In Defense of the Defenders: Why Chicago’s Back Four Look So Tired

photo by chicago-fire.com

I bet he’s at about 0.5% body fat by now. (photo: chicago-fire.com)

With a little help from the Editor, OTF’s Adam Morgan brings you a disheartening case of Chicago Fire coaching malpractice and man-management failure… 

Lately, defending has been a bit of a nightmare for Chicago Fire. Mental gaffes, slow feet, and poor positioning have all conspired to cause the Men in Red to allow 2.5 goals per match this month.

The resulting three losses and one 3-2 comeback win (against an undermanned and struggling San Jose Earthquakes squad) are thus frustrating for all, and perhaps puzzling for some. Chicago features four talented, experienced starters along the back line, so what gives?

One explanation for the lackluster defending is player fatigue, particularly with regards to Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba, Bakary Soumare, and Gonzalo Segares. Many in Fire Nation believe these guys are mentally and physically exhausted from too many consecutive minutes on the field.

But is that true? Have the members of Chicago’s choice back four really played more minutes than the average MLS defender?

The answer is unequivocally yes.

Numbers Don’t Lie

Thus far in 2013, MLS defenders have averaged 1,013 minutes*. By comparison, here’s how many minutes Chicago’s starters have racked up:

Jalil Anibaba: 1,620
Austin Berry: 1,620
Gonzalo Segares: 1,440
Bakary Soumare: 981

Therefore, in just 18 games, Anibaba and Berry have played 600 more minutes than the average MLS defender this season, even though most clubs have played 19 or 20 games. To put it another way, over the last four months Anibaba and Berry have both played 18 consecutive MLS matches while the average defender has played only 11.

* Not including defenders who’ve only played 90 minutes or less. There are only a handful in the league, and they skew the averages.

It Gets Worse

In fact, there are only six defenders who have played more MLS minutes than Anibaba and Berry this year: AJ DeLaGarza, Ray Gaddis, Zach Lloyd, Sheanon Williams, Matt Hedges, and Sean Franklin.

However, those players have all played 20 games this season (compared to Chicago’s 18). If you project Anibaba and Berry’s MLS minutes to 20 games, you wind up with the staggering number of 1,800, which is more than any defender on any team in the league.

Even further (as if what you’ve already read isn’t bad enough), the statistics above don’t include U.S. Open Cup matches, of which Chicago has played three this summer. And guess who’s played all 270+ minutes of those games? You guessed it: Anibaba, Berry, Segares, and Soumare. That brings Anibaba and Berry to a staggering overall total of 1,890 minutes on the field in just four months, with Segares not far behind at 1710.

Regarding Bakary Soumare, he made his 2013 debut with Philadelphia Union on May 11th. Roughly ten weeks later, the big man from Mali has started 14 consecutive matches (11 in MLS and three in U.S. Open Cup play). 14 games in ten weeks equals 1251 minutes, which is 200 more minutes than the average MLS defender has played — since the beginning of March. Furthermore, Soumare has logged 90+ minutes in all but one of the 14 games he’s played in 2013 (vs. LA Galaxy on 5/15, 81 minutes).

Conclusions

Of all the Men in Red, Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry have looked the most fatigued, and here’s why: they’ve played more minutes this season in 18 matches than any other defender in the league. Throw in the USOC matches, and it’s not even close.

Gonzalo Segares is 427 minutes above the MLS average, and he’d be even higher had he not been suspended for Sunday’s match against Vancouver. And again, add his USOC minutes and Sega’s played as much or more than anyone in the league.

As far as Soumare’s concerned, well, the facts laid bare above speak for themselves. He needs a rest just as much as his three back line mates.

So, do the Men in Red have an excuse to be exhausted? Well, it appears Anibaba, Berry, and Segares certainly do. Maybe Baky too. Hopefully, the addition of Shaun Francis will help, but Chicago still needs more depth along the back line, be it from Yamith Cuesta, Elias Vasquez, Hunter Jumper, or someone else.

Most importantly however, we must seriously question the competency of Chicago Fire’s technical staff. Professional athletes are not meant to be run into the ground. Fatigue not only compromises performance, but increases injury risk.

In the case of Chicago’s back line, Frank Klopas and his cohorts have acted irresponsibly, and everyone who works for and cares about the club is paying the price.

Note: All direct criticisms of Frank Klopas and Chicago Fire’s technical staff herein are written solely by the Editor.

OTF’s Adam Morgan is an award-winning screenwriter and the author of Best Hikes Near Chicago. In between hiking and watching the Beautiful Game, Adam has also written for the Tribune Company, Fox Television Studios, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist. Follow Adam @earthmorgan

OTF Editor Scott Fenwick is a contributor to the Guardian’s (UK) MLS fan coverage & The Cup.usand America’s #1 Rapid supporter. Follow Scott @OnTheFire97

57 thoughts on “In Defense of the Defenders: Why Chicago’s Back Four Look So Tired

  1. Does this really surprise anyone at this point, Klopas lack of faith in his backups force’s his hand. Why we ever got rid of Gargan still remains a mystery to me at this point. Overall if given the opportunity Klopas will attempt to keep the same unit as much as possible. That is just the type of coach he seems to be….

  2. Well done. I still look at players who seemingly haven’t a clue what they’re doing on set pieces and a unit that can’t hold a line to save its life as being major culprits. Those are mental lapses that have happened since day one. I’d throw a chunk of that back on the coaches but, of course, I haven’t got any badges.

  3. Roberto Carlos played an average of a whopping 53 games a season for Real Madrid, for eleven consecutive seasons. During that time he also played ~93 times for the Brazilian national team so you can tack on another ~10 games a season for that. That’s around 680 matches a year for eleven straight years.

    In total he was playing roughly over 5,000 minutes a year, with some very intense games at a very high level. Champions League, title runs in La Liga, Copa Del Rey, World Cup, etc., games that take their toll mentally and physically. All of that from a position that required a hell of a lot more running than a center back in MLS.

    We should establish the baseline expectation for a CB in the world, and then figure out where MLS falls in line. Then we can decide if these players are playing too much. I’m sure Roberto Carlos is an outlier, but shouldn’t an MLS CB be able to run half as much in a year?

    • There’s a a boatload of assumptions and implausible scenarios to cut through there. Roberto Carlos… I mean, I don’t have to get into that. Fuck, let’s look at 38-year-old Davie Weir playing 65-plus matches for Club and country in 2008, and around 55-plus for the three years after. Those types of players are unique for a reason.

      If fitness levels are lacking that ultimately comes back to the staff as well. Maybe MacDonald’s joke of a performance coming back from the offseason was the extreme, but perhaps it wasn’t much of an outlier, either. (Still, fuck him.) I can think of two matches this season where this team found an extra gear late, and one of those was Portland at home where Porter’s team seemed to stop playing after 60 minutes.

      • That’s why I suggest we establish a baseline since I wouldn’t rely on an outlier to make a case, just to raise a question.

      • Yeah. Aside from MacDonald, the team overall wasn’t fit at the beginning of the year. And once season starts, well, the train has already left the station.

        Note that non-technical staff leadership was not happy with the overall fitness levels at the beginning of the season.

    • Baseline expectation is a good idea. I think we’d find that MLS ranks quite low in that regard and I don’t mean that to sound like a dig on the league. Simple fact is that players here don’t live in the mental place where you basically play year round (with maybe a month & a half, two month break) every week often twice a week.

      • It’s so odd that American players are always held in high regard for their fitness but this is an issue. Like I said in a different quote a few minutes ago, I’m more inclined to believe it’s a mental issue rather than physical. You suggest something similar.

        • Ben, the “baseline” you’re seeking IS what league these athletes are in. That’s the only context we can use.

          What league an athlete plays in is the best way to gauge the quality of the player. Comparing the work rate of a legend like Roberto Carlos to mid-tier MLS personnel is like gauging a college basketball player by comparing him to Michael Jordan.

          Obviously the quality of La Liga athletes will eclipse those of MLS, so you must compare them to other MLS athletes (as Scott & Adam did).

          It’s also worth noting Nationality has absolutely nothing to do with this “fitness” discussion…(Bakary Soumare is Malian, Gonzalo Segares is Costa Rican, MacDonald, of course, is Dutch.)

          • But these players come from all over the world. The baseline for salaries, skill and everything else is global. And fitness especially, considering it’s America’s forte, is something that should be quantifiably better than most of the world. If MLS players can’t play to a world average then there’s something seriously wrong.

            And again, minutes played isn’t the deciding factor anyway. There are other reasons at play, including preseason training, mental fitness, too many nights out at the clubs and tons of other factors we might not even see, like playing on a practice field that looks like hay.

            If they’ve played too many minutes based on the MLS average, what would you have done differently? We were missing two starters for the first 10+ games and neither one has returned. We didn’t have the bodies to rotate anyway.

  4. The minutes are the same. Arne made them look better last season and also the fact that they played with two defensives mids last season. Selfies Mac’s was bust this season and that has thrown the traditional counter attack game plan out the window because he can’t even hold up my jock….let alone a soccer ball. Anibaba has had the most minutes for three years running (that’s including this year bare any major injuries..kid never gets hurt). It’s not the minutes but the talent around them from Arne and somewhat Pardo to me is the reason for the defensive decline. Segares and Baky have been consistent. Anibaba is decent defensively and hustles, but needs to improve on the offensive side of the game. I wonder if Berry would have received rookie of the year if Arne was not around last year?

  5. I dunno if it’s a tiredness issue. Take a look at the stats for the most recent EPL season (http://www.thescore.com/epl/player_splits/minutes) and there are plenty of guys who put in the type of minutes that the Fire backline has without issue. Leighton Baines, Ashley Williams, Matthew Lowton and Jonas Olsson all had good-to-great seasons and they all played 3200+ minutes in 36 (or more) games.

    • But don’t those guys have better nutrition and strength and conditioning programs? Guys who’ve played in MLS and the EPL always say so, that the training is more “professional”. The last guy I heard say this was Roger Espinosa.

      • Well then shouldn’t the article have been about the nutrition strength and conditioning, not simply a hit piece about minutes played.

        If you knew it was a nutrition an strength issue, why beat around the bush? Why not attack that issue instead?

          • So I can support your argument? Hell no! Sharpen up your sleuthing skills and earn them stripes (and clicks).

            Fatigue may certainly be an issue but we’ve been mostly hog tied on substitutions since Arne, Kinney and lately Pause have been AWOL. That’s an impossible hurdle to overcome.

          • Bias? I looked into the stats because I wanted to see if Chicago’s defenders were playing more than the average defender. What I found was that two of them literally played more minutes than any other defenders in MLS. I had no idea that would be the case going in.

          • We all have our biases. Mine is that I think Frank Klopas isn’t competent enough to be a top MLS coach. I suspect Ben’s is that he likes Klopas because he’s had beers with him or something like that.

            • To be fair, since the days of Bob Bradley I’ve always disliked our coaches. I’ve second guessed them and hated their decisions. But over time I’ve learned that there are too many factors to accurately judge from the sidelines.

              As for beers, I’ve had drinks with everyone from Andrew on down. I don’t let that get in the way of my criticisms, public or private. And what I’ve said elsewhere is that while Klopas might not be the best coach in the league, he’s good enough if we’ve got the right players. And before Magee, we didn’t.

              • Good enough’s not good enough for me, and I try not to be sentimental about this stuff. That said, I respect you, your opinions, and your sentiments. I’m glad we can agree to disagree and still have fun.

                I acknowledge that I certainly am on the sidelines. Again, opinions drive debate and dialogue, and this is the point. What we try to do here, right or wrong, is to be less about reportage and more about the other stuff, good or bad. Why? Well, that’s complicated.

                One thing I’m certain of is this though: All of us care a lot about the club and the game. In the end, we want the same thing. I’m glad there are folks like you to argue with.

                Cheers.

  6. Also MLS players don’t play as many games or minutes as many European leagues and that’s not even counting the more robust cup competitions of many European leagues.

    Last season, Drew Moor (Colorado Rapids) was the only non-goalie to play more than 3000 minutes and he did so by playing in all 34 games. Simply put, MLS teams don’t play as many games as other leagues, so player fatigue shouldn’t really be an issue.

  7. I’d like to add that Austin Berry told me he was tired after the Orlando City match. It was a response to a question that related to the frequency of games since mid to late May, and not the game itself. Then, because he’s been trained in media-speak (bless him), he said there are no excuses and that players must take care of their bodies. Sure. That’s obvious.

    I think the arguments against our assertions are valid. However, I suspect that the nutrition and strength and conditioning programs these guys are on may be suspect.

    Regardless, we’ll never prove what the problem is. However, it’s plausible to say that fatigue can lead to mental errors. And if the mental errors are not due to fatigue, it falls upon the coaches to teach the players how to not make mistakes. If, in turn, said players are not coachable, you bench them. I suspect, however, that the Fire has bad teachers.

    • Now that’s an interesting point. The evidence seems to suggest that the players aren’t being overplayed as other players around the world can cope with the frequency and quantity of games. Therefore the players aren’t fit enough which points to poorly designed fitness training and/or insufficient food and drink, both of which are the responsibility of the coaching staff.
      So the problem is the players lack of fitness, but the cause is a coaching/training failure.

        • But if non-technical staff was upset about fitness at the beginning of the season, why the article about minutes played? It seems like poor journalism to call “Frank Klopas and his cohorts” irresponsible because of the minutes played if you already knew that wasn’t the issue.

          • If Klopas knows his players aren’t as fit as they should be, or could be (relative to competition), he should rotate them in and out of the lineup. No?

            And if he’s not tuned in to their fitness levels relative to their respective capabilities, he’s not doing a good job.

            Think about the numbers. It’s plausible to assert that other defenders are performing better throughout the league because they aren’t as fatigued, because they’re being rotated. Because they’re playing less minutes.

            Plus, we haven’t even gotten into the mental fatigue issue, which relates directly to the physical. I think a game off now and then (especially for the young ones) helps guys get perspective and not only rest their bodies, but their minds as well.

            You cited Roberto Carlos. He was an exception to the rule. Six (?) other MLS players are near Berry, Anibaba’s, and Segares’s minutes. Perhaps these guys are exceptions as well.

            There will always be athletes who are tireless, who have the capacity to perform at the highest levels at the highest minutes. Again though, such guys are exceptions. Perhaps Berry and Anibaba are good players, but not exceptional in this regard?

            Segares has played a lot, but he’s a veteran who likely knows how to better manage his body off the field and how much energy he expends while on the field. But, if you paid close attention to him in the Club America game, he looked tired.

            All in all, while I think the arguments against our assertions are indeed valid, I think there’s something to the number of minutes played and the circumstances (for all four players) and how it correlates to performance lately.

            • And your comment would make a better article than this one. 😉

              Seriously though, an article about just the minutes is simply wrong without the supporting arguments. It’s a complex issue and fatigue might not even be the problem we’re seeing on the field.

              And if the author is going to blame minutes and rotation, come up with an alternative. We lost two starting caliber defenders. If we were to look over the lineups there wasn’t ever much wiggle room to help reduce minutes. What would the author have done to reduce minutes played? I imagine if he goes over game by game there aren’t many minutes to play with.

              And one of the three loses we’re considering is the Club America game when our starting defensive four played a combined 46 minutes, all of which were Sega. If we had “mental gaffes, slow feet, and poor positioning” in that game, it certainly wasn’t fatigue.

              I say there’s some truth in all of it, including minutes and fatigue, but the biggest issue isn’t physical, it’s mental. Prior to Magee, we didn’t have a player with the all encompassing desire to win. We’ve been soft in that category for years. Tired is a factor but also an excuse when you don’t have the drive and desire to overcome it.

              • I appreciate your comments. In this venue, I consider all the comments to be part of the article.

                Regarding the author, I posed the idea for this article. I also contributed to it. So from a responsibility standpoint, I’m as responsible as he is for whatever you don’t like about it.

                The point of the article (and On The Fire itself) is to generate dialogue. I think we’ve succeeded in this case. Whether we’re right or wrong is besides the point.

                I really appreciate all of the thought and time you’ve put into your comments, and hope you’ll be back again.

                Cheers.

  8. Klopas and cohorts are responsible for getting the team to a fitness level that allows them to cope with the rigors of the season. Klopas is responsible since he either isn’t getting the team fit enough or he hasn’t built a team of sufficient depth to handle the season.

  9. There’s also something to be be said for mental tiredness that often accompanies playing so many minutes. Humans are creatures of habit and playing a lot can be a double-edged sword. At a certain point you get into a groove and things start to click, minor mistakes or lapses are easily brushed off. Then the next moment, you find yourself in a bit of a rut making the same errors and getting down on it. Yips-like. Like a marathoner, players can hit a wall–are they able to break through it and have their quality of play rise with the break or are they going to hit the wall and flounder never able to get back to the decent form they once had.

    What’s difficult is that each player will address this differently, the whole backline won’t come forward as one. I can see Segares being fine because he’s been playing this way for years. Anibaba seems to be able to find a groove. But Berry and Soumare seem to be ever so slightly out of sync with each other. Physical tiredness, perhaps. Mental exhaustion, I certainly think so. The body language of that Vancouver match I think revealed a lot.

    At some point, you have to at least make 2nd half substitutions. Why not Jumper in the 75th or 80th minute?

  10. Good article! I think the comments about the quality of coaching/conditioning are also very important, and should be their own feature article- however we can never have enough info on that to publish something beyond gossip.

  11. Doesn’t change my arguement, but I need to add one caveat: I forgot to take CCL matches into account. AJ DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin both played 360 minutes for LA against Liga MX squads, bringing their totals for the year a bit higher than Berry and Anibaba’s, by 100 minutes or so.

    Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis also played for most of Philadelphia’s USOC matches; if we add those, Williams is still a little short of Anibaba and Berry, but Gaddis beats them by about half a match.

    However, Anibaba and Berry still played more minutes in 18 regular-season matches and 3 USOC matches than any other MLS defenders, and are the only players not to have taken a single break (they’ve played every minute of every MLS/USOC match).

    • Yeah, it’s a bit splitting hairs when you get down to those small differences. Still, with our injuries, how would we have subbed differently? It’s easy to say we should, but Jumper hasn’t looked at all good in reserve games. Other than him, what flexibility have we had?

      • For me, the argument still holds, even though there are three (3) defenders in the league who have more minutes across all competitions. Chicago’s guys are still 600-800 minutes above average, and are still the only guys to play every minute of every match in MLS and USOC play without getting a rest.

        And if the staff didn’t have confidence in Hunter Jumper, why didn’t they make any moves during the first transfer window? I suppose they could have been optimistic about Steven Kinney and Arne Friedrich returning from injuries.

        Has Jumper really looked that bad? I haven’t caught any reserve matches but he looked okay in the win over NYRB and during the Club America game.

          • We’ve played 18 while most have played 19 or 20, and yet our defenders have still played more minutes than the defenders who’ve had more possible minutes to play. You don’t seem to get what I’m saying. I’m not arguing that they’ve played the most games. I’m pointing out that they’ve played more minutes than 99.7% of the league’s defenders even though 90% of them have had more chances to get minutes. By saying “we’ve played fewer matches,” you are actually supporting the point I’m trying to make, not countering it.

            • You made the argument: “… and are still the only guys to play every minute of every match in MLS and USOC play without getting a rest.”

              Anyway, you’re not understanding the fact that minutes played at this point in the season aren’t the only, or necessarily even the biggest factor. You picked that as the focus of the article but having played that many minutes at this point in time doesn’t mean a player would be fatigued.

              That’s the basis of your article and it’s unsubstantiated, that’s all.

              We’re talking about 21 games in 20 weeks. If you really think professional soccer players can’t handle that kind of work load, then you’re just wrong. I’m sorry. They may have played more than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s too many minutes. I’m not sure why you can’t understand that.

          • Actually, when I said they were the only guys to play 21 matches straight without a break, I wasn’t making an argument, I was just quoting the stats. My argument was that their performance is suffering because of it.

            And of course I understand it’s not the only factor. You and I just disagree on whether it’s a major factor contributing to the back line’s performance this season. I think it is, you don’t. I’m okay with that. Calling each other wrong is a bit counterproductive. Only the players know.

      • My dearest Ben,

        I think it’s presumptuous to call Kinney a “lost starter” Also, both he and Friedrich were health risks. You never, ever go into a season without a contingency plan. You always must have a plan of action for the worst-case scenario.

        And remember, the Fire started the season with four, count ’em four, empty roster spots. Is that not mismanagement? Now here they are, struggling to dig themselves out of a hole because they weren’t prepared in the first place. And the fact they were a playoff team last year makes this year that much tougher to swallow.

        That said, Pardo and Friedrich are Pardo and Friedrich. You can’t overestimate their value. However, look at Klopas’s coaching record without one or both of those guys on the field. It will tell you something.

        • Lost starter or not, he was a lost top six, which leaves us with few other options and fewer places to spread the minutes. Again, if we were to scour over the game day rosters, how many other options were available? We can review the game day 18 and who was available and if a sub would have mattered.

          And if there were four roster spots open…who is to blame? That’s one that needs to be answered by the club.

          I’m not surprised Klopas’ record isn’t as good without Pardo and Friedrich. His record was a hell of a lot better than De Los Cobos who had Grazzini while Klopas did not. But even the best coaches this league has ever seen (Arena, Bradley) have done really poorly when their roster wasn’t good enough. That’s normal and to be expected. What isn’t acceptable is when a coach has a good roster (Hamlet, De Los Cobos) and they still screw it up.

          • My last comment:

            Frank Klopas built the roster before he became coach. It would be a mistake to think that he 100% relinquished his duties as technical director. He hasn’t.

            Javier Leon is not the “soccer man”, nor is Petrei. The former cuts deals and the latter does compliance and contract work. Frank Klopas evaluates players and gives his thumbs up or down. This is the way it is.

            So, to conclude, if you want to know why this team has been mediocre at best since 2010, look towards none other than “The Kid”.

            And I’m done.

  12. I’m not here to figure out why we’ve been mediocre since “2010”. I’m here to figure out if our defenders have played too many minutes and I haven’t seen a compelling argument to that fact as of yet.

    They’ve played the most. That’s indisputable. What that means is still open to interpretation.

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