For many in and around the Chicago Fire, the rate of goals conceded over the season's latter stages seemed incompatible with the club's performance just a few months earlier.
Back in March and early April, the Fire were busy establishing a club-record shutout streak, keeping a clean sheet for the better part of four-and-a-half matches. But results shifted as the season wore on, with the Fire allowing two or more goals in nine of their final 11 contests.
While the team believes it has identified some key pieces from which to build a sturdy foundation around, General Manager Nelson Rodríguez made it clear on Tuesday that there is still more to be expected from a group that surrendered 58 MLS goals in 2016, equal to 2015 and nearly a league-high.
“We started four new backs the entire year,” he said. “Among the back line, cohesion is very, very important. That takes time.”
Entering the season, defensive responsibilities were handed to a combination of newcomers Rodrigo Ramos, Michael Harrington, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and rookies Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent. At season's end, Eric Gehrig's 259 minutes played represented the only MLS regular season contributions by 2015 roster holdovers. With the 2016 season in the rearview, Rodríguez was complimentary of some of his individual performers.
“I think in an underrated way, Joao Meira had a great season, and I don’t think he’s been recognized enough for that,” he said. “I think Jonathan Campbell had a great season as a rookie. The media voted Johan as our defender of the year. It’s not just the back line though that contributes to goals against. It starts higher up the field and how we defend upon immediate loss of the ball and where the ball is lost.”
As the defensive unit continues to evolve heading into the 2017 season, Rodríguez believes improved performances all the way up the field will be a key factor in limiting goals against. While the Fire’s 11 goals conceded late in games (minutes 75-90) is actually around the league median, there’s no doubt that Rodríguez feels points were left on the table on multiple occasions as regular time dwindled this season.
“When you surrender 58 goals, it’s very easy and natural to look at that side of the ball,” he said. “But in so many of our games, I think we just failed to convert. For me, what might have been the turning point of the season was the (LA) Galaxy game. We were up 2-1 and we have, by my count and recollection, two or three golden opportunities to go up 3-1, and we don’t. When you don’t convert that one or -- as we were also prone to do this year, we surrendered a lot of late goals, last five minutes of halves, extra time -- when you don’t close those out, the seeds of doubt remain.”
While team defense will remain an emphasis this offseason, Rodríguez feels confident in the pieces at his disposal. The aforementioned Meira recently hit a trigger in his contract that guarantees him for the 2017 season, and will look to build upon a first year in Chicago that, after a period of adjustment, saw him settle into a fiery and dependable performer at center back. Next to him, the rookie Campbell was a halftime sub in the season opener against New York City FC and from there went on to start 30 times. That, according to Rodríguez, was one of 2016’s biggest surprises.
“It wasn’t in the plans for him to be a starter this year,” he said. “It worked out that way in part -- and you could say it this way and it would be fair -- (due to) my inability to bring in another international center back as was part of our plan. But I wasn’t going to just bring someone in to check a box or fill a quota. We didn’t find the player we liked, so we didn’t do it.”
Campbell finished his first year in MLS ranked top-5 league-wide in the categories of clearances, blocks and interceptions. While the numbers no doubt reflect a Fire side that too often was on its proverbial back foot, the plays needed to be made regardless.
“I think Jonathan Campbell is a better player today than he was when he came,” Rodríguez said. “I think he fought through his rookie wall. I actually think some of his best performances of the year were right at the end. I thought he was a giant in the (Oct. 16) game against the Revolution.”
Still, individual performances aside, Rodríguez himself noted that MLS is a results-driven business, and there is still much work to be done as his offseason gets into full swing.
“We never had it fully right,” he said. “But that’s also in part because I don’t think we have all of the parts to the way we want to play yet.”