OTF Roundtable: Silent Sigh
Frankly, all of Fire Nation was hoping we’d have more things to talk about by now, but no dice.
With the international transfer window now open and the MLS Superdraft combine beginning today Chicago continues to shed both salaries, personalities, and staff.
The number of players remaining on the Fire’s roster sits at 14, with the organization making no additions during either stage of the Re-Entry Draft in December and choosing not to cash in on any of MLS’s first, albeit aging, free agents.
Instead, on the day of Re-Entry Stage 2, Fire announced the acquisition of two homegrown players; forward Joey Calistri and midfielder Drew Conner. That brings the number of Homegrowns on the Fire roster to five (Patrick Doody, Collin Fernandez, and Harry Shipp).
While the organization boosted their numbers with some raw, organic acquisitions they watched captain Jeff Larentowicz sign a Galaxy contract, permitted Patrick Nyarko to leave for DC, await news that Mike Magee will join Larentowicz in Los Angeles, and saw Technical Director Brian Bliss head to Kansas City two days before what likely is the most critical January in Fire Soccer history.
So now it’s crunch time. Just four weeks out from the beginning of Preseason and everyone is speculating what will Chicago do? The OTF Staff has some thoughts, and the answer seems to be “anything.”
Answering a question about what the worst team in MLS in 2015 needs as it prepares for 2016 can be both simple and complex. When you are at the very bottom, one can argue that every player is a candidate for dismissal, because these are the players that got you to the bottom. There is, however, more to be analyzed about this Fire roster than simply wiping every name off of the list.
Every successful soccer team has a strong spine. What does the Fire’s spine look like?
The Fire have a pretty good goalkeeper in Sean Johnson. His distribution needs improvement, but he has significantly reduced his positioning errors. Those errors previously led to a lot of soft goals.
Central defense is obviously the position that needs the biggest upgrade. Arne Friedrich was the last stud to play in central defense for the Fire and no one has come close to replacing his quality ever since he retired. GM Nelson Rodriguez has already indicated that finding high-quality central defenders is at the top of his to-do list.
At holding midfield, the Fire can be encouraged by Matt Polster’s rookie season. How new coach Veljko Paunovic deploys Polster remains to be seen. Will he go solo in a 4-man diamond midfield? Will he have a partner in a 5-man midfield? And this will depend on the team’s formation, which depends on what other talent is brought in.
The Fire have a real quandary at attacking midfield. They lack a central maestro, a player like Diego Valeri or Javier Morales. Harry Shipp got his chance in a central role late in 2015, but did not clearly demonstrate that he was the man for the job. After central defense, the next priority for the Fire is to find a game-changing #10.
Up front, the Fire have two Designated Players, Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike. Gilberto showed that he has a nose for the goal, netting five times in ten late-season matches. If he can extend that over an entire season, no one need lament Montreal pipping the Fire for the rent-a-player services of Didier Drogba. Igboananike, on the other hand, remains a question mark. He was unable to secure a regular spot in the first 11 and it is crucial for every MLS team to make sure that have not missed the mark with their Designated Player selections. Another dependable striker would be a good addition to the roster.
So, the Fire’s spine has some nice assets, but there are major holes in key positions. Rodriguez has been on the job for over two months and we are no closer to filling these holes with talent.
I think it is safe to say that the 2015 Chicago Fire were truly no damn good. Here are a few simple stats that sum up the season in a nutshell:
- Fire had the fewest points in the league with 30; the only team with less than a point per game average.
- They were tied for 13th in goals scored with DC United with 43 goals or 1.26 per game.
- They were tied for last with NYCFC & Toronto FC with 58 goals allowed or 1.71 per game.
- They were last in goal differential at -15.
As bad as that all seems, it looks even worse when compared to 2013 and 2014:
- 2013-15 Overall points dropped (49, 36, 30).
- 2013-15 Goals scored went down (47, 41, 43).
- 2013-15 Goals against went up (52, 51, 58).
- 2013-15 Goal differential went up (-5, -10, -15).
The Kicker: In 2015 the team payroll actually went up. ~$3.4 million (14th in the league) in 2014, $5.8 million (7th) in 2015.
My point in all of this is when the team is statistically bad and only marginally better to the eye test; there is no need for a wish list when it comes to player needs. They need EVERYTHING. Therefore, the “best player available” argument is fully in play. But, if I have to name names, I’d like to see the Fire acquire Charlie Lyon from Seattle to back up Sean Johnson. He’s from St. Charles, played at Marquette and showed promise with S2 last season.
As for players leaving, especially fan favorites, such as Big Red, Magee, Nyarko and Bliss, there are a simple reason for it. They were not getting the desired results. Rodriguez and Paunovic come in with proven track records and highly respected. I have no doubts they know what they are doing, and their lack of consulting or communicating with me, Section 8 or any other part of the fan base is just fine. Negotiating and divulging of plans in public rarely works out in the end.
So far, it appears that the club management saw the light late this past summer, and much to the surprise of many is making competent decisions. Hopefully that trend will continue and the results will follow suit.
While Adele’s hit “Hello,” didn’t help the Columbus Crew win the MLS Cup, the Crew’s use of her hit as a theme song got me thinking about what the Fire would use to rally it toward an MLS Cup. Unfortunately I don’t have a time machine to jump three, four or five years into the future. With a complete rebuild and no real or half-hearted pronouncement that the club’s goal is to make he playoffs this year, I have to look at iconic music which has moved me over the years.
“Should Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash is one. It seems appropriate given the many departures from our club of much beloved players who may still have a few good years left on them. We all know what’s going to happen, Magic Mike will train hard, find his mojo and will score a brace. And if he does I will just shake my head and smile.
When I think I about Chris Rolfe and his rejuvenated success at DC United I look back at the time when I saw him working alone with a trainer before and after a game where he may not have played. He still had the fire in his belly. But for some reason he could not summon that fire for my beloved Fire. One of my favorite Fire related pictures is a profile of Chris engaged with my youngest kid. I think Chris already knew he was leaving at time but he shook hands, posed for photos and acted like a steward of the team.
Which leads me to the true theme music behind my current mindset. Not much is said during this scene from The Lord of the Rings, but it seems to fit the general mood of many fans . . . a short-sided cavalry charge into certain defeat. But fret not (spoiler alert), the good guys won at the end of LOTR.
Turning to my task at hand, someone tweeted earlier this morning about our keeper situation. Kahn is gone and I don’t thing Busch is coming back. With Nelson and Paunovic’s clearing house approach, I don’t see the need for a veteran back up given the fact that Sean Johnson is veteran and possibly the longest tenured player with the Fire. I could not blame Sean if he chooses to move on to a new club rather than be cannon fodder for MLS DPs of a “Keane type” stature or lower salaried DPs. While Tim Howard was made famous and legendary from his Belgium performance the US still lost that game. And while Brad Guzan singled handily kept Aston Villa in games last season, he was also the cause of a handful of losses with uncharacteristic gaffes. To his credit, a keeper will make a mistake when he or she is under undue pressure.
My pick for a backup ginger haired keeper is Zach Bennett of Michigan State. I’ve kept up with his success at MSU via clippings that my tech ignorant father mails to me without fail. He’s quick, isn’t afraid to come off his line and he can make palm hand save when needed. He catches rather than punches out crosses. Last but not least he can distribute the ball well with his foot and arm and he has a very good eye to see the open player(s) leading toward goal scoring opportunities.
Next up is MSU center back Zach Carroll. Zach has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. He’s solid with balls in the air and his possession of the ball very good. Pairing him with his own keeper is a bonus.
The fact that I went to MSU has nothing to do with him. Bonus fact, both have already played at Toyota Park. The fact that I’m a crazy keeper by nature – as confirmed by Herculez Gomez, may factor into these picks…