After 9 disappointing seasons, can the Chicago Fire turn things around?

  • For the last nine years the Chicago Fire has struggled. Can the team get it right this season and avoid an even decade of failure?

    For the last nine years the Chicago Fire has struggled. Can the team get it right this season and avoid an even decade of failure? Associated Press

 
 

If you don't get it right the first time, try, try again.

In the case of the Chicago Fire, there's been a whole lot of trying during the decade of the 2010s. Fans are still waiting for the club to get it right.

Consider the Fire's record entering the final season of the decade:

• Two playoff appearances in a league in which more than half the teams make the playoffs;

• One playoff goal;

• Zero playoff wins;

• Two consecutive seasons at the very bottom of the league's composite standings.

So as the Fire prepares to kick off the season on Saturday at the Los Angeles Galaxy (7 p.m., FS1), there are plenty of doubts about the franchise. Here are the three main questions facing the Fire:

Is Veljko Paunovic the right coach for this team?

The Fire re-signed Paunovic in January to a two-year contract with a team option for a third despite a record that would have convinced many other teams to make a change long ago.

Under Paunovic the Fire is 31-46-25 with one short-lived playoff appearance, a 4-0 loss at home to the New York Red Bulls in 2017. The Fire had the third-best record in MLS that year, but it really played well for just two months, May and June, that season. The rest of the season was spent desperately trying to hang on to a playoff spot.

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Under Paunovic the Fire has failed to develop young players with the exception of 20-year-old Lemont native Djordje Mihailovic, a homegrown product.

Paunovic has shown a fierce desire to win, but at times he seems to take it too far. His ever-changing tactics have raised eyebrows. To succeed he will have to show as much patience as the club has shown him. He needs to regain the confidence of his players.

Can Djordje Mihailovic and Aleksandar Katai be special?

Katai looked good in spurts last year, earning a new contract at midseason and then fading into the background far too much. He is capable of the spectacular, jaw-dropping play, but he needs to find consistency. If he doesn't do that, the Fire will struggle.

Mihailovic is a different story. He returned to the lineup last fall after recovering from an ACL tear and immediately showed productivity. He went to U.S. national team camp this winter and showed promise at that level.

Paunovic has been a fan of Mihailovic's all along. If he can continue to help the youngster develop, the Fire attack should be potent.

If it's not Mihailovic and Katai, the Fire will need to find someone else not yet on the roster to carry the team deep into the MLS playoffs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Can the Fire play defense?

Goalkeeper has been a huge problem for the Fire during Paunovic's tenure, so a lot is riding on off-season acquisition David Ousted. The 2018 season didn't go well for Ousted at D.C. United, but if the veteran can regain the form he showed at Vancouver, the Fire should be in good shape in goal for the first time since Sean Johnson was traded.

That leaves the back line. The middle spots seem set with Johan Kappelhof's return and the signing of Marcelo.

If Paunovic sticks with a four-man back line, the outside spots remain uncertain. Right back and left back are obvious weak spots as the roster is so far constructed.

Fire Academy product Andrew Gutman of Hinsdale would have been a good fit at left back, but he chose instead to sign overseas. Gutman won the 2018 Hermann Trophy as the best player in college soccer last fall for Indiana University.

The Fire allowed 61 goals during an 8-18-8, 10th-place 2018 season. The defense must improve if the team is finally going to get it right this decade.

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