Here’s a statement I never thought I’d be saying. The Chicago Fire are contenders. They finished last in the overall table each of the past two seasons and were ninth in the Eastern Conference three years ago. The last time the Fire made the playoffs? That was in 2012 when they finished fourth in the east. Now, they’re MLS Cup contenders.

This past off-season marked major signings for the Fire. They brought in players such as Dax McCarty, Juninho, and Nemanja Nikolic. That’s two solid midfielders with years of MLS experience plus a forward who recently won player of the year with Legia Warsaw in the Polish Ekstraklasa. Combining that with talent like David Accam in attack and they’ll surely score more than the conference worst 42 goals of last season.

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So, the midfield and attack have been ambitiously upgraded this off-season, but what about defense? The Fire have two young defenders in Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell who have been regarded as two of the top defensive prospects in the league, and rightly so. Now with a year’s experience under their belt, the Chicago defense should be better than the Swiss cheese defense we saw last year.

The club did lose a major piece of any success they’ve had with the departure of goalkeeper Sean Johnson. He was traded to NYCFC in a three-team deal that saw allocation money from Atlanta United sent to Chicago. Anytime you lose a player of Johnson’s quality, it’s tough to replace the production. Goalkeeper is a potential weaker spot for the club, however, it’s about the only one.

Not only did the Fire essentially overhaul the squad for 2017, they also play in arguably the easier of the two conferences. Sure, they have to compete with the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC but being in the east lets them avoid the Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders for a playoff spot. In the Western Conference, there’s probably two playoff spots up for grabs next season. Looking at the Eastern Conference there are at least three spots open. If anything happens to David Villa this year, there’s four open.

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Using the current squad to create a predicted starting XI, the midfield and forwards could consist of Nikolic, Michael De Leeuw, Arturo Alvarez, Accam, Juninho, and McCarty. That’s a lineup that should have even the Rapids defense on edge.

Will the Fire win MLS Cup in 2017? I highly doubt it. They’ll make the playoffs though and if you’re looking for a Cinderella story like the Sounders last year, the Chicago Fire are your team.