#cf97 – Hope, Passion and the Fire’s Three-Way Battle for ‘Keeper

I’m back, with another installment of my “Monday Musings” column on a Tuesday. Why am I back?  Or, why was I gone?  The answer to both questions is simple:  a loss of “passion” for my beloved Chicago Fire Soccer Club.  I’d been sitting on a draft of this piece, weighing whether my passion has been properly reignited.  Yesterday gave me the proper perspective to gauge that it is the proper time to hit “publish”.  Last season, after a series of tragic losses, I lost a bit of passion for the Club and the sport that I love.  It didn’t help that fans and the front office were in general disagreement about pretty much everything.  Fans protested, in a “Black Out” of sorts, with mixed results. It was a low point in my love for the Fire.  My sons also started to give up hope, tired of giving up points after watching 90 minutes of nervous, and at times rudderless soccer.    Against this backdrop, I couldn’t find anything positive to write about.  My “muse” was gone.  

Negativity abounded in every corner of Toyota Park, on Facebook and on Twitter.  And unfortunately, the front office and the fans didn’t see eye-to-eye about pretty much anything – except for a few key items:  The Club needed to hire a new coach, new technical and medical staff and a general manager. And the front office needed someone to speak for the “soccer side” of things.  A lot of things happened during the off season:   Nelson Rodriguez was hired, and after a thoughtful hiring process, Veljko Paunovic became head coach.  I don’t have to explain Paunovic’s qualifications or philosophy as I’ve included a link to a well written piece below.


I know one of the persons quoted in the story and I’ve played on a Serbian soccer team.  Let me put it in simple terms:  Serbs are passionate, competitive folks who do not like to lose.  When a Serb wants to win, and they always do, he or she finds a way to do it with passion, honor and vim.

Members of the team from Serbia lift their coach Veljko Paunovic into the air as they celebrate after defeating Brazil in the final of the U20 Soccer World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand

Members of the team from Serbia lift their coach Veljko Paunovic into the air as they celebrate after defeating Brazil in the final of the U20 Soccer World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, June 20, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Sarraf

Yes, I have “hope” and so should you.  [edited 3/17/2016 – Full disclosure, I’m outside legal counsel for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club but I’ve written this piece as a longtime fan, and no compensation has been provided to me for writing this piece].

In addition to chatting with coach Paunovic, who is aware of and likes the “Hope” poster (credit @_MichaelNowicki), I had the opportunity to sit with assistant coach Marko Mitrovic during Monday’s 2016 Fire Kickoff Luncheon.  And after watching pre-season games, seeing player acquisitions and departures unfold, listening to Mitrovic answer questions in a direct manner, and chatting with new and “old” players (I call Polster “old” considering all of the new acquisitions), I’ve found several reasons to be hopeful for the Club.  Do I think that the team will play with more vigor, style and confidence?  Absolutely.  Do I think we’ll make the playoffs?  Yes, but I’m an optimist by nature.

The reason my passion is back is linked to three people.  First, despite some initial hesitation at Nelson’s secretive approach, I can’t help but admire the unbridled enthusiasm, optimism, passion, pluck, resolve, fortitude (or, whatever you want to call it) of General Manager Nelson Rodriguez.  For example, Nelson has publicly stated that being a General Manager is a “dream job,” a long time coming, and that if things don’t work out his career as a soccer executive is finished.  Further, Nelson’s suggestion that he would be “finished” (or words to that effect) is a pretty strong statement to make given the fact that MLS is well-known for recycling coaches and executives.  For all these reasons, I owe him my support.

Second, both Paunovic and Mitrovic know what they are talking about.  I was supremely impressed by how assistant coach Mitrovic explained the analysis and directives both he and coach Paunovic have undertaken in their short tenure.  It would take several thousand words to detail the tough and probing questions that were asked of Mitrovic during lunch, but he knows his soccer and didn’t hold back, and he never touched his food.  Simply stated, Paunovic and Mitrovic want to win and win by playing beautiful soccer.  They are applying a European approach to the game with modern techniques.  They are not attempting to utilize old-school methods during what appears to be the dawn of MLS 2.5.

To play passionate and beautiful soccer, they need to mold young talent.  Players over 24 may be past the point where they can learn a new style of play or a new way to look at soccer.  [Aerobic] fitness and mental toughness will be primary components to this year’s team.  It must be working, the team held on to a victory in the waning moments of the Portland game last Saturday night.  Everyone’s in agreement that we have a better team thus far, but it’s only the preseason.

After the Portland game, I was delighted to run into the team while walking out of O’Hare airport, and even risked being left at the airport by my wife when I ignored her request to meet our ride outside the terminal.  After saying congratulations to “Maverick” Matt Polster and a few others, I ran out of the airport just in time to catch our ride.


And another reason to be optimistic about the Fire?  Long time Fire-killjoy, Scott Fenwick, tweeted his happy thoughts on the Fire:

“Excited to attend the Fire home opener. Seeing lots of positive change in the front office, on the pitch, and also from Section 8.”

Is this Team “Top Gun”?

While Matt Polster responds favorably to the nickname “Maverick” on Twitter and in person (that’s how I greeted him at the airport) and John Goossens appears to accept that he’s going to be “Goose”, it’s an open question as to which players make up the remaining Top Gun characters.  Fenwick and I tweeted back and forth yesterday over this issue.  Scott said that “Pauno is Viper, the teacher,” and that Mitrovic is “Jester.”  I tweeted that Matt Lampson should be “Iceman” (Val Kilmer’s character) because “Iceman implies he ‘iced the opposition.’ Plus, of anyone, @Lampstrong’s got the good looks.”

I also tweeted that Michael Harrington was a possible candidate for “Slider,” Iceman’s navigator.

Tame “banter” to some, but it’s nice to be able to give out some well-deserved nicknames for a fun change of pace.  Last year we people resorted comparing a former player to a “plastic bag.”  Ouch….

The Iceman Cometh

The coaching staff made a tough decision regarding Harry Shipp and they are poised to make an even tougher decision regarding our starting ‘keeper.  The Fire’s much beloved keeper, Sean Johnson, is at risk of losing his starting position.

Despite Sean’s position as a contender a starting USMNT keeper, many have debated his ability to distribute the ball on Twitter.  There’s a good reason for that – many contemporary ‘keepers are very good with their feet which serves as an option to control possession and accurately redistribute balls to form a quick attack.  Any ‘keeper can punt the ball, and in MLS’s physical game, it’s not easy for diminutive players to bring down punts in traffic.

In fairness, I don’t think Sean has been able to play the ball out from the back with a throw, roll, or foot a pass because he’s been handicapped by a cobbled together defense and midfield at times.  As a result, Sean has been left to fend for himself.  Sean’s chosen method of distribution (a longish punt), does not appear to be part of coach Paunovic’s new system which may require short passes into open space to advance and retain possession.  That being said, Sean’s a hard worker on and off the field.  Unlike field players, who generally peak at an early age in their style of player, a ‘keeper can adapt over time.  So the starting position as the season progresses will turn on whether Sean can adapt to the above style of play.

Matt Lampson demonstrated in the Portland match that he can play with his feet, and I have heard from Crew fan that I respect (despite suffering a near-death experience at his tailgate at the MLS Cup Final) that Lampson has a strong and highly accurate arm for quick passes.

Patrick McLain is also in the mix, and while this highlight reel does not focus on distribution, he’s got soft hands, comes off his line, and has quick and decent distribution skills.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGzj00ldEmQ

While we are used to our trusted and hard-working “Milkman,” maybe the “Iceman” (Lampson) is going to be the starting keeper under the team’s new system.  Alternatively, despite the inexact spelling (McLain vs. McClane), Section 8 may soon yell “Yippee-ki-yay” after Patrick McLain’s saves.  Beware, the following link is not “kid” or “work friendly” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szdYsAvnIBs

Long story short, the Fire may have a three-way competition for starting ‘keeper.  While Sean has not had enough recent game experience to start this Sunday, Sean is a fighter, having taken over the starting position from Andrew Dykstra when Dykstra had a dip in his form and lost his mental focus.  And while Paunovic and Nelson may catch flak if Sean is traded for MLS funny money or a trade, Sean may do better playing for another MLS club that best fits his style of play (just like Harry Shipp).  Atlanta United is set to join MLS in the near future, and that would be a perfect “hometown return” of sorts for Sean.  Regardless, Sean will still be in the mix for a future starting position with the USMNT.  The best way for him to secure future call us is to get playing time, regardless of who he plays for.

My prediction for Sunday? Fire win 3-1. And maybe, just maybe, Frank Lampard gets nutmegged by “Maverick.”


2 thoughts on “#cf97 – Hope, Passion and the Fire’s Three-Way Battle for ‘Keeper

  1. If 2017 has two teams entering, that will impact our strategy regarding Sean. I feel that his arrival at Atlanta is a foregone conclusion, and it would be possible to trade him to Atlanta w/ an agreement for no other expansion draft selections from the Fire. Trading him ahead of time could end up exposing ourselves to unwanted risk if our restructuring ends up being as successful as hoped. I’ve always been in favor of Seas pursuing his dream overseas, maybe Atlanta is figuring a way to make that happen through a trade & loan. That being said, he’s the Milkman, & I really don’t want to see him go anywhere if it’s not overseas.

  2. Pingback: Women in Soccer, Chicago Fire ‘Keeper Debate and “Puto” | OTF Soccer

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