It’s finally over.
Nearly seven months after their 2022 campaign began, the Chicago Fire were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
The news had been coming for a while, but the team somehow kept themselves in the picture, at least mathematically speaking. That changed following a dramatic loss at home to Charlotte FC, though, where Chicago blew a 2-0 halftime lead to eventually fall 3-2.
It was a fitting end to a woeful, woeful season. There were some highs, but there were many more lows over the course of the year. Every promising stretch was followed by a nightmarish run when it mattered most. It was almost exactly what you would have expected from the Fire considering how things have gone the past decade.
Now, with the dagger formally stabbed through the heart, Chicago can start looking back at what went wrong. That’s a bit of a tough task considering so much did go wrong during these past seven months, but some bad decisions have proven to be more costly than others.
There’s one in particular that really set the stage for a disappointing campaign, though, and that call came before the season even started.
That was the re-signing of Gastón Giménez.
How it happened
The Fire looked a gift horse right in it’s stupid mouth.
He had underperformed ever since joining two years earlier. Coming to Chicago with a decent amount of fanfare, there was hope that the midfielder could be yet another big step in the team’s rebrand and rebuild. It looked like he had it all.
He was built well, tall but not too skinny, and he was incredibly gifted on the ball. He knew it too, playing with a certain elegance and swagger despite being in the middle of the park. That fit his whole aesthetic, considering he was also a well-dressed and quite attractive man.
His best asset was arguably his resume. Giménez was playing for Vélez Sarsfield, one of Argentina’s most famous clubs, and he had even appeared for the Argentine national team, albeit in a friendly. Imagine what someone like him could do in MLS?
Turns out the answer was not a lot. Despite his promising debut off the bench, the rest of the midfielder’s first campaign was underwhelming. Most of his performances were quite disappointing. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t particularly good either. He was just kind of there.
If he was a regular player or a homegrown, that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. He was a DP, though, which meant that more was expected and needed from him. Giménez also missed four games during a crucial stretch of the season, and by the time the campaign was over, the Fire had missed the playoffs.
Ok, not a great start, but it was still too soon to really judge him. It was his first year after all, and he wasn’t in the best situation considering the team’s roster and head coach.
Year two was arguably worse. The team was definitely having a tougher time early on, as they lost seven out of their first nine games of the campaign. Giménez missed one and a half matches during that span, and then he was unavailable for another four contests.
His first-ever goal for the club on his first start back gave the fanbase hope of a resurgence, but those dreams were dashed pretty quickly. He went right back to being average at best. It all came to a head when the midfielder was suspended by the team for a game away to CF Montréal because he reportedly missed the flight to Canada.
Giménez did have a goal and an assist in the following game, which led to some believing that the suspension lit a fire under him, but the rest of the campaign passed him by. Chicago failed to make the playoffs, again, and his poor performances were a reason why.
The DP's laziness became a real issue. There were a number of chances created by the opposition just because he couldn’t be bothered to track back. Some of those opportunities led to goals, and some of those led to dropped points for the Fire. His position, both on the field and off it, made this characteristic especially bad.
First off, he was playing as a deeper central midfielder. That’s the role that usually does the most running in the team, but Giménez was much more of a stationary figure. He only really liked to venture forward, and that left holes at the back and in the middle of the park.
Then there’s the Designated Player tag. One of the three players on a greater salary, the added pay meant an added responsibility. He was supposed to be one of the guys carrying the team. Instead, he was being outplayed and outworked by homegrowns and fringe players. Chicago were effectively burning money and salary space.
That all led to a pretty woeful situation. The midfielder was often a target of the fanbase, who had gotten sick of his disappointing showings and hefty price tag. The team wasn’t doing much better, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the club’s future looked better off without him.
Fortunately for the Fire, they had an out. Giménez’s contract was already set to expire at the end of the campaign. They didn’t need to buy him out, or find a seller. They didn’t need to do anything at all except wait for the new year. There was even a team ready to take him on, as Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors wanted to bring him in, for whatever reason.
Letting him walk would have allowed Chicago a completely clean slate. They had already gotten rid of their other two dreadful Designated Players Robert Berić and Ignacio Aliseda. A new head coach was also coming in, and the front office could have shaped a whole new sort of roster around Ezra Hendrickson depending on his preferred style of play.
So yeah, things were looking promising.
Then the Fire decided to re-sign Giménez.
In mid-December, the club announced that the player had signed an extension that would keep him in the Windy City until the end of the 2023 season. The move was not a popular one to say the very least, and a simple check of the #cf97 hashtag on the day showcased just how disappointed the team’s supporters were.
However, there were a few that had some hope, and their feelings were the same of the front office. Maybe Giménez would really appreciate being given a second chance, and that he’d work much harder than before in order to repay the faith put in him. Maybe he’d thrive under the new head coach coming to the club. Maybe he’d do better with a better roster around him, which could be possible since Chicago still had two more open DP slots.
Maybe this was the right decision after all.
There were some who believed the Fire weren’t even planning on keeping Giménez themselves. As mentioned prior, there was interest from Boca Juniors. Since his contract was expiring, they knew they could get the player without having to pay a transfer fee. However, that wasn’t a possibility anymore since Chicago re-signed him to a new deal.
As the theory goes, that deal was only made so the Fire could then sell the midfielder to Boca for a decent little fee. However, once the Argentine side realized that they’d have to pay to bring him in, they pulled out of the deal. Now Chicago was stuck with him. (Whether that explanation is true or not will probably never be known, but considering some of the decisions the Fire has made in the past, it definitely seems like a possibility.)
Let’s believe that the Fire did truly want to keep Giménez around, though.
That extension was the first step in the club’s off-season rebuild. It meant that the midfield was all but settled, as Chicago had the now-Paraguayan international alongside Federico Navarro, who had starred upon his arrival the previous campaign.
It also meant that there were two DP slots left. The Fire used those on attackers, grabbing European icon Xherdan Shaqiri and the young Jairo Torres. The rest of the roster was built with a solid mix of smart signings and promising youngsters, and things were looking good.
Life was even better following the team’s start to the season, as they only lost one out of their first seven games. Giménez didn’t do much during this run, other than registering an assist on week two, but that was only seen as another positive. Imagine the side’s ceiling with him playing at his best.
His best never came, though, and the midfielder continued to play at the same underwhelming level. The results soon switched, and Chicago found themselves on the outskirts of the playoff race by the time the summer came around. A brief resurgence came, but Giménez only played 119 minutes of those five contests, an average of about 24 minutes per game.
He was seemingly back in the starting lineup in time for the final push of the campaign, but he was out the team once again soon after. In a brutal turn of events, the player suffered a grim hamstring injury in a match against the Philadelphia Union. He was forced to go undergo surgery, and that ruled him out for the remainder of the year.
His season was over, and the same was true for the Fire about a month later when they were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
That’s where we are now, which makes this a good time for reflection.
Giménez’s 2022 campaign was just like his previous two. Despite doing well in certain metrics, those watching the games knew that he just wasn’t doing much. He stayed in his little area, and he never really ventured out of it to influence what was going on around him.
There was a clever pass here, and a nice tackle there, but those were only brief moments during extended spans of nothing. It’s not like he was trying to change things, either. Some players run around in search of action but can never find it. The Paraguayan doesn’t do that. He just kind of stands there. Menacingly.
His attitude doesn’t help his case. Taking a very laissez-faire sort of approach, instead of coming across as calm and composed, he seems lazy off the ball. Other players simply run by him, and it looks like he doesn’t care enough to stop them.
Giménez has been upstaged by his own teammates, ones in his very position.
When he has played, he has been next to Federico Navarro, who might be his polar opposite. Navarro absolutely has that dog in him, and after a rough start to the season, he became one of the top midfielders in the entire league. He keeps running and running and running, and he’s nearly everywhere at once. Fede, as they call him, isn’t the most technically gifted player, but he’s actually got more goal contributions than his midfield partner this year.
Then there’s the man who replaced Giménez in the team whenever he was out, Mauricio Pineda. This comparison is even worse for the former, as many think Chicago actually plays better when Pineda starts instead. Commentator Tony Meola even referred to him as a potential team MVP this season. The homegrown does a little bit of everything, all of the time. He’s not a superstar in any particular facet of the game, but he’s a good worker in the middle of the park, and he helps the team on both sides of the ball.
The fact that the Fire’s best midfield pairing doesn’t include their DP says a lot about the situation.
Speaking of that Designated Player tag, that’s the big reason why Giménez’s extension was such a bad call. As everyone knows, teams in MLS are only allowed three DP's, aka players on a max contract of sorts that don’t count against the salary cap. That means that organizations really have to hit on these signings.
Chicago knows all about that. They’ve historically been one of the worst clubs at making DP signings, bringing in the likes of Nery Castillo, Sherjill MacDonald, and Juan Luis Anangonó in the past. Those, and a few others, flopped hard, and the team suffered as a result.
The one year they had three successful DP’s on the roster at the same time? 2017, when David Accam, Nemanja Nikolić, and Bastian Schweinsteiger helped lead the team to the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference.
By bringing back Giménez, the Fire guaranteed that they’d be wasting one of their three slots this campaign. He’s average at best, and he certainly isn’t a player worthy of a specialty role on the roster. That only put more pressure on the other two signings, which didn’t help the players that did come in.
Xherdan Shaqiri was next, and even though he had some bright moments, his campaign was a bit of a disappointing one. It’s not all been his fault, to be fair, as he’s suffered from a lack of help at times. There’s been so much of an emphasis on him all year, and that made life difficult and frustrating for him. His injury issues also kept him out of the team on occasion.
Speaking of injuries, the final DP brought in was Jairo Torres, and he barely played this season. Seemingly cursed, the Mexican just couldn’t stay on the field for an extended stretch of time. He came in hurt, and he’s out with an injury at the moment. Even when he was able to get on the field, he was rusty and ineffective.
Their respective issues wouldn’t have been as big of a deal if they had someone else leading the side. They didn’t have that though, they had Giménez. Imagine if Chicago were able to roll out a midfield pairing of Fede Navarro and Pineda, and then they had a DP level striker or attacker to help the side going forward.
In reality, they had a whole lot of meh.
Just because this season is over doesn’t mean the extension will stop haunting the organization.
Giménez still has another year left on his deal, which means that the Fire has to spend another offseason building around him.
It’s unclear how exactly they are going to do that, though. He’s going to take one of the spots in the midfield, and unless there’s a shift in formation, then there will only be one place left for Pineda and Navarro to fight over.
The club also sees Shaqiri as an attacking midfielder, and if they bring back Torres like everyone is expecting them to, then that’s two out of the front four settled. Chris Mueller has been quite good this season as well, so he should stick around, and if Chicago really believes in Jhon Durán then he’ll be the first-choice striker come next year.
There could only be a major change if one of the DP's is sold. Shaqiri and Torres just got here, though, and Giménez is under contract until the end of 2023, so there’s not much reason to believe that a major departure will happen.
So, all things considered, the Fire team taking the field next season could look just like the side that missed the playoffs this past campaign. That doesn’t sound too promising.
Going back to the aforementioned midfield two, head coach Ezra Hendrickson is potentially going to have a selection headache on his hands. If Pineda and Navarro keep performing well as a tandem, how can the coach justify dropping either of them in favor of Giménez? He could just bench the Designated Player, but it doesn’t seem like the front office would be happy with that decision, especially since it’d be a rough look for the club.
Chicago won’t want to worry about that. There is always going to be hope that things can turn around for the player. Hendrickson will be in his second year, and the squad will have a bit more chemistry after playing with each other for a season. Maybe that could lead to fans finally seeing the Paraguayan at his best.
Have I ever told you the definition of insanity? The Fire are doing the same thing by trusting in Giménez, and they’re expecting a different result. That’s almost certainly not going to happen.
And to think that all of this could have been avoided if Chicago just let him walk this past offseason.