In hindsight, we should’ve seen Brandon Vincent’s big sophomore season coming right from the get-go back in March.
Following an early-season training session, members of the Chicago Fire first team and coaching staff lined up for a winner-take-all crossbar challenge with a pair of Chicago Bulls tickets on the line. As players slowly but surely dropped out, Vincent coolly lofted ball after ball at the crossbar with his left foot, outlasting strength coach Raphael Fevre and pinging his way to a night at the United Center.
It was with that same left foot that Vincent would become an even bigger contributor to the Fire attack in his second season as a pro, on top of taking his defensive abilities to a higher level.
Vincent was among the beneficiaries of the Fire’s offseason additions of Juninho and Dax McCarty to the central midfield as well as the early April injection of Bastian Schweinsteiger. As the Fire defensive unit gelled around him, Vincent was able to get more forward into the attack and play provider from wide on the left flank.
After beginning the 2017 campaign 3-3-3, the Fire hit their stride in early May. The influx of newcomers and players making position changes began to settle in, and Vincent had been given the green light to press higher up the field. He assisted three times in the Fire’s undefeated month of May, good enough for a new career single-season high at just a third of the way into the season. He was picked to the MLS Team of the Week on three separate weeks in May for his efforts.
On the defensive side, he was a part of a unit that allowed just seven goals across an 11-match unbeaten run that stretched until early July’s break for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
"The back four, we can talk about that, but I think the team as a whole defensively improved a lot,” Vincent said. "The guys up front were getting after it and putting pressure on other teams. That made it easier on us at times. It was a group effort. For the backline it was good to get more chemistry this year, but I think overall as a team it was a lot better."
In the Fire’s last match before their 17-day Gold Cup hiatus – a road trip to Portland on July 5th - Vincent would cap the season’s first half with a memorable personal milestone.
In the 61st minute of what was a 1-1 game, Vincent finally got himself on the scoresheet. Settling a pass across the 18-yard box from midfielder Arturo Alvarez, Vincent wound up and smashed a left-footed shot off the crossbar and into the net for his first goal as a professional and celebrated accordingly.
From the Portland match onward, Fire fans will remember not-so-fondly how the second half of the season played out following the Gold Cup break. The Men In Red struggled to regain their early-summer form and lost six matches in a stretch of seven in late July and August. At least part of that was due to Vincent’s absence, after the 23-year-old was a pregame scratch from the club’s July 22nd tilt away at New York City FC.
"It was my first real injury, so when it happened during the warm up, (there was) a lot of emotion,” Vincent said of the injury back in September. "I was angry, scared, upset, just frustrated at the situation in general. It was a game that I was really looking forward to playing after the break and getting back in there.”
To that point, he’d played every minute of every competition for the Fire, and wouldn’t return until eight games later, making a final minute cameo in the club’s 1-0 victory in Montreal on Sept. 2. That win was a page-turner for the Fire, as Vincent returned to the starting lineup and helped the club go 4-2-2 over it’s remaining stretch and finish third in both the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings.
Vincent scored again on Sept. 16 in emphatic fashion, diving onto the end of an Arturo Alvarez ball into D.C. United’s box and going full horozontal to smash home his second career goal in a 3-0 rout of their Eastern Conference counterparts.
He’d also play a big role in Nemanja Nikolic’s Golden Boot-sealing hat trick against Philadelphia on Oct. 15, assisting on the forward’s 22nd and 24th goals of the season in a 3-2 victory.
With much made so far of Vincent’s contributions to the Fire attack, his defensive presence should be amplified as much.
|Team performance||Without Vincent||With Vincent|
|Record||2-6-0 (6 pts.)||14-5-7 (49 pts.)|
|Goals For (Goals per game)||11 (1.37)||50 (1.92)|
|Goals Against (Goals allowed per game)||17 (2.13)||30 (1.15)|
|Points per game||0.75||1.88|
The numbers speak for themselves. With Vincent in the lineup in 2017, the Fire gave up nearly a goal less per game and picked up more than a point better per game. As his page turns to 2018, Vincent knows there's still more work to be done.
"I think it was a positive year overall for the group, for me individually," he said. "We made a big step forward in reaching one of our goals of making the playoffs. Obviously not the result we wanted in the end, but we take that as a positive and move forward and build off that."