As has been the case in the last few years, there has been a lot of change to the Chicago Fire's roster this offseason.
However, unlike the last few years the reasons for optimism to go with those changes seem more justified. In year two of coach Veljko Paunovic's tenure, the Fire figure to at least compete for a playoff spot.
"I think we improved for sure," Paunovic said. "I think where we improved is in leadership. Obviously our players that we brought this year, they have strong careers behind them and careers that they were successful and they proved their leadership role on their teams. That's very important. I think when you have that then you bring other pieces. Now we have to make them play as a team, which I think we are doing."
Preseason results typically don't mean much, but it is possible to learn things about a team based on how it played in those matches. For example, Juninho and Dax McCarty, two of the most notable additions in the offseason, seemed to have an easy time playing with each other in central midfield. Nemanja Nikolic and Michael de Leeuw look like they should be more efficient in finishing chances than the Fire were last year.
Beyond player changes, Paunovic said the team has shifted formations, although somewhat subtly. As opposed to the 4-2-3-1 system the team used most games last season, Paunovic mentioned changing to a 4-4-2 for this season. For the most part, the difference between the two formations is how the two strikers interact with each other. As opposed to having Nikolic play as the lone striker with an attacking midfielder playing somewhat underneath him, de Leeuw will play as a second striker alongside him.
"I think that me and Michael are the same type of players," Nikolic said. "The both of us run a lot looking for the free spaces behind opponents and it gives us opportunities in the attack. For defenders I think this is the most difficult. They have players everywhere who also help in the team defensively and in offense."
Nikolic said playing with de Leeuw in a 4-4-2 is beneficial to both players.
"I play with somebody else in front and it gives us more opportunities and more players are close to the box and close to the goal to score," Nikolic said of the 4-4-2.
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Nikolic, added this offseason, and de Leeuw, who joined in the middle of last season, give the Fire's attack a different dynamic to go along with speedster David Accam. Accam used to be the main threat for opposing teams to focus on, but that could change this season.
"I think this team in the past, a lot of the gameplanning has been around David Accam," McCarty said. "Rightfully so with his speed, it's a gamechanger. This team has kind of just been known as a team that wants to counterattack with David and hope that they score goals and see what happens. I think this year adding myself, Juninho, Nemanja Nikolic, Michael de Leeuw with another season under his belt, getting a new goalkeeper (Jorge Bava) that's very good with his feet and has a lot of experience. I think this team has a lot of weapons and we're going to be a pretty dangerous team."
The new pieces encourage optimism, but also likely mean the Fire will need some time to properly jell. Both Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez preached patience, a common theme from those two, while also emphasizing the importance of a strong start to 2017.
Every team will have players and coaches say they are confident just before the start of a new season and the Fire are no different.
"Last year we came out of preseason and the mood was excitement and hope," Rodriguez said. "A year of experience has taught me preseason really means nothing in terms of results. The mood this year is decidedly different. I think the mood this year is one of confidence."
Paunovic delivered the most confidence, again using that P word, playoffs, that has eluded the Fire the past four seasons.
"What I think is that we are in a very good spot and I am very confident that we can achieve the playoffs this year."