Chicago Fire: Grading the 2022 roster - Goalkeepers and defenders
Photo by Icon Sportswire via GettyImages

With the 2022 Chicago Fire season officially over, it’s time to start reflecting on the year that was.

All in all, it was a pretty standard campaign considering what the club has gone through over the course of the last decade. A promising offseason gave the fanbase hope, and a strong start to the season caught the eye of many. However, Chicago then went back to business as usual, and an extended loss of form put them behind the eight ball when it came to the postseason picture. A summer surge kept their hopes alive, but another slump when it mattered most proved to be fatal, and they ended up missing the playoffs by a decent chunk of points.

Some things went right, and a lot else went wrong, and the same thing can be said about the team’s roster as a whole. A few players were quite good, while others were consistently poor.

So, who were the players who tried to carry the Fire into the playoffs, and who were the ones to let them down on a weekly basis?

(Part two grading the team’s midfielders and forwards coming soon)

Gabriel Slonina

In terms of Gabriel Slonina specifically, this season was a successful one for all involved.

He came into this campaign with a bit of pressure on him. He had broken through to the first team at the end of the previous year at the age of 17, and he did well in his few appearances. That led to the hype around him skyrocketing, and the goalkeeper had a point to prove at the start of this season.

The start could not have been better, as Slonina only conceded twice in the team’s opening seven games, securing five clean sheets along the way. However, things went real bad real fast, and he gave up 14 in the next five.

The rest of the campaign was a bit more normal, but there was a stretch where the goalkeeper really struggled. He was making mistake after mistake, and it cost his side points. There were even some calls for him to be benched. Head coach Ezra Hendrickson stuck by him, though, and that decision paid off as he returned to form soon after.

All this led to Slonina finally securing his big move abroad, as he officially signed for English powerhouse Chelsea at the start of August. The Fire may have lost their phenom, but they got quite the return for him, netting about $10 million following his sale.

Job done.

Grade: B+

Spencer Richey

There’s a lot less to say about backup Spencer Richey.

The number two for the duration of the campaign, the goalkeeper only made three appearances. 

His debut came in the Open Cup when the Fire hosted lower-league side Union Omaha, and he was let down by those around him. There was nothing he could have done about the first goal he gave up, and the second went in thanks to a deflection. He made a save in the penalty shootout, and even though he arguably should’ve saved at least another, he certainly wasn’t at fault for the club’s shocking elimination.

Then there was a friendly against Club León. He conceded a close-range strike before the break, but he proved to be the hero on the night as he made two saves in the penalty shootout, only giving up one goal during the spot-kicks. 

Last but certainly not least was his sole MLS appearance away to former club FC Cincinnati. Getting the nod due to Slonina being out injured, Richey helped Chicago pick up the win despite not doing too much, making a few saves while conceding two goals that he could do little about. It was a relatively simple night considering the narrative going into the contest.

All in all, Richey did what he needed to. He stayed ready throughout the course of the campaign, and he did alright whenever called upon. He’s an ideal backup, and he should stay in that role in 2023.

Grade: B

Chris Brady

Almost all of Chris Brady’s appearances this season came with the Fire II in MLS Next Pro, but he did get to make his first team debut before the year was over.

Since Slonina was still hurt and Richey got his opportunity the week before, Hendrickson allowed his other goalkeeping phenom a chance in net for the season finale. It was certainly an opportunity the 18-year-old deserved, as he was superb in the reserve league, and he was even better with the United States at the youth level, winning the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and securing the tournament’s Golden Glove award.

In terms of the game itself, Brady had a similar showing to Richey since he wasn’t called upon much. He did have one marquee moment, though, denying star striker Gustavo Bou from close range with a strong save.

The most important thing was that the keeper gained some important experience heading into next season. Many are hoping he’ll be the number one in 2023, and that’s exactly what should happen for all intents and purposes. Hopefully this past year was just the beginning of something special.

Grade: A

Boris Sekulić

Alright enough of the positivity.

This campaign was a big step backwards for Boris Sekulić. His third year at the club, supporters knew he’d be the starting right back when everyone was healthy, and he seemed like a very solid option. He was good enough at the back, and he was a real threat when overlapping on the attack.

However, instead of putting it all together, the Slovakian regressed. He became a real defensive liability, and a few of the goals conceded by Chicago were all on him, especially during the blowout loss away to Atlanta United. This could have been somewhat understandable if he was useful in the final third, but even that facet of his game took a hit. His crosses were inconsistent at best, and he only registered three assists, with two of those coming near the end of the campaign.

It wasn’t all his fault, as Sekulić is best suited to a wingback role. However, the Fire needed him to be a fullback, and he just couldn’t be that for them. 

His contract is up this offseason, and considering how poor he was this year, he probably should be allowed to walk. That’d be fitting considering how much walking back on defense he did this season.

Grade: D

Jonathan Bornstein

I really fell for Jonathan Bornstein this campaign.

Like many others at the start of the season, I believed he was too old to do much of anything for the team. He’d be an excellent presence in the locker room, sure, but that’d be the extent of his contributions. It’d all be off the field.

However, he turned out to be one of Chicago’s better performers. The defender had a dream opening to the year, scoring the matchsealing goal in a win away to D.C. United. What was funny was that he wasn’t playing as a defender, instead being utilized as a winger. 

He would return to the backline eventually, filling in whenever a usual starter was unavailable for selection, and every single time he was called upon he would deliver. Bornstein isn’t the most physically gifted player due to his age, but he more than made up for it by relying on his intelligence and experience. He didn’t have to worry about running faster than an opponent if he took the right angle to close down the run. Why dribble forward with the ball when you can pass it to an open teammate instead?

The highlight came when he played the full 90 minutes in consecutive games over the course of just four days. He was brilliant in both, and it led to the Fire winning each contest as well. There was also his stellar showing in Charlotte, where he slotted in at centerback to secure a huge win on the road. 

The biggest problem about Bornstein’s season is that he didn’t play enough. For some reason he could never nail down a consistent spot in the starting lineup, even when those picked ahead of him failed time and time again. There was nothing he could have done about that, though.

He might be 37-years-old, but if he does come back for one more year then he’ll probably be one of the team’s most reliable options once again.

Grade: A-

Rafael Czichos

Rafael Czichos was so good this season that I kept thinking he was a Designated Player early on.

Coming to Chicago in the offseason, the centerback took no time to acclimate to life in MLS. He was vital in the team’s hot start to the year, playing at an elite level right off the bat. He was given the captain’s armband before the campaign even began, and it was clear to see why once the games kicked off. He’s just a natural born leader.

Things calmed down for both the player and team, but Czichos remained a constant presence in the lineup, and he was often a top performer. There were a few bad moments, like his stupid red card versus the New York Red Bulls or his comical own-goal at home to FC Cincinnati. However, the good certainly outweighed the bad, and he proved to be a top-tier signing when all was said and done.

There was a fun stretch where the Saudi-born German scored three goals in the span of four matches, which put him in a tie for the club’s Golden Boot at the time, and there was also his brace of penalty kicks in the Open Cup.

His best contributions were still at the back, of course. A tactically aggressive defender, Czichos won the ball so many times, whether it was in the air or on the ground. He knew when to step up, and when to stay back. He wasn’t doing it all himself, either, as he made those around him better.

A proper, proper captain.

Grade: A

Miguel Navarro

The duality of man continues here with Miguel Navarro.

If you thought Sekulić took a step backwards this season, his regression still wasn’t as bad as Navarro’s. 

The fullback on the other side of the pitch gave the team almost nothing going forward and at the back. He only dished out a single assist over the course of the entire campaign, which is especially bad considering how much he liked to go forward. That tendency to venture up the field hurt the Fire defensively, as there was then space in behind for the opposition.

Then again, even when Navarro was in position, he didn’t help out much. He was beaten off the dribble too easily, and he either lost his man as a result or he had to foul them. That made him a yellow card machine, and at one point he picked up a yellow in five straight appearances.

The only thing the Venezuelan was good at was the dark arts, drawing weak fouls and rustling the opposition. That’s not enough. He’s only 23, and he’s under contract for another two years, so there is still time for improvement. However, in terms of this past season, he was one of Chicago’s worst players.

Grade: D-

Jhon Espinoza    

Jhon Espinoza didn’t play a lot this season, and there’s a good reason for that.

The Ecuadorian just isn’t good enough to feature at this level. He was rolled out in a number of different positions, and he never really impressed in any role. He’s not solid enough defensively to be a fullback, and his offensive game is too one-dimensional, so putting him on the wing is a waste as well. He potentially could be a decent wingback in a system that’s built to hide his weaknesses, but that won’t happen with the Fire.

To quote a tweet from supporter and former writer Jiggly Carollo: “As I keep saying: John Espinoza is not a fullback. He's not a winger. He does not belong anywhere on the pitch. He should not be on the pitch.”

It’s harsh, but it’s fair.

Grade: D

Wyatt Omsberg

Wyatt Omsberg only got to play half the season, and that was a real shame.

Coming into the starting lineup to open the campaign, not much was expected of him. The centerback was mainly seen as a backup during the offseason, a decent yet unspectacular option that the team could turn to in times of need.

However, he blossomed early on. Alongside the aforementioned Czichos, Omsberg was a monster at the back, using his frame to devastating effect. He was a menace in the air, and he won a number of challenges in his own third. Sure, there were times where he’d be in a weird position, but fans were excited to see him grow more into the role.

Then disaster struck. In a home game in mid-June the American tore a ligament in his foot, and he had to undergo surgery soon after. That procedure was a success, but it meant that he had to spend the rest of the campaign on the treatment table. Just like that his breakout season was over.

It was a killer blow for both the player and the team. Who knows what could have happened if Omsberg was able to play the entire year. Imagine the relationship he could have built with Czichos. Maybe they could have saved Chicago.

Those kinds of thoughts will haunt all involved this offseason, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the performances Omsberg did have before his year was cut short. Hopefully he’ll be able to fully recover and reclaim his starting spot in 2023.

Grade: B+

Carlos Terán

He will have some competition, though.

The man who filled in for him was Carlos Terán, and he was pretty good at times. There were some doubts about the player before he got the nod, as his previous showings weren’t ideal. He was too young and too raw of a prospect. He had plenty of speed and strength, but his decision-making was quite poor, and his timing was off as well.

There was a bit of that early on this year, but the 22-year-old grew as the season went on. He started to learn from his past mistakes, reading certain situations differently. Instead of flying into a sliding challenge, he would calmly put his body between his opponent and the ball. Instead of blasting the ball out of bounds he’d take a second to scan the field and find an open teammate with a pass.

He was far from perfect, of course, which was proven by the amount of goals the side gave up in key moments. It’s hard to put a large share of the blame on Terán due to the players he had alongside him and in front of him, but if you’re going to be a centerback, you’re going to have to take some responsibility for whatever goal you concede. 

Whether he or Omsberg are the starter on day one next campaign remains to be seen, and there’s a chance the club just buys someone new anyway. However, at the very least Terán showed the Fire that he can be trusted in the future.

Grade: B

Kendall Burks

When you look back on the hype that surrounded Kendall Burks at the start of the year, this season was a bit of a disappointment.

Taken by Chicago in the 1st round of the MLS SuperDraft, there was a chance that the player was never going to actually feature for the club. There was interest from England, and the defender even went on trial with Nottingham Forest, who were near the top of the EFL Championship at the time. It went well enough, and the English side offered him a contract with their U-23 outfit.

Burks decided to stick with the Fire, though, officially signing for them in late-Febuary. It was seen as a bit of a coup for the team, as they took a gamble in the draft, and it seemingly paid off. However, that’s not really what happened. 

His first action of the year came with the Fire II, and even though he was at a lower level, he struggled. Then a knee injury ruled him out for a month, and gametime was hard to come by when he returned. 

The defender finally got his chance in MLS play when he started in a game against Charlotte FC. Things went smoothly in the first half, as he didn’t have much to do, and Chicago went into the break with a 2-0 lead. The opposition started pressing forward in the second half, and that’s when the problems began. Burks and company simply crumbled, and it led to the Fire ultimately losing 3-2.

He did get one more go on the final day, but that game was mostly played at half-speed anyway, so it’s hard to take much from that performance. 

The future is still bright for Burks since this was his rookie campaign, but he’s already 23, so he needs to improve quickly if he wants to become a consistent option for the first team. If not, then Chicago’s risk on draft day will end up being a costly one.

Grade: D+

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