It has been nearly four months since the conclusion of the 2020 MLS season for the Chicago Fire.
With the 2021 preseason inching closer, it was no question that there was plenty of work to be done for club General Manager Georg Heitz and his front office staff during the offseason after missing the playoffs by a single point in the 2020 season.
In past years under Nelson Rodriguez, Fire fans have become accustomed to hearing transfer rumors and then waiting what seems like an eternity for a deal to actually get done.
However, things are different with the new front office regime as Heitz has noted that he wants all his deals done sooner rather than later to allow for the entire squad to get the most out of preseason to mesh and become acclimated with a new city, lifestyle, teammates and coaching staff. With that being said, the Fire had completed deals for all their rumored “main targets” in the first 30-45 days of the offseason: Chinonso Offor, Jhon Espinoza, and Stanislav Ivanov. A deal with promising South American star Jhon Jader Duran was also made official shortly after.
With that being said, let’s take a look at where the value lies with each of these players and what they can bring to the existing roster.
Chinonso Offor, Striker // 20
Offor was the first offseason signing made in the very first week of the offseason. He will most likely be utilized as a backup striker for Robert Beric, who bagged 12 goals in 2020. At only 20 years old, he was signed to a three-year deal that will keep him at the club through 2023 giving him a chance to develop and gain a larger team role as time progresses.
Overall, the move makes sense from a positional perspective since Offor will likely replace CJ Sapong as the only other natural striker in the team to back up Beric. However, on the flip side, he will occupy a precious international spot which is a risky move for a depth player coming from the Latvian first division, which, frankly, lacks a bit of pedigree.
With that being said, it will be interesting to see how his play transitions to an undoubtedly stronger league after spending time in Latvia, where he had a strong output of 16 goals and 7 assists in 40 appearances. His height (a towering 6’3) and physicality should help him be an aerial presence.
If he can back that up with some reasonable hold-up play, there is a chance he can provide some value in his first season.
A few goals off the bench in 2021 would be a victory in my book.
Jhon Espinoza, Right Back // 21
You can finally take a sigh of relief. The Chicago Fire finally have signed a natural right fullback. Sure, the Fire utilized Boris Sekulic last season who proved to be serviceable. However, at over six feet, it was difficult for Sekulic to play the up-and-back full-back role that fits Wicky’s attacking system. This is a position that has been essentially vacant for a few seasons now, as we saw Veljko Paunovic utilize Johan Kappelhof, Jeremiah Gutjahr, Diego Campos, and Brandt Bronico at this position in 2019.
In 2018, it was Matt Polster (who probably did it best), Nico Hasler, and Drew Conner. Anyway, you get the point. Enter Jhon Espinoza, a young Ecuadorian who has caps for Ecuador’s U20’s and senior team. In fact, he also captained the U20 Ecuador side that placed third at the 2019 U20 World Cup.
Espinoza is a very attack-minded fullback. He possesses quite a bit of pace and puts in a solid final ball. Defensively, he has long strides that allow him to recover quickly, and he tackles hard, which is a basic required in any South American top division. We saw Fire fullbacks getting forward time and time again this past season as part of Wicky’s desired playing style for this group.
Having a pacey, young pair of legs to get forward and provide additional service to Beric can only benefit this roster. We could also see him used as a wingback in a 3-5-2 formation, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Either way, you should anticipate this guy slotting right into the starting lineup early on.
Stanislav Ivanov, Winger // 21
Young Bulgarian international Stanislav Ivanov was signed in early December from Bulgarian side Levski Sofia after a strong season with 9 goals and 5 assists. This is certainly an intriguing signing for the Fire, who needs an additional difference-maker in the attack after trading Djordje Mihailovic to Montreal. Despite being most comfortable with a central position, Djordje proved extremely productive from the wing position last year by providing 7 assists in 20 games.
Although Ivanov won’t necessarily be a like-for-like replacement for Mihailovic, he certainly has multiple dimensions to his game. He isn’t afraid to go at players and beat them with pace on the dribble. His off-the-ball movement is intelligent as well, for he has the ability to make darting runs on the inside shoulders of defenders and drift inside rather than staying solely on the flanks. Finally, the most underrated part of his game is his defensive work rate. He is a two-way midfielder who hustles, something Fire wingers have lacked in recent years.
Overall, if Ivanov can contribute with a handful of goals and assists this season, he can provide plenty of attacking value. He had 14 goals in 88 total appearances for Levski Sofia, so 5-6 goals would be a valuable output for Ivanov if he can hit the ground running (Frankowski has 8 goals in 52 apps for context).
It will be interesting to see how Wicky shuffles and rotates Ivanov, Aliseda, and Frankowski this season.
Jhon Jader Duran, Striker // 17
Finally, we have the Fire’s most recent and perhaps most intriguing signing of the offseason: Jhon Duran. He is only 17 years old from the Columbian side Envigado. He was listed as one of the top 60 most promising players in the world by the Guardian last year and had interest from several sides from across Europe.
Although we won’t get to see him in action until 2022, he has several important qualities that could help him become a top striker once he continues to develop. He is 6’3, left-footed, and has very good footwork for a player of his size at only 17. His hold-up play is also strong for being just a teenager playing against men, and he has a very quick first step when changing directions with the ball. These traits can make him a valuable target man who is also very mobile in the attack. Ultimately, however, the Fire play an important role in his development as his teenage years come to an end, and it will be important to surround him with influential talent when he arrives in order to get the most out of him.
In a perfect world, the club continues to build with the overall roster improving each year, Duran becomes an absolute stud during his time here, and the club eventually sells him for a huge sum of money in the future.
It will be fun to follow this young man’s journey regardless.
Sneak peek at what’s coming to Chicago in 2022. pic.twitter.com/kOjMVlRmey
— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) February 12, 2021
Featured Image: GettyImages/MB Media