Written by: Daniel Casey
The pre-season for any sport is an exciting time, full of anxiety and hope. Unlike baseball’s Winter Meetings and the ‘silly season’ of the English January Transfer Window, which dangle the hope of changing a team midstream there is no moment of the sports year that can see such a maddening mix of arrivals, departures, rumors, fantasy, and cold hard reality. Though the MLS is no different, I would argue that the league’s labyrinthine, counterintuitive modus operandi create an even more rousing atmosphere during the preseason. A positive outcome of this is the wonderful room for speculation that is afforded supporters.
Last year, Twitter luminary and world-class centerback Rio Ferdinand asked his “Tweeps” a bit of a throwaway question in between his chiding of Piers Morgan and constant updates about the goings on of his kids. That question, “Is it easier to be loyal when your [sic] part of a successful club??,” (Sept 17) got stuck in my head because at the time my MLS team, Chicago Fire, were in the throes of a two season skid.
I think it is easier to support a successful club, but a supporter’s true colors are revealed when a club is in crisis. Neutrals and ‘tourists’ will always swell the ranks, but they are regular like tides and to complain about them is meaningless. What makes one loyal to a club is just how serious you take the club and that seriousness has no time for petulant complaint or sour grapes.
Former Fire manager Carlos de los Cobos had no success in Chicago. Quite simply, it just didn’t work out. To release vitriol upon him for the club’s woes is a bit out of line, but only a bit. De los Cobos did a great disservice to Dasan Robinson and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, essentially failing to allow them to maintain match fitness. I didn’t understand his disregard of the journeyman Robinson and the grinder Watson-Siriboe.
By the time Frank Klopas took the reins, neither of these talented centerbacks could lay claim to regular playing time. So much so, Robinson became trade fodder and has since retired, and Watson-Siriboe was loaned out to the USL. Combine this with a style of play that was anything but controlling or elegant, I found myself in a woeful state as a supporter. Yet it was inappropriate to demand de los Cobos’s head on a plate.
Supporters have gotten a bit out of control over the past few years (American Arsenal fans, the MUST Green & Gold, and most recently those calling for the blood of Blackburn’s Steve Kean). Acting out like this is adolescent. A genuine supporter though they might disagree with the manager still reason their way through decisions and offer proper commentary; knee-jerk lager fuelled disgust is best kept in the pub (where it’s damn fun).
The Fire have issues: the backline is not solidified, midfield is needlessly crowded, and the attacking third is more than a bit shaky. But let’s be honest, I just described nearly every MLS team this preseason. What specifically should we Fire supporters look for out of the preseason? Who should get the starting call for the beginning of the season?
As mentioned, Robinson is gone and Watson-Siriboe is going to have to fight his way back into the lineup (although I can easily see him stepping up and having a ‘comeback’ season like Cory Gibbs did last season). Chicago’s starting centerbacks should be Cory Gibbs and Jalil Anibaba, the perfect mix of veteran and youngster. Gibbs isn’t going to be around much longer, ideally when he does step aside he will have passed on to Anibaba enough experience that Anibaba will be able to form a long-term partnership with First-Round Draft Pick Austin Berry.
Although many Fire supporters became enamored with Yamith Cuesta, too often he demonstrated poor decision making, poor marking, and an inability to win anything in the air. Similarly, Josip Mikulic garnered support but I couldn’t get past his rash challenges and hot-headed demeanor. The two of them, Cuesta and Mikulic, make up an error prone defense where at any moment opposing forwards can be assured lack of vision or a poor challenge will gift them a goal.
Having said that, there’s no reason not to have them both on the squad because they’re both young, strong, and talented which means they are deserving of a spot. Unfortunately, Cuesta is out of contract with little movement made to change that (he isn’t in camp) and Mikulic recently had to leave the country due to family issues.
This leaves the defensive line a bit thin. But if promising draftee Hunter Jumper and deep-round pick Justin Chavez are able to prove themselves, they could easily fill out the roster while gaining experience in the revived Reserve League simply because there is a stark lack of fullbacks in the MLS. Dan Gargan has become, rightfully so, a crowd favorite at rightback; he’s grinder, has the heart and skill to play every minute of a season much like his teammate Gonzalo Segares at leftback. For both of these fullbacks the minutes they are putting in on the pitch will come back to haunt them—the Fire needs suitable depth.
So, look to resurgence from Steve Kinney. Kinney and Watson-Siriboe could, due to the current situation, find themselves in an advantageous situation they just have to make it happen. Recently, there have been rumors of an international signing from Greece to shore up the defense, but giving Pari Pantazopoulos more or a look would be a better move for the money. And let’s not forget, Michael Videira has been willing to drop to the back third since the Fire midfield is a crowded scene.
There it is, midfield, and there is a whole starting line-up of players waiting to get their chance. You really can’t have too many midfielders given the regularity of injury or the need to rotate players. It’s maddening for the players because they want to start every week. This is a point not nearly mentioned enough, part of what makes Frank Klopas a good manager is his man-management and he will certainly have that put to the test this season.
Of course there are certain players that should be guaranteed starting spots: Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko are the wings. If the Fire play their cards right, these two will be running down the way for years to come. But when these two are out, who steps into the position? With Chicago having given up on Mike Banner and the wait for Victor Pineda to ripen continues, Corben Bone needs to step up and be given the chance to shine. With new signing Rafael Robayo and the retention of the last season’s sparkplug Sebastian Grazzini Fire have a two brilliant ‘creative’ attacking center-mids. We’ll see if training camp invitees Ivan Guerrero, Alex, and supplemental draftee Tony Walls can make a case for a role on the wings or as a bench option.
With the re-signing of Pavel Pardo the Fire have a veteran who can boss the midfield, someone who alongside captain Logan Pause, only enhance the skill of Daniel Paladini. I was rather disappointed that the Fire didn’t make a move in this year’s draft for midfielder Callum Mallace, who would have been an excellent immediate addition to the squad as well as a long-term investment.
But without a midfielder drafted, the departure of Baggio Husidic, and the age of Pardo, Paladini should have a much more significant role this year. It would be one he could quite easily fill with great success. If we mull it over for a moment, we come to realize that the Chicago midfield isn’t as crowded as once thought, it is a midfield where players need to recognize their role and strive to fulfill it—a platitude certainly but clichés are clichés for a reason.
What really makes me flinch is the attacking core simply because, outside of Dominic Oduro, I’m certainly uncertain who the number two striker is. The release of Christian Nazarit, a hulking forward who was never able to look like anything but a bull in a china shop when in the final third, was wise. But we can all understand the desire for a target man whose physicality makes rival centerbacks cringe.
However, the Fire had no one last season and continues to have no one that can do that (one of the reasons, the Fire win nothing in the air and are no threat at all from set pieces). Fire fans love Orr Barouch, our super-sub last season, and would adore seeing the youngster in a regular role coupled with Oduro—thinking of the speed and quickness alone makes one dizzy. But Oduro and Barouch both had an evil relationship with the woodwork last season (partially because of their dizzying speed and quickness).
Enter Klopas’s new signing Federico Puppo, a striker who can dish the ball off with a bit more flare than Barouch. For a handful of we Fire supporters, the departure of Diego Chaves was a great disappointment but one that did certainly make sense. Puppo looks to be a forward who has all the pluses of Chaves with none of his minuses. Add to this crop former New England Revolution striker Kheli Dube, a forward who has good instincts in the box. I have no idea how late round draftees Lucky Mkosana and Evans Frimpong will fair and it’s certainly still too early for Kellen Gulley.
But something that should be mulled over is the status of forward Etienne Barbara. Last year, Barbara dominated the NASL with the Carolina RailHawks (Daniel Paladini’s former team) winning the Golden Boot (28 goals) and MVP. His ‘rights’ were held by MLS expansion team Montreal who made it a point to keep him in a ridiculous state of limbo.
Finally Vancouver made a move for him, a partnership with Eric Hassli or new Whitecap Sebastien Le Toux could see a goal glut for the Canadian team. I mention this because Barbara would be a nice compliment to Oduro, Barbara is fast, strong and able to orchestrate goals. These traits could only enhance Oduro’s quality.
Lastly there is the field marshal position, Goalkeeper. Sean Johnson is the Chicago Fire keeper and should be for years to come. His star is rising in American football and soon Johnson will be vying for the number one shirt on the US National team with Bill Hamid of DC United. Once Tim Howard retires internationally, it will be one of these two young men that will take his place. Johnson’s position is secure with the Fire, in fact the club should strive to make him the face of the Fire, but he can still improve.
Training for a few weeks during the offseason with clubs in the English Premier League was a good idea but honestly Johnson should have been loaned for out for two months to England. Johnson’s skill would soar if he were to get to face Premiership competitors or even saw regular playing time with a Championship side. The Fire need to encourage players to strive for national teams, the only way an MLS team will be able to dominate is with a squad of players with international experience, players who expect to play or train ten months out of the year. Sean Johnson is a star and he needs to be allowed to shine ever more brightly.
Going into 2012, the Chicago Fire are facing pressure. After two subpar seasons (to put it nicely), the Fire are expected to pull it together. Manager Frank Klopas has all the pieces he wanted and now he is controlling how they are deployed; the team knows there are no excuses now. Things look positive, if the Fire start off with the form they ended 2011 with then we will see a resurgent, successful team. The death from a thousand cuts that is the draw still haunts the club.
But roles are clear this season, players know what is expected from them and they know that they have a manager that will let them play in the ways that suit their strengths and not try to mash them into a particular system. Again, the pre-season is a time of madness and hope; it is a time of nervous energy. Yet, I think Fire supporters are looking forward with more than just a glimmer of hope—they are looking forward with confidence, a confidence that has been in short supply over the last couple of years.
Projected Starting IX 2012
RB Dan Gargan
CB Jalil Anibaba
CB Cory Gibbs
LB Gonzalo Segares
RM Patrick Nyarko
CM Daniel Paladini
ACM Sebastian Grazzini
CM Logan Pause
LM Marco Pappa
F Dominic Oduro