As the 2021 MLS season draws to a close, clubs trickle over the line of being mathematically eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Though games remain, focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
Chicago Fire FC missed the Audi MLS Cup playoffs just once in their first 12 seasons in MLS, during which they stocked their trophy cabinet with an MLS Cup, a Supporters’ Shield and four US Open Cups. In the 12 years since, they have missed the playoffs 10 times, including in 2021.
The Fire will finish far below the Eastern Conference's playoff line and, now for the fifth time in the last decade, are in the process of hiring a new head coach. Raphael Wicky was dismissed after the club decided they wouldn't pick up his option this winter, meaning yet another new era is about to get underway.
Chicago have another new crest, this one much more accepted than their first crack at a rebrand last year. Ambition remains at the club, with a number of costly transfers completed since Joe Mansueto took over as majority owner, but the results are still lagging.
After two disappointing seasons, the Fire moved on from Wicky. The former Swiss international, who finished his playing career at Chivas USA before returning to Switzerland to begin his coaching career, departed with a 12W-25L-14D record in charge of the Fire.
Following the news, sporting director Georg Heitz faced the media. He noted a few times that the process to find his successor won't be rushed. Wicky, who worked at FC Basel when Heitz was the sporting director there, was hired not long after Heitz was named sporting director, only weeks before preseason began for the 2020 season. There'll be more lead time for this one.
Heitz, who fielded a number of sharp questions about his own role and future, didn't give away many specifics about the process or the club's criteria. His network is strongest in Europe, while technical director Sebastian Pelzer has strong roots in South America. Of their five 2021 additions, three came from South America and two from Europe. In 2020, all of their major additions came from Europe (3) or South America (4) outside of Mauricio Pineda, a homegrown signing.
Will their next head coach come from those networks or will a domestic-based candidate be appointed?
LAFC's head coach Bob Bradley, who coached the Fire during their most successful period, may be available this offseason and rumors suggest there's interest there.
There are varying degrees of question marks surrounding Chicago's three Designated Players, all of whom were signed ahead of the 2020 campaign.
Forward Robert Beric only has a club option for 2022. He was among the league's leading scorers in 2020 but has been some combination of wasteful and very unlucky in 2021. Yet the Slovenian international has been the best of the three.
Young Argentine winger Ignacio Aliseda hasn't quite lived up to the billing, with 5g/3a in 2700 minutes over 40 appearances. There's no guarantee his cap hit can be bought down to a Targeted Allocation Money level, though.
Veteran midfielder Gaston Gimenez has been linked with Boca Juniors and other big clubs in South America over the last year. With Federico Navarro's acquisition and quality, a potential replacement is already on the roster.
Navarro is a U22 Initiative signing, as is incoming rising Colombian wunderkind Jhon Duran, signed for 2022 after his 18th birthday. He was named to The Guardian's 60 best talents for his age group and had plenty of suitors in Europe before signing with the Fire. At his age, he won't be expected to play every single game, but he wasn't acquired to sit on the bench.
Another reshuffling at the top end of the roster appears in the cards.
One shining light of the Fire's season is the emergence of 17-year-old homegrown goalkeeper Gabriel "Gaga" Slonina. He has started eight games for the club to date, clearly taking over as their No. 1.
In August, he became the league's youngest-ever goalkeeper to start a match at 17 years and 81 days old. He beat the old record by a year. The US youth national team goalkeeper is a big talent, one signed to a homegrown deal at 14 years old when he was far away from being able to contribute for the first team. Earning minutes this year was even ahead of schedule, with injuries to Kenneth Kronholm and Bobby Shuttleworth opening the door.
Next year, it could be Slonina's job from day one.
Chicago's homegrown territory is a hotbed for soccer talent but the club haven't brought a ton through to the first team for meaningful contributions, particularly following Djordje Mihailovic's offseason trade to CF Montréal, where he's having a career year and among MLS' most productive chance creators and assist makers. Now-New York Red Bulls left back Andrew Gutman never signed a homegrown deal and left for Celtic. Nor did USYNT goalkeeper Damian Las, who signed for Fulham.
That appears to be changing with Slonina, Pineda and more than a handful of young homegrowns signing first-team deals over the last 18 months. That's exciting.