Sneak Peek: Can Fire ignite in Year 2 of regime change?

Last year, the Rapids rebounded from two miserable seasons to reach the playoffs, in which it knocked off the Galaxy.

Is Chicago, the league’s worst team in 2015 and 2016, destined to ignite in 2017 in its second season under head coach Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez? Last year, it improved by only one point, 31 to 30, from the previous, equally dismal campaign, but the upgrades in quality provided by foreign signings Johan Kappelhof and Michael de Leeuw and a breakout season by veteran Arturo Alvarez indicated better times were not that far away.
 
Opening day …
Projected XI -- Bava; Harrington, Kappelhof, Meira, Vincent; McCarty, Juninho; Alvarez, Accam; de Leeuw, Nikolic.
 
The latest signs, while not definite, are promising. Most obvious are the additions of Dax McCarty and Juninho, two of the league’s best midfielders at doing the simple yet vital functions very well. Connecting the back line to the attack is an essential element glaring when not present. That pair should buttress the middle and provide a foundation that De Leeuw, winger David Accam and new signing Nemanja Nikolic can exploit.

All Accam has done is score 19 goals and twice win team MVP honors for a bad team suffering through a pair of dismal campaigns. de Leeuw, a midseason acquisition last year, scored seven goals and recorded three assists in 17 games. Alvarez returned to MLS after a five-year stint in Europe to set a career best of nine assists.

Nikolic, like Paunovic a native of Serbia, scored 28 goals last season for Legia Warsaw and netted 12 in the current season prior to signing an MLS contract in January. In preseason, he and De Leeuw played together a lot up top in a 4-4-2 formation, a bit of a change from the 4-2-3-1 system deployed most of the time last year.

“I think this team has a lot of weapons and we're going to be a pretty dangerous team,” said McCarty told CSN Chicago.

By pushing de Leeuw higher up the field, Paunovic is enabling his forwards with the freedom to attack spaces as they see fit. “I think that me and Michael are the same type of players,” Nikolic said to CSN Chicago. “The both of us run a lot looking for the free spaces behind opponents and it gives us opportunities in the attack. For defenders I think this is the most difficult.”

As for the Fire defense, stalwart keeper Sean Johnson has taken his brilliant reflexes, erratic positioning, and questionable decision-making elsewhere. In his place is Uruguayan Jorge Bava, 35, with veteran Matt Lampson as the backup.

Kappelhof played 33 games (31 starts) in his first MLS season last year and will be counted on to plug up attacks and use the ball well out of the back. Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell played a combined 59 games (54 starts) last year as rookies.

Like a lot of teams in MLS, the Fire looks improved. It finished 11 points shy of a playoff place last season and a staggering 19 points short in 2015. It should be in the hunt all the way this season but needs another big season by Accam and the newcomers to contribute consistently.

Two of Chicago’s first five games are against regional rival Columbus, which finished closest to the Fire -- five points ahead -- in the standings. If progress has been made those games should reveal it.
 
Who’s in …
GOALKEEPERS: Jorge Rodrigo Bava (Atletico Bucaramanga/COL, Free Agent), Stefan Cleveland (Univ. of Louisville). DEFENDERS: Matej Dekovic (Univ. of Charlotte, SuperDraft). MIDFIELDERS: Brandt Bronico (Univ. of Charlotte, SuperDraft), Daniel Johnson (Univ. of Louisville), Juninho (Tijuana/MEX, Loan), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls, Trade), Djordje Mihailovic (Homegrown). FORWARDS: Nemanja Nikolic (Legia Warsaw/POL, Transfer).
 
Who’s out …
GOALKEEPERS: Sean Johnson (Atlanta United, Trade), Patrick McLain (Orlando City, Re-Entry Draft). DEFENDERS: Eric Gehrig (Retired), Rodrigo Ramos (Coritiba/BRA, Free Agent). MIDFIELDERS: Razvan Cocis, Nick LaBrocca, Alex Morrell (Tampa Bay Rowdies, Free Agent), Michael Stephens (San Francisco Deltas, Free Agent), Khaly Thiam (Gaziantepspor/TUR, Free Agent). FORWARDS: None.
 
First five games …
March 4 -- at Columbus Crew
March 11 -- Real Salt Lake.
March 18 -- at Atlanta United
April 1 -- Montreal United
April 8 -- Columbus Crew
 
 
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