After trading David Accam to the Philadelphia Union for a nice little pile of allocation cash, Chicago Fire fans hoped to see the addition of some attacking power behind or outside of Nemanja Nikolic to build on a surprising playoff campaign and right the wrongs of a disappointing finish in 2017.
While the Fire did add Aleksandar Katai on loan from La Liga side Deportivo Alaves shortly after the Accam trade, the attack through the first two matches has generated more questions than reliable service and consistent scoring chances.
Katai has skill and played against elite European competition with 20 league appearances for Deportivo in the 2016-17 season. However, on his own, it’s not enough to make up for both the lack of width and a true No. 10 on the roster.
That’s ultimately going to put additional pressure on former international star and current Fire designated player Bastian Schweinsteiger by both supplementing Nikolic, last year’s MLS Golden Boot winner, as a scorer and giving him worthy service. That’s asking a lot given his importance to the overall solidity of the midfield.
Add the fact that Matt Polster is expected to miss as many as six weeks with a right knee injury and the issues are even bigger. While Rafael Campos is a capable replacement at right back, he’s not going to get as far forward regularly as Polster, adding yet another layer to the problem for the Fire offensively.
The Fire technically have another five weeks to address the issue(s) in this transfer window. However, there hasn’t been anything remotely credible tying them to anyone who can occupy that No. 10 role on the team sheet or provide reliable width.
In reality, even if they try to address both issues, the likelihood is that they’d only be able to seriously solve one or the other. Given the comfort they feel in the middle with Katai, Schweinsteiger, Luis Solignac, Elliott Collier, Tony Tchani and Dax McCarty, that might mean help on the wing is more pressing.
Thanks to all those options in the middle, having somebody who can stretch the defense on the outside to create space has additional value. But where exactly do they turn to get that help, and how do they survive the early portion of the season without it?
The Fire feel pretty confidently that they’ll be able to compete when they get their preferred 11 out on the field. Unfortunately, they’ll be without Polster in the next six weeks. And with the rest of the side still adjusting to each other’s style of play, will it be too late?
The upcoming homestand will likely determine the extent of their desperation. The Fire have three straight home games coming up after dropping their first two contests, and they’re winnable affairs.
The Portland Timbers are also off to an 0-2 start and the Los Angeles Galaxy struggled last season. Although, the match with the Galaxy just got significantly tougher with the news that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be joining the side, and he’ll likely be on the field and up to speed by April 14. In between the Timbers and Galaxy, the Fire will also have a big conference matchup at home against the Columbus Crew.
If they can come away from those three fixtures with enough points to be in comfortable playoff contention, they can likely wait until the secondary transfer window opens on July 10, when more leagues worldwide are open for business and stronger options might be available.
If they can’t, they might have to force the issue or risk falling so far behind that they waste a year with a star like Schweinsteiger on the roster. But a lost season isn’t tenable. The Fire have invested ($4.5 million in 2018) in the 33-year-old former Bayern Munich and Manchester United star, and his expectations also are very high for the 2018 season.