“I have one thousand takeaways.”
On his first season in Major League Soccer, goalkeeper Kenneth Kronholm speaks candidly.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said, following Tuesday’s training session at SeatGeek Stadium. "(At this point), I know how a goalkeeper has to play in MLS. It took a lot of time. Maybe too much time.”
By just about every metric, Kronholm's form over the final third of his inaugural campaign in Chicago ranked among the league’s finest at his position. As he found his footing, Kronholm and the Fire defensive unit routinely picked up clean sheets in a late push for an Eastern Conference postseason berth.
“I’m really sad that the season is over, but I’m excited for next season, to play the whole season with the team,” he said. “I want to be successful. I know we can be successful. I'm looking forward.”
The stakes were high for Kronholm from the outset. Upon moving to Chicago from 2. Bundesliga side Holstein Keil in early May, he was tasked with adjusting to a new locker room, a new league, and a new way of life. The Fire had already played more than a third of their season, and urgency began to accompany the team's expectations to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Kronholm got a result in his first start -- a 1-1 draw with New York City FC on May 25 -- but that match began the Club’s most difficult stretch of the season. Forced to reconcile with injuries, suspensions, and international obligations among the defensive unit, the Fire’s back line personnel were rotated in seven of Kronholm’s first 10 games.
Those challenges -- coupled with Kronholm’s continued orientation to MLS -- saw the beginning of the German-American’s tenure in net sputter to a 1-5-4 start.
“I knew that it wouldn’t be easy for me to come over to the States -- where everything is new for me -- and just perform,” Kronholm said. “That’s not possible. I need the confidence. I need the self-trust. I need to learn what’s different from Germany. I have to learn my teammates.”
In July, those learning experiences began to yield results.
Kronholm's performance, July 27 through Oct. 6 (via Opta)
|Matches Played||Wins||Goals Allowed Per Game||Saves Per Game||Save %||Clean Sheets|
|Statistic (MLS Rank)||10||5
|0.9 (1)||3.6 (8)||79.55 (2)||5
After the July 22 acquisition of defender Jonathan Bornstein, the Fire were able to re-establish continuity on the defensive line going into the final third of the season. The quartet of Bornstein, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Francisco Calvo, and Johan Kappelhof started ahead of Kronholm in nine of his final 10 starts, and the 34-year-old thrived.
In a Heineken Man of the Match performance in Houston on Aug. 3. Kronholm made four crucial saves -- including a stoppage time denial of Mauro Manotas -- to preserve a 1-0 victory against the Dynamo.
With the defensive unit gelling, Kronholm’s rising form helped the Club make a late charge toward postseason contention. There was the point-blank stoppage time save in a 2-0 win against the Philadelphia Union. The 95th minute double-effort to preserve a point against Columbus Crew SC. The full-stretch swat to keep a shutout on the road at FC Cincinnati.
Kronholm earned his second Heineken Man of the Match in the Fire’s regular season finale -- a 5-2 win at Orlando City SC. After Tesho Akindele scored an early goal, Kronholm rebounded to make eight stops, including a remarkable 85th minute reaction save against a wide-open Benji Michel inside the six-yard box.
By season's end, Kronholm was performing among the best 'keepers in the league. From July 27 (the Fire’s first match starting Bornstein, Schweinsteiger, Calvo, and Kappelhof in defense) through the Fire’s finale in Orlando on Oct. 6, Kronholm ranked first among MLS goalkeepers in goals allowed per game (0.9), second in save percentage (79.55) and second in clean sheets (five), according to Opta.
“It was most important to train every day with these guys, and to work hard together and learn new things, like ‘What is my neighbor doing?’” he said. “That’s very important.”
Numbers aren't everything, but they do help illustrate the growth Kronholm made during his debut MLS season. In the end, it wasn’t perfect -- the Club ultimately fell short of the postseason -- but the foundation is there to build on as the Fire look ahead to their new chapter at Soldier Field in 2020.
“In the end, we were only three points away from the playoffs,” Kronholm said. “I have to think about a lot -- think about my play as a goalkeeper -- during the vacation. I think we can do it better next season.”
With Calvo, Kappelhof, and Bornstein set to return, the Fire have an opportunity to continue refining that defensive chemistry.
The Club's 2020 home opener -- a March 21 meeting with Atlanta United FC -- is just a few short months away. For Kronholm, being able to work alongside his teammates throughout the offseason and into preseason will be key to delivering a winning product to the fans in the Fire's return to Soldier Field.
"We need everyone. If we can reach everyone, we can make great things next season. Help us, and we’ll help you."