The Chicago Fire: Seizing Their Opportunity

Chicago baseball this season has been a mixture of anticipated struggle and shocking mediocrity. Year one of the White Sox rebuilding effort has gone about as expected, the team floating around 10 games under .500 and stockpiling as many young prospects as possible. The Cubs, meanwhile, entered this season as favorites to repeat as World Series Champions, but found themselves under .500 at the All Star break with questions abounding. But there is a team in Chicago enjoying lots of success this summer: The Fire. Last year’s last-place finishers in the Eastern Conference are in first place, powered by a few high profile new additions and the mind of coach Veljko Paunovic. While the baseball underwhelms, the Fire are seizing the perfect opportunity to announce themselves to a city that has long considered them an afterthought.

The White Sox have been terrible the last couple of years, but there was no clear direction being taken to improve the team. Veterans Melky Cabrera, Todd Frazier and David Robertson were brought in to supposedly help the Sox contend. That never happened, and the trade that sent ace Chris Sale to Boston signaled the rebuild was underway. So far, that rebuild has largely gone to plan. In return for Sale the Sox got Cuban-born infielder Yoan Moncada, the #1 rated prospect in baseball. They signed highly-touted Cuban outfield prospect Luis Robert, and were praised for their performance in the MLB Draft headlined by third baseman Jake Burger. Then, this week, in a move that surprised seemingly everyone, the Sox and Cubs made a trade with Jose Quintana going one way (more on that when I get to the Cubs) and four prospects coming back to the Sox including the Cubs’ top two. One of those two is Eloy Jimenez, who gained some internet fame recently for destroying some lights during a minor-league home run derby. There have been a few missteps for the rebuild. Shortstop Tim Anderson has the most errors of any player in baseball (21). It was also anticipated that Moncada would have made it to the majors by now. The dealing this season likely isn’t over: Frazier and Robertson are expected to be dealt by the trading deadline at the end of the month. Maybe the Sox will be good in a few years, but for now it’s time to learn from the Philadelphia 76ers and #TrustTheProcess.

Just this morning the Chicago Tribune put together a comprehensive comparison of this season for the Cubs to how they were doing at this point last year. Some highlights: their run-differential has gone from 139 to 0. Their top four starting pitchers have all seen their ERA go up by over a run. The team’s offensive, which was nothing short of explosive last year, has posted a team batting average of .239. The departure of Dexter Fowler for St. Louis (though he hasn’t had a good year either) has proved costly, although Jon Jay should be given credit for doing his best to fill in the gap. Kyle Schwarber recently returned from a short stint in AAA and has been a shadow of his former self all year. The Cubs’ problems come down to the basics of the game: they need to score more runs and give up fewer. As far as the latter goes, they may have taken a big step in the right direction with trading for Jose Quintana. While he hasn’t posted the type of stats he did last year, Quintana has an ERA of 2.70 since June 1st and could be the shot in the arm the Cubs’ pitching staff needs. He got off to a great start today, striking out twelve in seven innings of shutout pitching. The Cubs do have the benefit of being in a terrible division and are only 5 games out of first place. There is widespread confidence that the Cubs will turn in around (FiveThirtyEight currently gives them a 55% chance they’ll make the playoffs and 41% chance they’ll win the NL Central). If Jose Quintana’s first appearance in a Cubs uniform is any indication maybe the Cubs will be just fine.

Chicago’s baseball teams being difficult to watch has created the perfect opportunity for the Fire to attract attention, an opportunity they’ve certainly taken advantage of. The buzz around the team began with a trio of high-profile new signings: Nemanja Nikolic, a Hungarian striker who led the Polish league in scoring last year as a member of Legia Warsaw; Bastian Schweinsteiger, a legend at his former club Bayern Munich and a World Cup winner in 2014 with Germany; and Dax McCarty, an industrious defensive midfielder formerly the captain of NY Red Bulls. The club hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012, and before last season they hired Veljko Paunovic to help change that. At that time, Paunovic had just led Serbia to the Under-20 World Cup championship. At the beginning of that tournament little attention would have been paid to the Serbians, but by its end they were on top of the (youth) soccer world. He hopes to do the same with the Fire, who although they finished dead last in his first season have rocketed to the top of the standings. Nikolic leads the entire league with 16 goals through 19 games. Schweinsteiger has provided an invaluable injection of quality and leadership and along with McCarty, who was called up to the US Men’s National Team for the first time early this year, has brought solidity to the midfield. Perhaps nobody has benefitted more individually from these new players as David Accam, a talented winger who was certainly the Fire’s most talented player before the new additions. This season is only half over but the Ghanaian international has already eclipsed his goal total from last year (he has 10 through 16 games after scoring just 7 in 22 last year). Another way the Fire have struggled is in attendance. The same was true earlier in the season, but the Fire have been incredible at home this year (9 wins, 1 draw, and 0 losses) and an increase in attendance has followed as the season has gone on, with the 3 most recent home games all being sellouts (all the people not going to Sox games have to be doing something with their weekend afternoons, right?). I’m a soccer fan but in the past haven’t really paid much attention to the Fire. My view was I wasn’t going to put in the time to really get into a team that was so terrible. Clearly I’m not the only one who has taken notice of the Fire this year.

So if Chicago baseball is getting you down and you find yourself wanting to sit outside and watch (or simply follow from a distance as I have to do) a winning home-town team, may I suggest making a trip to Bridgeview to be a part of (for now) the best sports team in Chicago.

This Week In….

Sports

White Sox

The Quintana trade is really the only thing worth commenting on with how bad the team is playing (and the All Star break was this week) so see above.

Chelsea

After going most of the summer with no new signings to speak of despite being linked to a whole host of players, Chelsea signed German defender Antonio Rudiger from Roma and French midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco. Rudiger will provide depth in central defense, which is particularly important for Antonio Conte’s system, while Bakayoko could find himself starting alongside fellow countryman N’Golo Kante (depending on whether Nemanja Matic leaves or not). The biggest disappointment of the summer so far is missing out on Romelu Lukaku, who instead signed for Manchester United. Questions that remain are whether Chelsea will be able to bring in Juventus defender Alex Sandro as an upgrade over Marcos Alonso at left wing-back and what the hell is going on with Diego Costa. Costa isn’t wanted at Chelsea, doesn’t want to be there, yet he’s proving hard to get rid of. Furthermore, no progress has been made at finding a replacement.

 

Alt Rock

Coldplay, ‘Kaleidescope EP’

More or less a continuation of last year’s ‘A Head Full of Dreams,’ its best track is probably the classically Coldplay piano love song “Hypnotised.” This EP also provides some justification for Coldplay more or less repeating their entire tour from last year.

RAC, ‘EGO’

RAC is technically a DJ, but he features an array of alt-rock artists to provide vocals on the album including Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Rostam (formerly of Vampire Weekend), Joywave, St. Lucia, and K-Flay.

Singles:

Arcade Fire, “Electric Blue” – every week another single and every week I’m more excited for their forthcoming album. This is also the only Arcade Fire track I know of sung entirely by Regine Chassagne, whose usually supplies backing vocals and plays a variety of instruments.

Echosmith, “Goodbye” – the kids are back, minus their older brother who left the band after becoming a father. This band is on the fast track to become a solo act for singer Sydney Sierota

Foster the People, “Sit Next to Me” – their last single, “Loyal Like Sid & Nancy” was just really weird. This is more true to form, and is the final single before ‘Sacred Hearts Club’ drops next week.

Vance Joy, “Lay It On Me” – first single from upcoming 2nd album, would have fit in on first album

 

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