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SEASON PREVIEW: Fire Must Improve Off Disappointing 2020 Season

After just 5 wins and missing out on an expanded playoff field in 2020, the Fire must take advantage of scoring opportunities and reduced missed chances in 2021.

Chicago Fire FC Season Preview
Photo: ChicagoFire/Twitter

As we head into the 2021 Chicago Fire FC season, hope springs eternal. Summer is around the corner, a new re-brand is as well, and the Fire aim to improve off of a disappointing 2020 season.

Let’s quickly touch base on how last season went before focusing on the key players and stats as we look ahead to the 2021 campaign.

2020 Season

The Fire achieved just five wins during a shortened 23-game 2020 MLS season, good for 11th place in the East, one spot out of the 2020 MLS playoffs. However, MLS expanded last year’s playoff field to ten teams in the Eastern Conference. This season, the playoff field returns to its normal seven teams.

The story of the season was missed chances and mistakes. Chicago had one of the highest shots-per-90 minutes marks in the MLS last season (7th). However, their non-penalty goals-expected goals (npG-npxG) was -4.9, good for 4th-worst in the league. That stat in and of itself shows how poor the Fire were at taking advantage of the opportunities they did create.

2021 Season

Key Player: Robert Berić

The Slovenian striker was certainly the Fire’s best player last year, scoring 12 goals on the season, tied for the second-best mark in MLS. He was one of the few players on the team that took his chances last season, outperforming his expected goals tally by 1.5.

The Fire will certainly need Berić to have a similar season this year while also staying healthy. Chicago signed 20-year-old Chinonso Offor as a backup for Berić, but he is inexperienced and will be taking a step up from the Latvian Versliga to MLS.

Elliot Collier, Berić’s backup last season, certainly can’t be relied upon as he did not score in 534 minutes played and will be starting this season injured. Berić simply must stay healthy and produce in order for the Fire to have a shot at making the playoffs.

Key Newcomer: Jhon Espinoza

I would have selected Stanislav Ivanov for this category if he was not injured. The highly-anticipated Bulgarian international already has five years of professional experience for one of Eastern Europe’s biggest clubs, and he is just 21-years old.

However, with Ivanov being out for the first half of the season, I’m selecting Jhon Espinoza. The defender was part of the Ecuadorian U-20 team that made the semifinals of the 2019 U-20 World Cup.

Espinoza automatically provides competition to Boris Sekulić at right-back. Sekulić does bring more experience and will most likely be the opening day starter. However, Espinoza will surely be on his heels. The 22-year-old provides pace on the flank and can even serve as a goal contributor, proven by the pair of assists he logged last season with SD Aucas in the Ecuador Serie A.

Espinoza is certainly the right-back of the future.

X-Factor: Przemysław Frankowski

The Polish winger placed in the upper half of the league when it came to non-penalty expected goals and expected assists, but he underperformed when looking at his actual tally of three goals and one assist.

Overall, Frankowski does need to improve upon his 2020 numbers, which significantly regressed from his stellar 2019 season. His shot and goal-creating actions per-90 decreased as well as his cross-passing percentage.

Frankowski has been one of the more reliable Fire players when it comes to his health and key in-the-box service to Beric, Stojanović, and other attacking players will be integral to the Fire finishing attacking build-up with balls in the net.

Key Areas of the Pitch: Center-Backs

The back line of the Fire provided quite the conundrum last season, especially when looking at the center-back pairing of Francisco Calvo and Mauricio Pineda. Calvo is a talented defender and actually does the job of defending well. He placed in the 98th percentile in MLS with 1.72 interceptions per-90 minutes and was one of the top-five defenders in the league when it came to successful pressures (43.6%).

Pineda, a Fire homegrown player, stepped into the center-back role when Johan Kappelhof went down with an injury and played very well, earning a Fire Defensive Player of the Year award and playing the most minutes on the team. He also tossed in a few goals.

However, defensive mistakes did cost the Fire significantly. Chicago allowed three goals due to defensive errors and more goals per match (1.7) than expected goals per match (1.4), further evidence that the back line simply were too error-prone. Another solid season by Calvo and Pineda should help this defense improve and align more with their expected stats, a necessity for the Fire to make the postseason.

Expectations: In the Hunt

The Fire finished tenth last season, so fans would like to see an improvement on that front. However, they were nine points shy of seventh place, which is the necessary spot to make the playoffs this season. Nine points is a lot to make up for in one season and I am not expecting a playoff berth.

Nonetheless, the Fire must see significant improvement this season. They must prove they can hold onto leads when they get them and put away opponents when they have them on the ropes. As mentioned, a playoff berth is not necessary for this fan to call 2021 a successful season, but being in the playoff hunt is. If the Fire aren’t within a handful of points from the top seven come November, I’d deem 2021 an unsuccessful season.

Prediction: 8th place

I think the Fire are a better team than pundits and fans alike give them credit for. There is still much to be improved upon but I do see Raphael Wickey putting out an exciting, young squad that will surely frustrate but also impress throughout the season.

Some of the inconsistencies from 2020 will carry over into 2021, but they will decrease and become less apparent over time. This will result in a Fire team that is competitive and will fight for the playoffs until the end, falling just short.

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