2015 Chicago Fire: A Year In Review

chicago_fire_fans_1_1280x960

The MLS Cup Playoff tournament is in full swing, with all of its last-second drama and big-game splendor. It’s an exciting time of year for supporters around the league, and a rising point of interest for football fanatics elsewhere in the world. For the Chicago Fire and its supporters, the playoffs are first and foremost a painful reminder of the futility and inconsistency that was the 2015 season.

When I first signed up to become a beat writer for the Fire, I honestly thought the club would start to turn things around this season. After setting the league record for draws last year (18), and missing the playoffs four of its last five seasons, the Fire and its owner Andrew Hauptman shelled out big cash in 2015 for overseas talent, in hopes of turning the tide. That clearly didn’t happen, and instead, Chicago had its worst season on record. Lets examine the gory details.

Designated Players: Class of 15’

The offseason addition of designated players Shaun Maloney, Kennedy Igboananike and David Accam was cause for encouragement heading towards first kick back in March. They weren’t the kind of blockbuster signings we saw from the likes of Toronto (Bradley, Giovinco, Altidore), L.A. (Gerrard, Dos Santos) NYCFC (Pirlo, Lampard, Villa), and Orlando (Kaka), but their level of talent and experience was expected to be the missing links in the Fire’s chain.

With 15 years of experience in the Scottish and English premier leagues collectively, and ten years with the Scottish national team, Sean Malloney brought an attacking midfield threat many had hoped would be hard to match around the league this year. Instead, the Scotsman made little to no impact, and was out of Chicago and back playing in England by midseason.

It’s not easy to say exactly why Malloney wanted the early exit, but he was clearly uninspired. It was rare to catch him ever break a sweat. During matches, I would often forget he was even on the field. In the locker room, his post-game interviews gave the impression that a close friend or relative of his died recently. The team says Malloney left for personal reasons. Yeah, as in, “I personally don’t want to play for this second-rate team and coach anymore.”

The other designated players at least made it to the end of the season, though one of them no longer holds his DP status. Nigerian international Kennedy Igboananike was brought in from the top league in Swedish football (Allsvenskan) as a DP option in the offseason, but was forced to take a pay cut and surrender his DP status mid-year when the team picked up the option for Brazilian forward Gilberto.

I liked Igboananike’s speed and athleticism, but he was brought in to score goals, and he struggled dearly with that. Like many players on the roster, Iggy was constantly bouncing around in former coach Frank Yallop’s ‘system,’ if we can call it that. Yallop moved him from winger, to striker, to attacking midfielder, to benchwarmer and back again. The Nigerian finished the year with seven goals and three assists, with 66 shot attempts.

While a manager can’t be fully responsible for a guy’s lack of goal scoring, Iggy can’t be blamed for this team’s lack of consistency across the board. I’ll get back to that later.

As for Iggy’s replacement DP Gilberto, the Brazilian forward made a positive impact on a largely impotent Fire attack, but it was too little, too late for Chicago. Gilberto notched five goals and two assists in ten appearances, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the season was all but over by the time he arrived. Also, it’s difficult to come in as the guy that could have been Didier Drogba.

The Fire only picked up Gilberto when the front office realized it couldn’t sign former Chelsea football star, Didier Drogba. The biggest what-if scenario for Chicago this season was the very real possibility of signing the Ivorian striker. He expressed an interest to join an MLS side over the summer, and Chicago had the first chance to make an offer for his player rights after filing a discovery claim for him.

It seemed Chicago might have finally found its big-name hero and true replacement for Fire legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Instead, Drogba slipped from Chicago’s sights and into the hands of conference rival, Montreal Impact. Before it signed Drogba, Montreal was going nowhere fast. Now, the long-time Chelsea striker is scoring at will, terrorizing defenders on a weekly basis and leading his new side on its second-ever playoff run. Oops.
Perhaps Drogba was the answer to all of Chicago’s prayers. Or maybe he wouldn’t have fit in here at all, unable to bring the same Drogba-effect that Montreal is currently enjoying. We’ll never know, but when it comes to individual players, Chicago’s silver lining comes in the form of Ghanaian forward David Accam.

With ten goals and the team scoring title, Accam was the clear choice for Chicago’s MVP this year, and was easily the most impactful DP out of the four brought in. His speed and ability in one-on-one situations, and his nose for goal made him a constant threat in Chicago’s attack. Unfortunately, he was never able to achieve his full potential for a couple of reasons.

For one, he came right from playing in Sweden along with international duty for his native Ghana in the AFCON (African Cup of Nations). So he was constantly battling fatigue and injuries, going from one grueling schedule overseas directly to another upon arriving in Chicago.

The other, and more important issue holding back Accam is his linear attacking style. The man has only two speeds: stop and 90 MPH. He needs to learn some control in possession, and not just barrel into the heart of defenses at full speed. That, and he must learn to pass. It was rare to ever catch Accam looking side-to-side for open teammates, but a common occurrence to see him driving towards goal no matter what.

If he can add some patience in possession and more of a team mentality to his game, the young striker has a bright future with a high ceiling, and is someone the team could potentially build around. Then again, he might not have the capacity to improve in those ways, and could simply not be a good fit for Chicago. Time will tell, but I think you have to give him another year to prove himself. Let him recover from injuries and a full calendar year with no offseason before you’re too harsh on Accam, a man nominated by mlssoccer.com for goal of the year.

A Certain Mentality

 We can talk all day about big-name players, and who the next DP signing should be, but this club needs more than flashy, new players from across the pond. After the disappointing loss last week to New York Red Bulls in the final match of 2015, interim coach Brian Bliss talked a lot about the mentality of the team, and how losing permeated the culture of the team.

“We lost a lot. It was becoming almost common place, and we’ve got to change the mentality,” said interim coach Brian Bliss in a recent press conference.

Indeed, his side lost more than any other club this season, setting a new franchise low with 20 losses, including zero wins on the road. It’s easy to see how this team got down on itself from the early going. And while this issue of having the proper, winning mentality can be difficult to define or transmit to players, it’s the dead-on truth when it comes to Chicago. For a team named the Fire, this team utterly lacked a sense of purpose and passion in 2015.

Part of me liked the calm, seemingly levelheaded side of Frank Yallop. It’s nice to see a professional coach not be a complete jerk to his players, constantly yelling and nagging with negative reinforcement. But the nice guy routine looks really bad when your club is constantly losing. I lost track of how many times Yallop addressed the media after a disappointing loss or draw with the same, softly spoken, easy-going excuses.

Most post-game press conferences this year were pretty much this: “Well, I think the effort’s there, but for whatever reason we couldn’t seem to blah blah blah. If it weren’t for injuries and absences we might be able to blah blah blah.”

Meanwhile, the entire room is falling asleep due to the complete lack of emotion coming out of this man. I can recall one time when Yallop yelled something out of frustration, and kicked a stack of cones on the sideline during a match. It was exponentially more emotion than I’d ever seen spill out of him. Otherwise, he carried himself like a guy calmly waiting for his inevitable pink slip, which he received before season’s end.

Is that what he wanted? I’d like to think not, but his club was clearly missing something intangible. Call it a grittiness, toughness, swagger or confidence. Whatever you want to call it, this team didn’t have it, and hasn’t had it for a while. That winning mentality starts from the top down, and Frank Yallop never seemed to hold players accountable when things were so obviously going wrong. At the same time, the front office also needs to do its job by keeping tabs on the coaches, ensuring their accountability as well. Pardon the weak pun, but someone needed to light a fire under this club, and no one seemed up for it.

Yallop could only blame injuries and absences for so long before it cost him his job. The former coach constantly used this excuse to justify his team’s poor play and lack of consistency in all phases of the game. Every team, at some point or another, has to deal with that, and the good ones still find a way to get results. Those clubs do so by developing young talent, creating depth and building longevity.

The Youth Movement

It’s difficult to take a lot of positives from this season, but one is certainly the development of young, talented players. The standout rookie was without a doubt holding midfielder, USMNT hopeful, and former Notre Dame star Matt Polster. He earned his rookie paycheck and then some by shoring up the defensive midfield, a position very much in question for this club at the start of the year. Unfortunately, because of the Fire’s weak defending, he was asked to often play wingback, an unnatural position for the rookie midfielder.

Other young standouts and hopefuls for the future include Matt Watson, Chris Ritter, Daneil Cyrus, Collin Fernandez, and the local boy from Northwestern, Patrick Doody. These players are potentially the future of the team, league and US soccer in general. Even if they don’t pan out here or in general, it’s important that Chicago amps up its youth development. Other teams have invested in USL clubs to streamline the process, and I think Chicago needs to commit to this, hopefully sooner than later.

These kinds of decisions will now fall to the new, interim general manager Nelson Rodriguez. However, before he can focus on issues like youth development and the next big signing, the new GM’s first objective is to find a new manager. Interim coach Brian Bliss is in the conversation, but an unlikely choice gong forward. Former Red Bulls coach Mike Petke is supposedly a current front-runner for the job, but we’ll likely know Chicago’s next manager before the end of the year. Regardless of who gets the job, or however this team moves forward, lets just hope it’s someone or something that involves some passion, fight and a winning mentality. This is a proud soccer club with a rich history, and it deserves far better.