Ahead of the Fire’s first game, MIR97 is going through the Fire’s roster player by player. Following our profiles on the Fire’s defenders and goalkeepers, we will now preview the midfielders. Some of the players listed below play primarily as wingers on the attack but are officially listed as midfielders on the team’s roster, so we’ll be discussing them here. Again, we’ll introduce you to each player, which includes how they joined the Fire, a review of their 2022 season, and the expectations and hopes surrounding them for the 2023 season.
Colin Chough will once again kick things off by discussing what’s expected of midfielders under Fire Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson.
Fire fans this year can again expect the team to play a double pivot in midfield, with a number ten roaming in front of them. The advantage of playing with two number sixes is that it provides that extra bit of defensive solidarity in front of the back four, in addition to a midfield advantage when building out from the back. This extra defensive cover in the middle of the park plays into the Fire’s hands, given the options at the number ten position. The Fire’s three most creative 10s, Xherdan Shaqiri, Brian Gutiérrez, and Jairo Torres, could all possibly be deployed in this role, as well as on the wing in a front three. By leaving most of the defensive battle to the two ball-winning midfield players, Shaqiri, or whoever the number ten is, should therefore have lots of freedom to play on a higher line to hopefully hit opponents on the counter. We will most likely see two of these three players in the starting XI each week, unless one of them is able to take Chris Mueller’s spot on the left side. When Guti and Shaqiri are playing together, it will be interesting to see the two’s movement off the ball when going forward. Although Shaqiri is the more natural wide player and Guti is naturally a number ten, Ezra will most likely have Guti out on the wing and Shaq through the middle. Something I would personally like to see is Guti often coming central to give the Fire a numbers advantage in the middle of the park. On the flip side, I would also like to see Shaqiri take the space left by Guti, especially in the attacking third. These kinds of dynamic movements could potentially be really difficult to pick up by defenders, and would help Ezra’s side turn possession into chances.
Javier Casas Jr.
Height: 5’4” DOB: 5-14-2023 (19)
GP: 5 Starts: 0 Mins: 34
G: 0 A: 0 YC: 1 RC: 0
A product of the Fire’s academy, Javi Casas made his debut with the team in 2021 and split his time between the Fire and Fire II in MLS Next Pro last season, but he struggled to get off the bench on times when he was in the lineup with the team.
History with the Fire: A native of suburban Melrose Park, Casas signed a homegrown player deal with the Fire in 2020. After spending some time with Forward Madison in 2021, Casas joined the Fire and earned his first minutes with the team that season.
2022 season in review: Casas made the gameday roster 24 times last season but spent most games watching from the bench, playing only limited minutes in the five games. Coming off the bench, Casas acted as a late-game utility player, subbing in for various midfielders and even striker Kacper Pryzbyłko.
Key Questions for 2023: Can Casas get consistent minutes – both for the club and in his position? Casas spent the majority of 2022 on Fire gameday rosters but was seldom actually used as a substitute, which limited his game time and, as a result, his opportunities for growth. Consistent playing time – even if it’s with the Fire II – will be key for Casas to take the next step in his development.
Height: 6’2” DOB: 7-27-1991 (31) Foot: Left
GP: 22 Starts: 20 Mins: 1700
G: 0 A: 2 YC: 6 RC: 0
Giménez starts the 2023 season without a designated player designation for the first time since joining the team in 2020, being granted a new contract for the third time in his four years on the team. Now on a more cap-friendly TAM-level deal, Gaston still figures to be head coach Ezra Hendrickson’s first choice for the central midfielder role. As such, he’ll be expected to stop oncoming attacks before they become dangerous while also acting as a creative force when the team kicks things off on offense.
History with the Fire: Part of the first crop of designated player contracts under Technical Director Georg Heitz, Giménez joined the Fire just after the start of the 2020 season.
2022 season in review: Although Giménez 2022 campaign was limited by injury to 22 games, he did put up strong numbers defensively for the Fire in last year’s campaign – 1.91 blocks per 90 minutes (99th percentile in the league), and was 94th percentile at successful take-ons with 1.49 per 90 minutes, alongside strong numbers for tackles won (1.70/90 minutes, good for 88th percentile), and was 95th percentile in the league with 8.50 ball recoveries per 90 minutes. In the Fire’s preferred 4-2-3-1 setup, however, players in Giménez’s role are expected to have a significant role setting up offensive plays – and on that side of the ball, Giménez has been a mixed bag – with very pedestrian numbers for pass-completion (82%, good for 54th percentile in the league), shot-creating actions (2.65 per 90, 67th percentile), along with similar statistics for progressive passes, key passes, and expected assists.
Key Questions for 2023: Can Giménez keep up his defensive numbers and find a way to improve his offensive numbers? At 31, can he keep up his speed, stay healthy – and be ahead of Mauricio Pineda on the Fire’s depth chart?
Height: 5’10” DOB: 6-17-2003 (19) Foot: Right
GP: 33 Starts: 20 Mins: 1638
G: 2 A: 7 YC: 3 RC: 1
Another bright spot in a bleak 2022 season for the Fire was the season of homegrown Brian Gutiérrez, who made an immediate impression on the squad last season with his talent and work ethic. Gutiérrez, commonly referred to as “Guti,” primarily featured for the Fire last season as a left-winger but can also play on the right wing or as a center-attacking midfielder.
The Berwyn native has also been a member of several camps of varying ages for the US Men’s National Team and will be a part of the U-20 World Cup team in the spring if released.
History with the Fire: Brian Gutiérrez was signed to a homegrown deal on March 9th, 2020, and had been with the Fire Academy since 2015.
2022 season in review: Last season was the first in which Gutiérrez had been a mainstay in the squad, making 33 total appearances. During this time, 20 of those appearances were as a starter. Guti registered 2 goals and 7 assists, with his assist tally being the second most on the team. In terms of passing, Guti had the second-highest assists per average on the team, sitting at 0.38. An area where Guti can improve is his dribbling, as his statistics suggest improvement may be necessary if the Fire wants to make the playoffs. Guti only had 20 successful dribbles, sitting at a 55.6 dribble percentile. In general, for the Fire, attackers not named Chris Mueller or Shaqiri have fairly average statistics for dribbles, suggesting that this is an area the whole team needs to improve upon.
Key Questions for 2023: Will Guti be able to make 2023 his breakout year? Showing clear improvement on a season-to-season basis, the Fire could have another incredible talent on their hands. With the arrival of Haile-Selassie in the offseason, though, Guti will have to actively compete for the starting spot. Will he be able to handle the competition? Can he improve upon his already high 7 assists from last year? If he has a great season, could we see Guti being one of the Fire’s next European exports?
Sergio Oregel Jr.
Height: 5’9” DOB: 5-16-2005 (17)
GP: 1 Starts: 0 Mins: 11
G: 0 A: 0 YC: 0 RC: 0
Homegrown product and Evergreen Park native Sergio Oregel Jr. had his first professional season in 2022, playing primarily with the Fire II of MLS Next Pro. He also featured in one MLS regular season game for the Fire and played 90 minutes in the team’s sole US Open Cup match.
History with the Fire: A product of the Fire Academy, Oregel had his professional debut with the Fire II last season and 2 appearances with the first team in all competitions.
2022 season in review: Signed to his first professional deal just before the 2022 preseason started, Oregel established himself as a regular on the Fire II roster, earning 1,329 minutes in 17 games. He played primarily in a central midfield role for the Fire II, occasionally playing more like an attacking midfielder. He notched six assists in the Fire II’s debut campaign and made it on the gameday roster for the main Fire team 9 times, twice early on, followed by an extended stretch in the last month of the campaign.
Key Questions for 2023: Can he find consistency? As with many of the Fire’s young homegrowns, Oregel found himself as an unused sub for the Fire during stretches of the season, which limited his ability to get into a routine with the Fire II, where he saw the bulk of his playing time. Oregel has displayed his talent and ability, primarily with the Fire II – he’s particularly skilled at taking set pieces – but finding minutes and a consistent position, even with the Fire II, will be important in giving Oregel the opportunity to establish himself.
Height: 5’8” DOB: 3-9-2000 (22) Foot: Right
2022 Stats :
GP: 30 Starts: 27 Mins: 2461
G: 2 A: 3 YC: 7 RC: 1
Arguably the Fire’s most important player since his arrival, Federico Navarro is a cornerstone of this squad for a variety of reasons. His talent, drive, leadership, and overall ability make him one of the league’s finest midfielders. The former Argentina U-19 international has been the engine of the Fire’s midfielder almost immediately upon his arrival, winning the team MVP award in 2021 despite arriving in August of that season.
History with the Fire: Federico Navarro was signed from Argentinian club CA Talleres in 2021, his home club since 2013.
2022 season in review: Federico Navarro, also nicknamed “Fede”, went under the radar in terms of league-wide recognition despite having another strong season for the Fire. Fede led the team with the highest accurate passing percentage at 85.7, the highest number of tackles completed with 65, the highest number of duels with 345 (59 more than the nearest player), and finished within the top three of several other categories. What else is there to say? To put it simply, Fede was outstanding last season.
Key Questions for 2023: It honestly would be shocking to see Fede perform poorly in 2023, so questioning the quality of his performances is likely out of hand. With that being said, though, could we see Fede leave the team in the summer due to European interest? What would the Fire’s midfield look like without him? In the early absence of Gaston Giménez, who will be Fede’s midfield partner? Will they have enough chemistry to make it work?
Height: 5’10” DOB: 3-13-1999 (23) Foot: Right
2022 Stats (2022-2023 season with FC Lugano – Swiss Super League):
GP: 20 Starts: 9 Mins: 896
G: 4 A: 2 YC: 0 RC: 0
Maren Haile-Selassie bounced around different teams in Switzerland for the last couple of years. However, still only aged 23, there is hope Haile-Selassie has found a place to call home. Primarily playing as a left-winger or midfielder, Haile-Selassie has made 199 appearances across various club competitions in Switzerland and was a youth international for Switzerland at the U-18, U-19, and U-20 levels. He is also eligible to represent Ethiopia.
History with the Fire: Haile-Selassie was acquired from Chicago Fire sister club FC Lugano on a one-year loan with the option to purchase.
2022 season in review: Through 20 matches across various competitions, Maren Haile-Selassie had 3 goals and 3 assists, but a majority of his appearances were as a substitute. With only 9 starts, it is difficult to rack up substantial statistics, especially given that Haile-Selassie had played under 900 minutes. It should be noted that in 2022 FC Lugano won the Swiss Super League Championship, in which Hailie-Sellasie scored a goal in the final.
Key Questions for 2023: Will Hailie-Selassie have what it takes to be a starter for the Fire, especially with Brian Gutiérrez around? As of late, we have seen that taking gambles on wingers outside the top 5 European leagues may not pay off (example: Ivanov). In his somewhat limited minutes though, Maren Haile-Selassie has shown that he can be productive, especially when coming off of the bench. Can Hailie-Selassie form one of the league’s potentially most technical attacking groups with Mueller and Shaqiri? Can Hailie-Selassie help bring some much-needed productivity up top?
Height: 5’7” DOB: 10-10-1991 (31) Foot: Both
GP: 29 Starts: 27 Mins: 2258
G: 7 A: 11 YC: 5 RC: 0
By far the most recognizable name on the Fire’s roster, Shaqiri starts his second season in MLS following a decent World Cup with Switzerland, where he started in 3 games and contributed a goal and an assist. Although he put up decent numbers in his first year with the Fire (7 goals and 11 assists), many expected more given his international reputation and team-record salary (at over $8.1m guaranteed per season). With no major international tournament on the horizon and having had a year to adjust to the league, the hope is that a focused Shaqiri can stay healthy and contribute more in his second season with the team.
History with the Fire: Signed from Ligue 1 side Olympique Lyonnais prior to the start of the 2022 season
2022 season in review: Hendrickson primarily employed Shaqiri in a central attacking midfielder role last year, although he’s primarily played as a winger both with the Swiss National Team and in previous clubs. Although many around the league felt that he fell short of lofty expectations, many of Shaqiri’s underlying statistics were strong in his debut season: He was 90th percentile for expected assisted goals (0.30 per 90 minutes) and key passes (2.84 per 90). In fact, most of Shaqiri’s offensive passing and offensive numbers were solid – and although he didn’t contribute much defensively, he wasn’t asked to.
Key Questions for 2023: The question for Shaqiri is simple – can he step it up in 2023? More was expected of Shaqiri, fairly or not, given his profile and price tag. Despite many strong offensive numbers, he was scarcely in the top 3rd of midfielders for goal-creating actions (at 0.52 per 90 minutes, good for 71% in the league), and often ended up simply crossing the ball (which he did 7.51 times per 90 minutes, 92nd percentile in the league). While that might be a sign of the team’s broader offensive struggles, Fire fans expect more from him this season. Can he stay healthy, and, most importantly, can he deliver?