CHICAGO — At this time a year ago, the Chicago Fire were trending up. The team had a 5-3-3 record, which matched the club’s best start since 2012.
Things are not trending in a similar direction at the same point in 2018. A team that still features Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Johan Kappelhof as stalwarts is 3-6-2. The Fire are six points out of a playoff spot.
Some of the early blame has fallen on general manager and team president Nelson Rodriguez, who said just before the start of the season that the roster was incomplete. Rodriguez hosted local media at a round table Wednesday and had to answer questions about the team’s slow start and what’s ahead.
Typically, these triannual events serve to give a state of the club. Despite the standings painting a bleak picture, Rodriguez still chose to look on the bright side of things. He opened by saying the club has “a lot of positive momentum,” in reference to a number of off-the-field accomplishments, before he cut to the point.
“So far, our results have neither been as we expected, nor as we hoped, but we make no excuses,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t shake my faith in our group at all. In fact, I think teams better try to kill us off now if they can because at some point we’re going to put it all together, and I like our chances.”
Rodriguez pointed out the numerous injuries that struck the roster. He said coach Veljko Paunović hasn’t once had a full selection of players to pick from. Rodriguez factored that in when giving a grade for the team so far.
“C, average,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think it’s the team’s or the coaching staff’s fault. A lot of that falls on me. We haven’t been able to incorporate players. I’m not looking to make an excuse, but it is just a statement of fact. We haven’t even had the chance to play our first-choice group this year. So, I think it’s more fair to wait until we can put it all together and see where that leads us.”
Rodriguez’s point about the injuries is valid. The Fire are going through an unusually rough stretch with injuries. However, that’s not going to change any time soon, and it might be too late before the team gets healthy.
Matt Polster (MCL tear) could miss the rest of the season and Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic (ACL surgeries) are targeting August returns. Luis Solignac (quad) and Dax McCarty (hamstring) could be nearing returns, but will that be enough?
Rodriguez mentioned 50 points being a solid number to expect a playoff berth. Breaking the season down into thirds, he said teams should get 16 points from each 11-game stretch and win the final match to wind up at 51 points. The Fire are five points below that after the first 11 matches.
“It’s two wins away,” Rodriguez said. “Given everything that we’ve experienced, it’s OK. It’s not acceptable, but I’m not as pessimistic.”
With three more road games than home games remaining on the schedule, things might be tougher than Rodriguez outlined.
On top of that, simply hoping to get back on pace to barely make the playoffs is a big step back from a season ago. The Fire earned 55 points last year and making the postseason was a given for half the season. That’s not the progress Rodriguez tries to speak of when talking about how the club has grown since he took over in September 2015.
“Losing is hard,” he said. “I feel the responsibility to deliver a winner and deliver joy.”
Summer transfer window needs
Beyond getting healthy, Rodriguez talked about what he thinks the team needs.
“I don’t think they’ve changed,” he said. “I still think we need more competition along the lines of goalkeeper and defense. I still believe we need another attacking weapon; someone else who can diversify how we get at the other team’s goal, how we may be able to punish other team’s mistakes or even give us a moment of magic on their own. I would say these are the three primary needs. They’ve been there. That’s on me, not on anyone else. The same as they were in January.”
The MLS summer transfer window opens July 10.
Paunović is out of contract at the end of the season. He made a comment after Sunday’s loss to Houston that could be interpreted as a reference to job security.
“We will work with who we are right now and try to get the best,” Paunović said. “Then when the summer comes, if we are all still alive, we’ll see what happens.”
Rodriguez said they haven’t initiated extension talks yet, but he quashed any possible drama.
“We want to extend Pauno’s contract with us,” Rodriguez said. “I believe that he wants to as well. Neither of us feel our work is done. We’ll find the right moment in time this year where we sit down and try to do that, whether that’s in a break in the season or towards the end of the year.”
Could Fernando Torres join Fire?
Fernando Torres’ time at Atletico Madrid has come to a close. He’s out of contract and has been linked to the Fire. Fox Sports MX reported Tuesday that Torres, 34, is in advanced negotiations with the club.
But Rodriguez didn’t give much away.
“I think it’s flattering for our club to be related to big and great players like Fernando Torres,” Rodriguez said. “I think it speaks well of us. I think it speaks to our ability to attract some players. It’s not my nature to talk about ongoing or previous negotiations, and I won’t do it now, but Torres has a lot of the qualities that we admire. He’s a man of value, he’s a family man, he’s a winner and a champion. He’s still a heck of a player. We would always have interest in people and players like that.”