The Kids Are Alright: The Chicago Fire are the New Cubs
After what was a pretty successful league run for the first decade or so of their existence, Chicago’s still-young franchise had begun to stall.
It was a new century and there was a clear need for change. The owner ousted their manager (a beloved former player) and the vacuum that remained caused an even further dip in performance. Supporters, still loyal to the club and sympathetic to its young local players, gave the team some nicknames: “The Remnants,” and “The Orphans” were two of the more popular ones, but the one that caught on… in 1900’s … was “The Cubs.”
The name stuck.
As the first pitch for your 2015 National League Wildcard Cubs nears, let’s go ahead and place that Loveable Losers crown on the new not-so-great team with young talent and plenty of hustle — the Chicago Fire.
It’s been a relief, really, knowing that the Men in Red cannot mathematically make the playoffs this season. It’s the absence of that pressure that has allowed the team to turn a corner. Organized and driven by Interim Head Coach Brian Bliss, the team suddenly plays with confidence, with possession, and with the purpose of a team that has an identity. Sure, they’ve gone 1-0-2 in Bliss’ games thus far, but these last three games have been overwhelmingly more fun to watch than any Frank Yallop-era games.
These Kids are Alright.
Here Are Some Notes on the Last Few Games:
Montreal Impact 2 – 1 Chicago Fire
Toronto FC 3 – 2 Chicago Fire
Chicago Fire 3 – 1 New England
Check out the Brain on Brian. Former coach Frank Yallop chose to tuck himself into the upper corner of the covered bench during games while assistant Marc Bircham worked his sideline. Bliss, on the other hand, is right in the middle of it. When he sees something, he says something. The CTA would be proud.
Aside from his sideline leadership, Bliss also looks heavily engaged in practice. In a Chicago-Fire.com video with the thickest of subtexts, Bliss explains in an interview that players need to know what is expected of them in order for them to succeed. Yup.
These expectations appear to be role-specific and strategy-specific, and it appears the team has more-or-less bought in.
Case in point; The Fire stoically playing out from the back instead of Jon Busch hoofing it downfield. Same in attack, where there is actual “build up” –build up that features the exotic “ground pass,” once thought to be extinct in the plains of Bridgeview. A lot of the Fire attack still develops on the flanks, but the center of the field is getting some encouraging wear-and-tear… sorry Toyota Park Grounds Crew.
Getting Harry. In a moment of transparency, directness, and insight rare in these parts, Bliss actually fielded a valid press question with a thoughtful, unique, and telling response. Second-year player Harry Shipp, who had played the most minutes of any player this season during the Yallop regime, had only seen seven minutes in Bliss’ first two games as manager. Here’s why (via Fire Confidential)
Harry’s a good player, he’s not particularly built for wide play, although we’ve stuck him out there, and that’s the nature of it, what you would say trying to get your best guys out there, you shoehorn some guys into some positions. Teams that are quite adept at running on the flanks, we tend to get outnumbered when Harry flips inside and he can’t recover to the flanks. We went with what I would say ‘natural wide guys’ so it turns into 2-versus-2 in the flanks as opposed to 2-versus-1-and-a-half. Harry’s more suited to be inside, maybe underneath a guy like Gilberto.
Yes. YES. I think everyone knew this, and Bliss spoke to it, and now we all get it. It’s worth noting that Shipp did get the start underneath Gilberto in that “underneath” role, and scored the go-ahead goal last Saturday. This is not to say that the Shipp issue is solved — the diminutive Creative was absent for long periods of the game, but he was also being marked closely by the achilles-clipping New England Revs defense.
Role Playing. As mentioned above, a lot of the “will they, won’t they” talent on the Fire are being trialed in these games to see if they can fit into Bliss’ system. It is VERY clear than Gilberto is off any bubble he many have been on, but there are others like Daneil Cyrus, Lovel Palmer, Razvan Cocis, Kennedy Igboananike, Matt Watson, and perhaps even Captain Jeff Larentowicz and Mike Magee whose value (both figuratively and fiscally) are likely being measured in these last matches.
Strike Force. It is very unlikely the Chicago Fire Front Office will selling David Accam any time soon. Accam has MLS All Star potential, but he may have found his ceiling. Accam has speed, he is exciting, he is a spectacle to behold, but his defending, vision, passing acumen, and finishing lacks. Take this as a positive though, because he is an absolute threat in Major League Soccer while missing some qualities that a first-tier league would demand in an attacker.
The acquisition of Gilberto, while not making a Drogba-esque splash, has been very postive. Gilberto has put in three goals (and continually dented the goal frame) in the last two games. He’s also created other opportunities with sly passing and off-ball aggressiveness. Elsewhere, it would be a stretch to make anything out of Magee’s quiet start in Toronto, and Igboananike’s diminishing time on the field.
The Middle. Not much to say here, except the Fire pulled out a win last Saturday without their regular regulator Matt Polster, who is KILLING IT in the USMNT U23 Olympic Qualifiers. Michael Stevens continues to look good if not great; making some excellent turns out of pressure in the last few games and comfortable in possession. Cocis, on the other hand, is struggling a bit. The Romanian has been a warrior the last few years but he is not a defensive enforcer like Polster is, and he doesn’t seem to make the right pass enough moving forward. Patirck Nyarko remains Patrick Nyarko — a yellow card martyr — absorbing the weekly shin-kicks and takedowns of an out-dueled right back (Hey Chris Tierny).
In the Way Back. Despite being pushed off the ball by Sebastian Giovinco… twice… Cyrus shows promise at center back with a good burst of speed over short distances and a willingness to shut down attacks in a way that Adailton never did.
Rookie Patrick Doody is clearly being groomed as a defense-first full back which frees Joevin Jones from defensive responsibilities he never seems to fufill anyway. Also in the defensive mix is right back Palmer, who seems destined to be a utility full back either in Chicago or elsewhere. CB/CDM Chris Ritter, who began warming up when Cyrus appeared hurt against New England, also looks to be defensive depth if nothing else.
Larentowicz continues to fill in admirably as Cyrus’ pairing, but one has to wonder how long he will be in a Fire jersey. Big Red is captain, but being captain on a team which insiders describe as “lacking leadership” does not actually look so great on the veteran, especially if the play of Ty Harden and Eric Gherig can cushion a difficult off-season decision… which brings us to top prospect Joshua Yaro.
The Not-So-Superdraft. Georgetown center back Josh Yaro is the undisputed best pick of the MLS Superdraft, which is also like saying “You’ve Got Mail is the undisputed best pick of this Gas Station Video Bin.” You’ve Got Mail is fine, but maybe there are other places to look for options.
In American sporting culture Draft Day is a big deal because in baseball, basketball, and football the only way to get the best players in the world are through the college draft. This is not the case in soccer and it is increasingly not the case with MLS incentivizing homegrown development, and young American players opting to forego college in order to develop their game at the pro level overseas.
Young CB’s are prone to making “rookie mistakes,” and unlike green strikers scuffing and open shot, a mistake 10 yards from your own goal is a huge deal (hey Andrew Farrell). A young defender also requires an experienced veteran, which the Fire do not currently have (hey Arne Freidrich).
Like pitchers and offensive lineman, center backs have a long shelf life and peak later in their careers — they need experience to craft their game, so a young center back isn’t especially the greatest thing to nab in a draft, though Chicago hopes that is not the case.