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Know Thy Enemy: Proper Season Opening Edition in Chicago

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In true MLS Opening Week tradition, the Revs are on the road, but this time against a familiar Eastern Conference foe.

New England Revolution v Chicago Fire

There’s something about opening the season against a rival that feels right. Yes, we know the New England Revolution usually open every MLS season on the road thanks to the mischievous and unpredictable New England weather. I mean, it did snow in Boston and upper New England yesterday, but a lot of the time it feels like the Revs are out in the Western Conference playing Seattle or Dallas or Colorado or Houston.

Okay, the Dynamo matchup from 2016 was fun and that Daigo Kobayashi equalizer was a wicked good time and there have been recent openers against the Philadelphia Union and Montreal Impact as well that got the year off on a right note even if it wasn’t the right result.

But starting the season in Chicago at Soldier Field no less brings back a lot of early memories of this matchup which was before my time when the the Revs and Fire seemingly met every year in the playoffs and actually seemed to hate each other. The past decade have not been as kind to either club from those early glory days, particularly for Chicago who have just a couple of playoff appearances since 2012.

But today begins a new season, everyone is on a level standing with hopes of playoff and cup runs. We chat with Patrick McCraney of Hot Time in Old Town about all things Chicago Fire including what when wrong last year and if the Fire can turn it around this year. We don’t talk about the new Chicago crest though, they’ve been through enough. Be sure to check out my answers to Patrick’s questions over on their site.

TBM: Chicago only missed the playoffs by a single point last year, but that was an 11th place finish in an expanded pandemic year and they would be almost 10 points off the pace from 7th place now. What was the biggest problem for the Fire last year (besides the new crest) and how did the team address it in the offseason?

PM: The Fire had three main problems last season—trouble finishing (outside of Robert Beric), momentary defensive lapses, and a bit of bad luck. We actually saw this in both games against the Revs last season. In the March 7 game, Francisco Calvo switched off for a few seconds, and Adam Buksa was able to punish him for the Revs’ lone goal that game. In the September match, Calvo botched a clearance that Teal Bunbury jumped on for the first goal, and then comes that bad luck—Bunbury sails a cross past your old friend Bobby Shuttleworth to make it 2-1.

Chicago had 18 new players last season. Fire brass are hoping another year together will help the team come together and fix those errors, especially defensively. The Fire were actually very good for about 85 minutes in most matches, but switching off for five minutes will usually get you killed.

On the attack, Luka Stojanovic is finally healthy and ready to help the team. He played all of 60 minutes last season before getting injured, but he should be able to take some of the scoring load of Beric. The Fire signed two more young attackers in the off season, Chinonso Offor, who is unproven but looks exciting, and Stanislav Ivanov, who immediately injured his knee and is out until late summer.

TBM: Robert Beric is pretty good at this goal scoring thing, but who is going to help him in 2021?

PM: Great question. As I mentioned above, a healthy Stojanovic should help, and we’ll see what the 20-year-old Offor can bring. Another guy to watch is Designated Player Ignacio Aliseda, who had a poor 2020 in his first season in MLS. Aliseda says he has his head right and he’s ready for a good season, so we’ll see.

The lack of scoring outside Beric wasn’t because of a lack of chances, though. The Fire actually led the Eastern Conference in Expected Goals, but struggled to finish too many of those chances.

TBM: What are the expectations for the Fire this year? Can they compete for a playoff spot and make a run or is that perhaps a step up too far after last year?

PM: It’s MLS, so I guess anything could happen, but I feel like the Fire improve a little bit over 2020, sneaking in and grabbing the final playoff spot.

Predictions/Injuries/Etc.

Chicago is dealing with several injuries on the attack. As I mentioned, Ivanov is out, as are Fabian Herbers (who scored against the Revs in September), and Elliot Collier. Several more players are questionable, including Aliseda. I’m feeling a 1-1 draw.