As the 2021 season approaches, the Chicago Fire are hoping for a perpetual spring. Summer is here, the new brand is here and the Fire are looking to improve after a disappointing 2020 season.
Let’s take a brief look at last season before turning to the key players and stats for the 2021 campaign.
In an MLS season shortened to 23 games in 2020, the Fire have just five wins and are 11th in the East and one spot in the 2020 MLS playoffs. However, the MLS expanded the playoff field to ten teams in the Eastern Conference last year. The playoff field has been reduced to the usual seven teams this season.
Over the course of the season, opportunities have been missed and mistakes made. Chicago had one of the best point totals in the MLS last season (7th). However, the number of unscored goals (npG-npxG) was -4.9, good for 4th place in the league. That figure alone shows how badly the Fire have failed to take advantage of their opportunities.
The Slovenian striker was by far the Flames’ best player last year, scoring 12 goals, the second most in the MLS. He was one of the few players on the team last season who took advantage of his opportunities and exceeded his average of 1.5 goals against.
The Fire will definitely need Bericha to have a similar season this year and stay healthy. Chicago signed 20-year-old Chinonso Offor as Beric’s replacement, but he is inexperienced and moves from the Latvian Fresh League to the MLS.
Elliott Collier, Berich’s replacement last season, cannot be counted on as he has not scored a goal in 534 minutes and will start this season injured. Berich just needs to stay healthy and productive for the Flames to have a chance at the playoffs.
Key Newbie: John Espinoza.
I would have voted Stanislav Ivanov into this category if he wasn’t injured. The long-coveted Bulgarian international already has five years of professional experience at one of Eastern Europe’s biggest clubs and is only 21 years old.
But with Ivanov out for the first half of the season, I’m picking John Espinoza. The defender was part of the Ecuador U-20 team that reached the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup.
Espinoza automatically controls Boris Sekulic on the right. Sekulic brings more experience and will likely be the starter from day one. Espinoza will definitely be on his heels. The 22-year-old brings pace down the flanks and can even play the role of striker, as evidenced by his two assists last season with SD Aucas in the Ecuadorian Serie A.
Espinosa is definitely the right back of the future.
The X Factor: Przemysław Frankowski
The Polish winger was in the top half of the rankings in terms of penalty free goal expectancy and assist expectancy, but he came up short when you look at his actual record of three goals and one assist.
Overall, Frankowski needs to improve his numbers for 2020, which are significantly lower than his stellar 2019 season. His scoring and field goal percentage are down 90%, as is his crossing percentage.
Frankowski is one of the Fire’s most reliable players when it comes to his health, and the key in the service box for Beric, Stojanovic and other offensive players will be an integral part of the Fire’s offensive buildup with balls in the net.
Major excavation areas : Parts of the centre
The Fire’s back line was a real conundrum last season, especially considering the combination of Francisco Calvo and Mauricio Pineda in the center. Calvo is a talented defender and does a good job defensively. His 1.72 intercepted balls per 90 minutes ranks 98th in MLS and he is in the top five defenders in successful pressures (43.6%).
When Johan Kappelhof dropped out with an injury, Pineda was moved to midfield and played very well. He was named Fire Player of the Year and made the most minutes on the team. He also scored a couple of goals.
Nevertheless, defensive errors cost the Fire a significant amount of money. Chicago has allowed three goals due to defensive errors and more goals per game (1.7) than expected (1.4), another indication that the back line is just too error prone. Another solid season from Calvo and Pineda should help improve the defense and bring it in line with expected stats, which is needed for the Fire to reach the postseason.
The Fire finished tenth last season, so fans would like to see an improvement on that front. However, they fell nine points short of the seventh place finish needed to make the playoffs this season. Nine points is a lot to make up in a season, and I don’t expect them to make the playoffs.
Still, the Fire should improve significantly this season. They have to prove that they can keep the advantage when they get it and neutralize their opponents when they are on the ropes. As previously stated, a playoff spot is not necessary for this fan to call 2021 a successful season, but a playoff chase is necessary. If the Flames are not a handful of points away from the top 7 by November, I consider 2021 a disappointing season.
Prediction: 8. Location
I think the Fire are a better team than the pundits and fans think. There is still a lot of room for improvement, but I think Rafael Vickie has a young and exciting team that is sure to disappoint or impress as the season progresses.
Some of the gaps will carry over from 2020 to 2021, but they will become smaller and less noticeable over time. In this way, the Fire team will become competitive and fight for the playoffs until the end, without the end.
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