-notch goalkeeper prospects, they must like him. Bava has a ton of adjusting to do as he plays in a new country for the first time and there is no guarantee it will work out. Lampson seems to be forever in the good graces of Paunovic, which is fine since he is a capable keeper. The problem is Lampson is pretty inconsistent and relying on him as a primary keeper seems dangerous. Cleveland is a rookie who will probably be in Tulsa developing, but who knows.
For as excited as I am about the team increasing scoring with Nikolic in the fold, I am just as concerned about an increase in conceding. Let’s hope Rodriguez and Paunovic were right about Bava.
4) Who will play right back?
Remember how excited we all got about Rodrigo Ramos after the first few games? Ah, memories. It turns out Ramos wasn’t what Paunovic was looking for in a player, reportedly for some off-field issues. Whatever the case, the team is now looking for a right back. Johan Kappelhof is capable of playing the position, but everyone, including fans, seems to prefer him as a center back. Matt Polster (who will be out with an injury to start the season) is another option, but he is a true defensive midfielder and that is where he should continue to play. The Fire had Drew Beckie and Boyd Okwuono competing for the spot as trialists, but that has already come to an end.
It is looking more and more likely that Michael Harrington will be holding down the spot to start the season. It’s a risky proposition, but may make the most sense all the same. Of course, the club could still go sign a bigger name. It’s an important question to answer but shouldn’t make or break the season. If the right back is your best player, you may have other problems.
5) Can Dax change the culture?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning Dax McCarty. I already know he is going to be a good player, a professional, compete hard and be a leader. The question is will it be enough? Can Dax change the “OK with losing” culture he alluded to in his first call with Chicago media? If anyone can, I think Dax is the guy and he will have help from perennial winner Juninho. But the mental aspect of sports is real. Michael de Leeuw talked about the team being “too nice” last year. Dax said he saw an acceptance of losing as an outside observer. The team needs to regain belief in itself and remember they also are capable of winning in this league. It’s not easy, but it will be important. Dax seems like the perfect guy to rebuild the culture. Hopefully it doesn’t prove too big a challenge.
If the team can answer all these questions in the positive, I think Chicago will be playing soccer after Oct. 22.