The Chicago Fire’s preseason wrapped up with the team picking up a win and two draws at the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, S.C., but it was the formation of what appears to be a mostly stable lineup that is more important going forward.
There were no major surprises or lineup decisions in preseason action. Obviously, things can still change, but coach Veljko Paunović seemed to show what the first choice lineup is at this time. Whether C.J. Sapong’s addition will change that once he assimilates with the team is another story.
Starting from the back, David Ousted played all but 45 minutes of the Fire’s three matches in South Carolina. It makes sense for him to get extra time as the new acquisition, but there doesn’t appear to be any controversy or competition at goalkeeper. It’s Ousted’s job for now.
“I think we’re starting to get to know each other,” Ousted said. “It’s still a work in progress, which it always is during a season. I think the more games we get together, the more we get to know each other, the better that rapport is going to be.”
Two spots that do appear up for grabs are the full back positions. The Fire didn’t bring in anyone new at those spots and lost Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster, who had both been regular contributors for multiple years.
Four players competed at those spots in the preseason: Raheem Edwards, Diego Campos, Nico Hasler and Jorge Corrales. There isn’t clarity on who will get first crack at starting yet. Edwards and Campos are converted attackers.
Edwards started the first game in Charleston, but has been injured since. He is questionable for the season opener Saturday at the LA Galaxy. He trained separate from the group in the Fire’s only training session in Chicagoland on Tuesday.
Centrally, Johan Kappelhof and Marcelo appear to be the go-to pairing. They each played 90 minutes together in the first and third games in Charleston. After that, Grant Lillard is the only other center back under contract, so depth is still a need.
“I think we are very solid in the defense, but also as a team,” Paunović said. “I think our problem wasn’t only the defense. It was our defensive mindset as a team working without the ball. I think that got better, but I think we still have to improve and I think we still have to add depth in our back line, which we are looking for.”
Moving forward, things start to look more locked in.
In the midfield, Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger will be the anchors. Schweinsteiger could potentially shift into a sweeper role as he has done on occasion each of the past two seasons.
The front four of Nemanja Nikolic at striker, Djordje Mihailovic behind him and Aleksandar Katai and Przemyslaw Frankowski on the wings got some time together. That quartet started two of the three matches together. Sapong’s addition could eventually shake things up in the attack, but his first training session with the team was on Tuesday so that may take some time.
The appearance of a mostly settled lineup is a big change from last season. The Fire had to overcome injuries early on and what general manager Nelson Rodriguez described as an “incomplete” roster.
“I feel like the depth and the overall quality of the squad has certainly improved and is certainly better going into this season,” McCarty said. “I think that speaks to obviously our recruitment and being able to sign some very good players. But it also speaks to having a difficult year last year. We don’t want that to happen again and we want to make sure we have both eyes forward looking into having a much better season.”