We’re finally there. It’s the start of the 2017 Major League Soccer season.
The debacle that was Columbus Crew SC’s 2016 is well behind us. After the playoffs slipped away a year ago, hope springs eternal with a new-look side that wants to not only get back to the postseason, but bring a trophy home.
At the conclusion of last season, sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter promised four new starters to begin the new year and that’s likely to be the case on Saturday.
Opposite Crew SC is the Chicago Fire, who finished at the bottom of the league for the second consecutive season in 2016. The once proud MLS franchise has seen the success of yesteryear fall by the wayside, but head coach Veljko Paunović looks to bring those days back to the Windy City.
The offseason seems to get shorter and shorter every year and it’s hard enough to keep up with what your own club is doing. Because of that, we turned to Sean Spence of SB Nation’s Fire site, Hot Time in Old Town, to get a sense of what fans should expect of the afternoon season opener at MAPFRE Stadium.
Questions for Hot Time in Old Town
Massive Report: Like Columbus, it was a busy offseason for the Fire after finishing at the bottom of the East last year. MLSsoccer predicts eight new starters for Saturday's game. Gregg Berhalter said he's thinking closer to four. What are your expectations for how new this lineup will look come up kickoff?
Hot Time in Old Town: The lineup has been largely settled for a couple of weeks - until news came down that the Fire would be without Juninho for the opening game. (Word is, Juni had a word on his way out of LigaMX about the fact that MLS pays its bills on time and insures its players, and those gangsters aren't about to let that slide - they went the extra mile to remind FIFA of the Brazilian's red card on his final appearance in Mexico, and the Fire's appeal of his suspension was waved off. He's out.)
Prior to this news, I'd've said we're looking at only four new starters - Uruguayan journeyman Jorge Bava in goal, top-level MLS bag men Dax McCarty and Juninho in the engine room, and Serbo-Hungarian scoring machine Nemanja Nikolic up top.
Now? Anything's on the table. There's not a single midfielder on the roster who is (1) Fit, and (2) Not Juninho, and (3) Experienced Playing This Kind of Role. Matt Polster has been sidelined for a few more weeks with a knee problem. The most likely solution is the Men in Red just try to swap in John Goossens and play through it, which could be disastrous against a coherent, intelligent and motivated foe. But who knows? Homegrown Drew Conner? Centerback João Meira stepping into midfield? IT IS A MADHOUSE.
MR: For Crew SC fans that didn't pay attention this offseason, could you give us a couple key moves (additions or subtractions) and what impact it should have on the team?
HTiOT: The Fire lost Sean Johnson in the offseason to Atlanta, who flipped him to NYCFC immediately. A good portion of the remaining domestic roster was let walk, most notably Razvan Cocis and former Crew man Eric Gehrig (who now coaches for us). The Men in Red stockpiled a decent storehouse of GAM & TAM in the last couple of seasons, though, and brought in the aforementioned central midfield duo and Nikolic, and a sense of promise. The movement and understanding between the front six has been sometimes inspirational. Still, all of this takes place in front of a caricatured B-movie backdrop of a skinflint, absentee owner who's penny-wise and pound-foolish, who flew the team out and will pack 'em in busses for the achy trip home.
And, Juninho's not going to be there. Did I mention that? Damn it.
MR: It's been four seasons since Chicago has seen the playoffs, which is hard to imagine given the history of the club. What are the expectations for this year? Is it a return to past glory or more of the same?
HTiOT: I think this year will be a year of fits and starts as the Fire struggle to establish an identity. This year will be a success if the Fire emerge with a clear idea of who they are and how they intend to play; it will be a failure if the current muddle of terrible results and indecisive structures continues unchecked.
There's a non-trivial chance that discovering an identity has a secondary effect of carrying the team to notable success, although the more likely outcome is a stirring near-miss.
Check back for Massive Report’s responses to Hot Time in Old Town’s questions.