The New Year. New hopes, new opportunities, and fresh aspirations. With 2023 in the rearview mirror, the turning of the calendar is an ideal moment to reflect, recalibrate, and set resolutions for the upcoming year – or in the case of the Chicago Fire, the upcoming season.
With that in mind, here are seven resolutions that, if the Fire commit to them, will make 2024 a year for Fire fans to remember.
1. Fill All 3 DP slots
Designated Player (DP) slots are like cheat codes in the salary-constrained confines of MLS: Teams can spend whatever they want on three players that can have a disproportionate impact on the team. From the end of 2022 through the summer of 2023, the Fire had one slot open, essentially, deciding not to sign a potential difference maker. (It’s also true that the DPs the Fire did have signed – Xherdan Shaqiri and Jairo Torres – were underperformers and non-factors respectively, but that’s a different story.)
For a team that is started for points and results, that’s inexcusable, and while teams like Los Angeles FC also had a DP spot open, they were competing for (and losing) championship finals, and the Fire were fighting for (and losing) a spot in the postseason (ask LAFC fans if they think adding one more DP might have made a difference in their fortunes last season). The Fire simply need to fill all three DP slots, preferably with difference makers (more on that below), but at the very least, they need to take advantage of every roster rule under the sun to build a competitive team.
2. Move dead wood and strengthen the top of the roster
Several of the Fire’s top performers in 2023 were those who arguably overperformed. Maren Haile-Selassie and Brian Gutiérrez were consistently the team’s two most dangerous attackers, but neither were DPs or TAM players. Many of the players who do hold those designations, though, namely YDP Jairo Torres and TAM forward Kacper Przybyłko, were hardly a factor last season and failed to lock down starting jobs despite earning nearly three million dollars between them. They aren’t the only backups on big salaries, either, as right back Arnaud Souquet (making nearly $700,000) was demoted to the bench for the second half of the season, and Fede Navarro (U-22 on $507,000) started less than half of the Fire’s games in 2023.
As the Fire are expected to be aggressive in the market this offseason, players will have to leave, too, and these underperformers are at the top of the list. Przybyłko, for instance, likely has no role to play with the addition of Tom Barlow to the striker core, as Georgios Koutsias is expected to stay and a DP #9 is also slated to arrive. Torres, as statistically one of the worst DP signings in the history of the league, is someone the Fire may even consider taking a big loss on to free up the DP slot and allow the club to sign another starting midfielder. An upgrade at right back would be welcome, but the priority will likely be to solidify the top end of the roster and be less reliant on squad players to be regular contributors.
3. Figure out how to get the best out of Xherdan Shaqiri and Brian Gutiérrez
The lack of a solution to the #10 dilemma is one of the things that led to Ezra Hendrickson’s firing last spring, and Frank Klopas knows that solving it is a necessity if the Fire are to reach their potential in 2024. Of outfield players on the current roster, Shaqiri and Gutiérrez are the two most talented, but both would prefer to start in the same central attacking midfield role underneath the center forward. For most of the last two seasons, “Guti” has been shifted out to the left wing, where he has not been at his most effective, while Shaqiri has held onto a spot through the middle the majority of the time he’s been on the field.
Will Klopas have a new way to solve this puzzle in 2024? Could we see a return to the dual-ten system deployed for part of the spring, potentially at the expense of wingers like Chris Mueller? It remains to be seen, but if the Fire can have their two attacking midfield dynamos firing on all cylinders, there would be no other MLS team with a creative engine room that strong.
4. Stop blowing late leads
On one hand, the Fire finished their 2023 season 13th in the East, just two spots removed from the basement of the Eastern Conference. On the other, they were still alive as long as Decision Day, the last matchday of the season, and a win on that day would have given them 9th place and punched the team’s ticket to the playoffs.
The Fire allowed goals after the 80th minute resulting in dropped points eight times in 2023, meaning one loss and three draws from winning positions, and four losses from a draw when they were tied at the 80th minute. If the team had managed to batten down the hatches for the final 10 minutes of play, they would have had 17 more points, which would have tied them with Columbus in that regard and given them fourth place in the East, ahead of the Philadelphia Union. The margins in this league are small, and being able to see out results is the difference between a playoff contender and a playoff spectator.
5. Fans in the Five Digits
The Fire hosted three home games throughout the 2023 MLS regular season with fewer than 10,000 people making their way through the gates to Soldier Field’s 61,500 seats. While Soldier Field’s architecture doesn’t do an MLS crowd many favors (sound, notedly, is carried out of the venue rather than resonating within as happens in stadiums with roofs), with that few people in attendance, Soldier Field feels almost like a museum, and the atmosphere is simply not as fun for fans or for players, and the team simply needs to find a way to get more attendees. Ten thousand is not a high bar to crack, and yet it is one the team hasn’t been able to make consistently.
There are certainly excuses – the league’s insistence on simultaneous starts at 7:30 PM local time is not friendly for outdoor games in cold climates, and the 7,815 that came to the Fire’s match against FC Cincinnati on March 18, 2023, did so in 23°F weather with a real feel closer to 7°F, but weather alone can’t explain away the issue: Only 9,187 showed up for the Fire’s game against the Whitecaps in late August last season when the temperature was in the low 70s and a sunny day gave way to a temperate night by Chicago’s lakefront.
According to the team, season ticket sales – the bedrock for in-game attendance – are up significantly year-over-year, which helps, but it happens, the team simply needs to find ways to improve attendance – not just on average or by drawing more people to in-demand games like those against Inter Miami or when a star from El Tri is coming to town, but especially by raising the floor, both for the sake of fans in attendance, vendors working for tips and the appearance of crowds on TV for audiences in Chicago and beyond.
6. Alleviate long winless runs
In both 2022 and 2023, the Fire had moments of the season where it looked like they could make the playoffs. Last season, the Fire found themselves comfortably above the line in August, and the year prior, they soared to 7th at the same marker. Both times, however, a losing streak and inability to score goals quickly set in, and both seasons came crashing down in just a few games.
In the new year, Klopas’ team must ensure that such droughts do not happen again. Stretches like the 11-game winless streak in the spring of 2022 simply cannot continue if reaching the postseason is an expectation, regardless of the three or four game-winning runs that have popped up in both of the last two summers. Avoiding long periods of failing to find the back of the net is also essential; the Fire recorded an unbearable 511-minute goalless run last September, and the likely addition of a reliable DP #9 should also contribute to preventing that.
7. Return to the playoffs
This one’s obvious: The Fire haven’t seen the postseason since 2017, the longest active streak in the league and the second-longest streak in league history, after Toronto FC’s reign of futility upon entering the league. The team simply needs to find a way to get back into the postseason, come hell or high water.
More than that, they need to meet the bar set by Frank Klopas, when his return as Fire head coach permanently was announced: “Our goal shouldn’t be just to sneak into the playoffs. We want to build a team that is competing to win trophies every year.”
With a six-year playoff drought, and a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2009, the time to compete is now.