The Chicago Fire announced their end-of-season roster decisions ahead of 2024 this morning, with several players leaving the club and a few confirming their returns for the new year. The decisions, which were due to be announced before December 1st, are the first official act from Georg Heitz since his contract was renewed last week; this move was also made without the appointment of a head coach, which is, albeit, expected in the coming days.
The first and most important move made was that the Fire activated the option to buy in the contract of winger Maren Haile-Selassie, who had been on loan from sister club FC Lugano. The 24-year-old Zürich native had a breakthrough season in 2023, winning the Fire’s MLS golden boot with six goals and showing versatility and flexibility throughout the year. Haile-Selassie also had a knack for showing up in some big moments, such as scoring against St. Louis in the Open Cup and picking up a brace off the bench against Inter Miami in front of more than 62,000 fans at Soldier Field.
Haile-Selassie, who expressed interest in a Fire return towards the end of last season when he told media he would “imagine” himself being in Chicago next year, will now have an opportunity to take another step forward in his development in 2024.
“(My) first season in MLS, It was very exciting, a lot of new things,” Haile-Selassie said a few weeks ago ahead. “I think I dealt with most things pretty well. I enjoyed it with the teammates, with the club, with the staff, with the workers, and it’s been a good year for me.”
Compatriot Xherdan Shaqiri also recognizes what he brings to the team, and the potential he has for the future.
“We know his quality and he’s still young,” Xherdan Shaqiri said towards the end of the season. “I think for sure his dream is one day to play for the (Swiss) national team.”
Another player who will be returning in 2024 is defender Wyatt Omsberg, which is a statement that might not have been expected just three short months ago. After a breakout start to 2022, which saw Omsberg emerge as one of the Fire’s top center back options, a long-term injury setback derailed his season, and by the summer of this year, he was languishing in the reserve team. Despite making numerous appearances for Fire II, the now-28-year-old kept working, and, with the assistance of injuries, broke back into the XI in the final weeks. Omsberg went 90 minutes and played an exceptional match as the Fire defeated Miami 4-1 on October 4th.
Omsberg’s role for next season is yet to be determined – starting caliber center backs Rafa Czichos, Mauricio Pineda, and Carlos Terán are all still around – but it should be the right decision to stick with a reliable and proven MLS backup in an important position on the field.
Fullback Jonathan Dean was the next player to see his option activated, as he had previously been on a one-year deal following his purchase from USL Championship club Birmingham Legion. Most were unsure what to expect from Dean, but over the summer, he quite impressively dumped longtime Ligue 1 starter Arnaud Souquet from the XI and made the right back spot his own down the stretch. In a matter of months, Dean went from making USL road trips to Charleston, Tulsa, and Memphis to battling with top teams such as Club América and Messi’s Inter Miami. Though an upgrade may be needed at the position in the offseason if the Fire are to compete, the decision to keep Dean ensures they will have a reliable and exciting backup, whose emergence over the last few months has been a joy to watch.
The club’s longest-serving player, Fabian Herbers, will also stick around for another season. The Creighton alum is the only man on the current roster who was signed by the previous sporting staff (Nelson Rodríguez/Veljko Paunović) and has been a fairly reliable servant to the club in that time. Herbers also had a surprisingly impressive 2023 year, adding four goals and two assists, including some important ones in wins over the Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, and Nashville SC. Though likely to remain a depth piece, Herbers is a fairly solid one at the MLS level, and also provides a position locker room presence for his younger teammates.
The Fire’s #2 goalkeeper saw his option activated, so it appears he will remain in his role next year as well. Richey was brought on the be Gaga Slonina’s backup, and he will remain as Chris Brady’s backup as the 19-year-old continues his emergence as one of America’s top young players. While a lack of league starts may be frustrating for Richey, he still has an important role and should also get opportunities in the cups.
Third-string goalkeeper Jeff Gal also saw his option taken. The former-Swedish League keeper came to the Fire seeking an opportunity to return to his hometown, and has been a solid player to fill his typically unfashionable role. Though he did not debut for the first team, Gal played extensively for the second team, and sat on the bench several times in MLS.
Unlike Haile-Selassie, whose loan was easily a success, Doumbia’s six-month agreement was let cut-and-dry. The Ivorian defensive midfielder had a great start, impressing in his debut appearances against Minnesota, Puebla, and América in Leagues Cup, but his form dropped off when MLS play resumed. Despite some fairly strong performances in the fall, including a masterclass against Miami, it wasn’t enough to earn him a permanent transfer.
Initially a loan Designated Player, Doumbia likely would not have retained that distinction had he returned in the new year. He still would have been an expensive addition, though, which could be one reason the sporting staff decided to stay away from a transfer. His return to Lugano opens the door for a few central midfield signing, with Fede Navarro and Gastón Giménez alone surely not enough for a midfield to compete in MLS.
The loan deal to bring in Mexican left back Alonso Aceves from Pachuca ultimately goes down as an unsuccessful one, as his buy option was not picked up for 2024. The once-promising defender, who started a Liga MX liguilla final less than twelve months before coming to Chicago, failed to make an impact, and struggled to provide meaningful competition to Venezuelan international left back Miguel Ángel Navarro. Aceves’ only starts came when Navarro was on or returning from international duty, and when he did play, he was not particularly good. Considering he occupied one of the Fire’s three Under 22 Initiative slots last season, this one will not be remembered fondly.
Alex Monis departs the club following the conclusion of his rookie homegrown contract, which is always sad to see. The 20-year-old did take opportunities when they were granted to him, and scored his first MLS goal on Decision Day in 2022 with the last kick of the season, and earned a few spot minutes for Ezra Hendrickson at the start of this season. Monis played a prominent role for Fire II, and showed signs of growth throughout the year before going on loan to Rio Grande Valley in the final months. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to earn a new deal, but it will be interesting to see where he ends up next.
Sometimes, homegrown arrangements are just a deal of the wrong player at the wrong time; Allan Rodríguez may have been the right player, but signing him to a deal so early in his career may go down a mistake. Once seen as one of the top prospects in the ‘04 class, Rodríguez captained his age group at the international level and was seen as a future national team player for either the United States or Mexico. His development with the Fire never quite panned out, though, and he failed to make a single first team appearance in any official competition. He even struggled to make the bench for Fire II at times, and is now a free agent.
Defender Kendall Burks is another player who didn’t quite live up to his potential with the Fire, though he was brought in through the SuperDraft rather than the Academy. The center back was signed just ahead of the 2022 season and made a few appearances here and there, but failed to establish himself ahead of stiff competition in Czichos, Pineda, Terán, and Omsberg, meaning he spent most of his time with Fire II. Burks will be a free agent, and could re-sign elsewhere in MLS, but more than likely his level will be found in the lower divisions.
Javi Casas Jr.
The club confirmed that they are still in contract negotiations with homegrown midfielder Javi Casas, who made a few spot appearances in 2023. Casas is a young player who still shows some promise, and took his biggest opportunity last season when he provided the secondary assist on Kei Kamara’s game-winner against Inter Miami early in the year. Many would have expected Casas to go the way of Monis and Rodríguez this offseason, but clearly, his contributions with Fire II and the U.S. U-19s were good enough to put him on the brink of a well-deserved second chance with the club.