It may be early to discuss it, but as the Fire inch closer and closer to the potential postseason, before we know it, clubs will begin preparing their squads for the 2024 Major League Soccer campaign. The Fire are in a unique position as a new sporting director and head coach will likely find their way into the club’s leadership for the next season, as the club may move past Georg Heitz. Managerial changes always bring personnel changes.
Looking at the squad now, to the casual eye, the most necessary position needing an upgrade is at striker. I am not arguing with that because it is true despite what I am about to write. That is not debatable. Digging under the surface a bit, though, in my opinion, the Fire’s midfield is an area that is going to need some reconstruction during the winter window if they want to become playoff regulars.
It is impossible to tell what formation the Fire will be lined up in for 2024, given that next season’s head coach has yet to be determined. Looking at the Fire currently, though, the most frequent formation under both Frank Klopas and Ezra Hendrikson was the 4-2-3-1, followed up by a variation of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. Regardless, a two-man pivot has sat behind an attacking midfielder or two.
In the 4-2-3-1, Gastón Giménez is the most regular starter as the right-sided pivot member, typically tasked with offering more creativity and attacking prowess than his partner but not playing so advanced that he infringes upon the attacking midfielder’s space. Gastón has been the midfielder I believe has been the best so far this season for the Fire, leading or placing highly in the majority of passing and defensive statistics, and given that his designated player option was bought down last year, I see no reason for a possible exit given that at minimum he provides solid squad depth if a new coach was to overhaul the midfield completely.
Federico Navarro is one player I think should be made available for sale by the club following the conclusion of the 2023 season. This could very well be a hot take given that when fit, Fede plays a lot of minutes as Gastón’s partner, and with the 4-2-3-1 demanding a number six who is defensively dominating, Navarro slides into that role comfortably.
The biggest issue with Fede is that his overall development as a player has been stunted at the Fire. The Argentine came in as a touted U22 initiative player in 2021 and won the club’s player of the season award for that year. It was widely believed that Fede could eventually earn a move to Europe, given his great performances in a struggling team. Since then, it seems Federico Navarro has not developed further as a player. The midfielder has the same defensive work rate he arrived with but, unfortunately, is very eager to draw fouls and has never really improved upon his general lack of offensive presence.
Fede’s performances this year have been up and down, but the injury bug has plagued him the most. The midfielder has only racked up 822 league minutes, which puts him at 14th across the squad. Given his contract, age, and occupation of valuable U22 initiative and international player roster spots, I believe an exit could suit all parties.
With that said, Fede shouldn’t simply be forced out the door, but if reasonable interest comes from outside of MLS, it should be taken seriously. Simply put, there are cheaper options out there that can be just as good, if not better.
Fede is a player who on his day is still a great asset to the club, but the same cannot be said for Jairo Torres. The Young Designated Player has been nothing short of a failure in Chicago, and if anything, he has gotten worse since his arrival. Last season, a combination of playing out of position and a long-term injury rued his debut campaign. Still, despite training hard in the off-season for fitness, nothing has changed.
Jairo now finds himself as a frequent substitute if he is not injured, unable to shift band-aid solutions in Fabian Herbers or center-back Mauricio Pineda out of a starting spot in the midfield. Having played 30 matches already for the Fire, the former Mexican youth international and Atlas Guadalajara man has yet to register a single goal contribution despite featuring as a midfielder or wide player. The once sought-after Liga MX midfielder needs a breath of fresh air, but not with a new coaching staff in Chicago.
Staying on the topic of designated players, Xherdan Shaqiri is the subject of much criticism from Fire fans, and most of it is warranted. Last year, Shaqiri finished the season with seven goals and six assists as the Fire’s attacking midfielder, and although most of those goals came from penalties, it was a good haul for his first season in the league. Currently, Shaqiri has three goals and three assists, which is not good enough, considering the Swiss was the highest-paid player in the league for a while.
The issue with Shaq is that he would be incredibly difficult to move given his high wages and age. The 31-year-old does not exactly set the world ablaze, and given MLS roster rules, an in-league move is all but off the cards. With the rise of the Saudi League, though, it would not be all that surprising to see one of its teams come in and try to swoop the midfielder away with a big paycheck. If that were to happen, it would be a win-win for all parties involved. Given that situation has zero credibility and I just proposed it right now, expect Shaq to be around until his contract ends at the end of 2024. It would be nice to see Brian Gutiérrez permanently occupy the number 10 spot though.
Speaking of ending contracts, Fabian Herbers’ deal is up at the end of the year. This season Fabian Herbers has made an impact that not many fans could have expected, as he is tied for second place amongst the team for most goals scored and places eighth for total minutes played. Fabi has been crucial over the Fire’s recent six-game stretch, as his performances played a large part in taking 15 points from 18 possible. The aging German has popped up with goals, defensive heroics, and overall entertainment. Although I do not think it would be wise to plan with him as an out-and-out starter for next season, he has proven to be a great squad inclusion as he has played as a midfielder, winger, and wingback this season. Re-sign him!
Mauricio Pineda is a player who has seen a lot of time in midfield and defense, and he has done both well. He profiles similarly to Navarro in the fact that he plays more like a traditional number six, winning duels and putting in tackles. Still, for squad planning’s sake, Pineda likely will play more center back under a new coach due to the consistency that Carlos Terán gets injured at. It is interesting to note, though, that Mauri does sit in third for interceptions amongst Fire players, the only player in the top three to play outside of the defense. Regardless of what happens with future signings in either position, Mauri has been a wonderful servant to a club which originally did not treat his family kindly, and loyalty like that is hard to come by in MLS.
To briefly touch on it, Brian Gutiérrez could be an easy solution at attacking midfield. However his time before a big move to Europe is numbered. Ousmane Doumbia has recently arrived on loan in Chicago from sister club FC Lugano, but he has yet to play a match. Doumbia occupies a Designated Player spot at the moment. However, that will be lifted if the Fire decide to purchase the Ivorian. Doumbia profiles as a traditional number six as well, with his loan into the club being done as a clear solution for the rest of the season to deal with the sidelining of Federico Navarro.
Overall, the Fire’s midfielder has been average this season. Xherdan Shaqiri has been underwhelming, while Jairo Torres has not even been close to that. Still, the remainder of the players in the midfield have met or exceeded expectations. The problem is that to get to the next level, the Fire need an attacking midfielder who can turn the game on its head with a simple pass or shot, or a defensive midfielder who won’t go crunch someone and get injured immediately after, and at the moment, that is not what we have.