The Fire begin the 2023 season following an offseason made more notable for departures, headlined by GK Gabriel Slonina and forward Jhon Durán, than arrivals, leaving the team with several positions of need. Technical Director Georg Heitz can continue to make additions through April 24, but following that, any unmet needs will have to wait until the secondary window opens on July 5, roughly two weeks before the start of the Leagues Cup that will see MLS teams face off against Liga MX opponents, potentially adding a number of games to the Fire’s schedule this season.
As it stands today, assuming 19-year-old striker Giorgios Koutsias arrives from Greece as reported, the Fire have two open spots on their senior roster. Both can be filled with international or domestic players, thanks to a trade with Nashville. The team has an open Designated Player (DP) slot, which allows the team to spend an unlimited amount on transfer fees and salary, though reports have said that the Fire are looking at spending a more modest amount than they did last year in bringing over DP Xherdan Shaqiri from France. The Fire also has one open U22 Initiative slot (again, assuming Koutsias is signed), which lets the team spend unlimited amounts to bring a promising young player to MLS with certain salary restrictions. So, with two open spots and money to spend, what are the greatest positional needs for the team, and how should Heitz go about filling them?
Need #1: Reliable Striker
The Fire scored just 39 goals last year, putting them ahead of only DC United (36) in the 28-team league. Of last season’s production, eight of those goals (including five in the last five games of the season) departed when Jhon Durán was sold to Premier League side Aston Villa.
More than anything else, the Fire need a goal-dangerous striker – not just because of the production they provide, but because having a player that can get in behind the back line and create chances – as Durán did at the end of last year – changes the way opposition defenses approach the game, giving more opportunity and space to the Fire’s capable, creative playmakers like Xherdan Shaqiri or Brian Gutiérrez. Bringing in Kei Kamara – one of the foremost scorers in league history – helps, but at 38 years old, he isn’t the player he was in his prime, nor can he be expected to go 90 minutes often – or at all – through the course of the season.
The Fire are far from being the only soccer team in the world in need of a sheer goal scorer, however – cue echoes of Shakespeare’s Richard III – “my kingdom for a striker” – and finding a player that has the right profile at the right price is not a simple task. Finding the right player for the job is a mix of risk and reward while also balancing current and expected future production.
An honest assessment of the Fire’s prospects for this season, however, suggests that this roster will not seriously compete for hardware, even if team owner Joe Mansueto’s wallet opened up wide enough to give what could only be called insane money to pull a top in-form striker from a Top 5 league to the team.
With that in mind, Heitz shouldn’t constrain the ability of the team to meet future roster needs by signing an older striker – or one coming off of injury with a question mark above his head – to a long term deal. Gambling with a U22 spot is certainly more appropriate – Jhon Durán is becoming the poster child for the U22 Initiative in league front offices, particularly amongst owners looking for returns on their investments – but making a sizable investment in two young, promising talents, competing for minutes at a single roster spot with two veteran players, is a recipe for dashed expectations and possibly sour grapes.
Given the difficulty of threading that needle and a likely limited budget, the Fire should look for a striker outside of Europe’s top leagues – and South America’s top leagues that feed them – for a capable goal scorer in their early- to late-20s – someone with a possible upside, but not one that the team need bet on for the deal to make sense. Coming here on a DP deal would largely free the team from external budget constraints around transfer fee or salary. The right player would realize that the team now has a history of putting players on display for top leagues in Europe and treat it as an opportunity, rather than as a place to catch a paycheck on the way to concluding a career.
Need #2: Left Back
As it stands today, Justin Reynolds is currently listed as second on the team’s depth chart at left back. As we said in our roster preview, the 18-year-old homegrown product has yet to have a single minute with the senior team, and has just 908 professional minutes under his belt, all with the Fire II in MLS Next Pro. Even the starting choice at left back, Miguel Navarro, remains controversial amongst Fire faithful – while tenacious and more than occasionally menacing to opposing attackers, he’s also been prone to errant passes and has been something less than great with the ball.
While Reynolds certainly shows potential, the most important step for his development is getting consistency – both mentally and in minutes – and the best place for that is the Fire II, rather than having him sit on the bench and yo-yo between the MLS Next Pro and MLS squads, particularly considering that it’s an open question as to whether Fire Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson will trust him on the pitch with the game on the line, rather subbing in the versatile Mauricio Pineda should Navarro be unavailable.
To fill the left back spot, the Fire can look either to use their available U22 slot – which is salary-cap friendly and grants flexibility to pay transfer fees at the expense of experience – or sign a more proven player from a number of leagues in the world to a regular contract so long as the deal is relatively budget-friendly, possibly using some MLS funny-money in the process.