To say that it has been a difficult couple of seasons for the Chicago Fire would be an understatement.
The club has not made the Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup playoffs in the last five years and only once in the past eight years.
Their last piece of silverware came in 2006 when the club won the U.S. Open Cup.
Infighting between supporters and club management had taken some of the luster away from a side that was initially renowned for winning.
In their first six seasons the club won three U.S. Open Cups, one Supporters Shield, and the 1998 MLS Cup.
After many stops and starts chairman Andrew Hauptman and Fire management finally embraced rebuilding, bringing in Nelson Rodriguez as General Manager and Veljko Paunovic as Head Coach.
Rodriguez had previously served as the President of Chivas USA while Paunovic was the former manager of the Serbian under-20 side that won the 2015 U-20 World Cup.
Although results did not come quickly for the side in 2016 (the club finished with a 7-17-10 record and were last in the Eastern Conference) there were some encouraging signs from the side.
With the improved play of young defenders Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell and the mid-season signing of Michael de Leeuw the club had for the first time in years something to build around.
Chicago didn’t stay complacent in the offseason though. In December they picked up forward Nemanja Nikolic from Legia Warsaw on a three-year deal.
They also traded for U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Dax McCarty. That added a bit of veteran leadership and, coupled with a strong start by both Vincent and Campbell, has the club in their best position in years.
Although their 4-0 loss against Atlanta United did set their expectations back a bit they are undefeated in their last six matches, including wins defending MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders and defending Supporters Shield and U.S. Open Cup Champion FC Dallas.
According to Paunovic the second offseason was a huge benefit to their program.
I think we had more time in the offseason to work on our needs for our roster, to scout better, to travel and see the players, our targets who we wanted to bring to our club, and with all that, we also, in my opinion, made good selections.
Nelson did a fantastic job with the management of the new signings and newcomers. The preseason also went well and I think all these things factor into why we had a good start.
Ever the optimist, Paunovic even sees the heavy defeat to Atlanta as another learning opportunity for his young side.
I think the setback we had in Atlanta actually is something that we didn’t want to happen that early on in the season but given the circumstances of what happened in the game, we can understand why it happened.
From this position now, we prefer that the setback happened early in the season because we can fix things and now move forward.
Of course, given the addition of Schweinsteiger, a former captain of the German national team, expectations will be raised for the Fire.
But Paunovic believes that there is more to this side than their latest Designated Player.
We believe that expectations rise automatically but what we also say is that Bastian is just another and very important step in our project, a step forward. Our plan long-term, we want to build a championship team. I think so far, everything we said we were going to do, we did.
And we’re still working on our project. Now it looks better, we can all say that, we can all agree that our project has good pieces, but we still are working on bringing more important pieces so we can become that championship team.
While the Schweinsteiger move may be a huge feather in the cap for Chicago, he is but one piece in the Rodriguez and Paunovic puzzle which is working on rebuilding this side.
It has been a long, hard road for the Fire to get to this point but if Giorigio Armani can adapt to the style of play in MLS, Chicago may have a chance to end their long playoff drought.