As Atlanta United fans, we mostly know the Chicago Fire from the 4-0 pummeling the Five Stripes handed them in Week 3 at Bobby Dodd. Granted, they were at 10 men for the majority of the game, but domination was already in evidence early. That looked like a team in need of serious help.
Consider this also: the Fire had finished dead last in MLS the past two seasons, amassing a paltry 30 points in 2015 and 31 in 2016.
However, right now, the Fire are in second place in both the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings, on total points and on points per game. Their 25 points to date from 14 games is already close to matching their totals for the past two seasons.
So what happened?
Well, the obvious answer is that they went out and signed Bastian Schweinsteiger as a Designated Player (Schweini’s first game for the Fire was the week after the Atlanta game). But that’s only part of the story; one player does not usually make a team better. In this case, however, it looks like he was the last piece of the puzzle.
Chicago had already made several significant changes to boost their roster. They had two Designated Players in David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic, both rather younger than Schweini, although not quite in the Atlanta youth mold. They had also made two significant midfield acquisitions in the off-season in Dax McCarty and Juninho.
Those two signings were a big reason many pundits expressed surprise at the splashy big name signing. Where exactly was Schweinsteiger going to fit in an already strengthened midfield? Not to mention the fact that he had been struggling at Manchester United, both with injuries and playing time. On top of that, the Chicago Fire have a long but mixed history with Designated Players, going all the way back to 2007 and the original class of DPs with Cuauhtemoc Blanco, but also one of the biggest DP flops, Nery Castillo.
Well, for a couple of weeks at least, it seems they really didn’t know what they were going to do with him, or with their other signings for that matter. In the first five weeks of the season, Chicago played a total of four different formations (4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3), and three different formations in Schweinsteiger’s first three games (4-3-3, 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1). They finally settled on a system, and have played a 4-2-3-1 consistently for the past 8 games.
However, they have shuffled their players around a fair bit; every field player who has started more than one game has played in at least two different positions. Schweinsteiger, for example, has played in four different positions so far (left attacking mid, left central mid, central attacking mid and right holding mid). However, they seem to have arrived at a preferred first XI, which looks like this:
In some games, Matt Polster has played in place of Drew Conner. However, both appear to have supplanted Michael Harrington, who was the starter at right back for the first few games.
The player who seems to have lost out the most in this ongoing reshuffle is Juninho, who has played in only 9 games and started only 7. Our friends over at Hot Time in Old Town think he may be on his way out. Also, Jorge Bava, who was the starting goalkeeper at the beginning of the season has been benched in favor of Matt Lampson, who has played the last four games.
Now, compare that lineup to the lineup for the last game of 2016 (which was against Toronto FC):
Only four players (plus Polster) in common. A substantial shake-up. Note that David Arshakyan was just offered a loan to the USL’s Tulsa Roughnecks, which he apparently refused. Overall, of the 27 players on the 2016 roster, only 17 remain in 2017 and most of those are not playing other than in substitute roles.
Perhaps the most surprising holdover is coach Veljko Paunovic, who managed the club through the two previous disastrous seasons. That he is still at the helm indicates a remarkable degree of faith on the part of the front office. However, after two years and considerable tweaking, he appears to have finally gotten a team to his liking.
But how well is this team actually performing? As explained above, they are sitting pretty in second place. Interestingly, in second place in the Western Conference are the Houston Dynamo, with whom they share a critical problem. That is, they are terrible on the road. Well, not quite as bad as Houston (who are 0-6-1 away), but at 1-3-3 they are hardly stellar.
They are also fairly poor at scoring goals, standing at 6th in the East on goals per game (1.64). They are however defensively strong, allowing only 1.14 goals per game for 2nd in the East. On goal differential they are 4th at 0.50.
Finally, they appear to be heavily dependent on their holding midfield tandem of McCarty and Schweinsteiger, who have quickly developed a strong partnership much in the same way as our Jeff Larentowicz and Carlos Carmona. Dax McCarty is with the US national team preparing for the Trinidad & Tobago game this week and will be unavailable for Saturday’s game with Atlanta (he is their only call-up).
All these issues were in evidence in their game Sunday at Orlando City, in which without McCarty they managed only a 0-0 draw against a team that were down to ten men after 26 minutes and nine men after 66. Paunovic was not happy.
On the other hand, they are 6-0-1 at home, the only blemish being a somewhat unexpected tie with the Montreal Impact, appropriately on April 1st. Toyota Park is something of a fortress for them.
Just like the Five Stripes, the Fire are a work in process, but for very different reasons. Saturdays’ game will be an exercise in the unpredictable.