By Mike Fotopoulos (@irishoutsider)
Frank Yallop is the sixth manager of the Chicago Fire in the past nine seasons. When you stop and look at that, it should be no surprise that the club has struggled to settle on a strategic plan, unable to rebuild the roster post-Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Most “designated player” signings have required fans to make air-quote gestures when referring to “impact players” like Federico Puppo, Sherjill MacDonald, and Juan Luis Anangono. Front office turnover and lack of strategic vision have turned the most recent versions of the Chicago Fire into the MLS’ “Three Amigos.” Sure, they put on the costumes and dance around, but those other guys are using real bullets.
While it is still officially preseason, I will be optimistic and say that is about to change. It became clear in 2014 that Yallop and technical director Brian Bliss were going to have to fully rebuild the Fire, and there were likely few players, and more importantly few contracts, that would make the cut in 2015. The two have put together one of the busiest winters in memory, implying that this season is where they start to put their mark on the club. Indications have been they would like to structure the roster around a 4-3-3 formation, and the bulk of the new additions appear to confirm this. Having an actual plan and sticking to it are reason enough to get excited.
On offense, this is a team that has struggled to consistently threaten opponents (1.2 xGF in 2014, 16th overall) and has two of its main attacking options on the shelf for the near future. Both Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko will be coming off of injury to start the year, leaving Quincy Amarikwa as the main striker left from 2014. While Harrison and I have had lengthy discussions about his total value and upside, one thing is clear: a team cannot survive on #QuincyTime alone. The Fire have gone out and spent “DP Money” (yes, still air quotes for now) on David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, two young attackers from the Allsvenskan. The Swedish 1st Division is a better comparison to MLS than the likes of LDU Quito, so both will be expected to add value right away, providing talent and depth to the wings. Guly do Prado comes in from Southampton as the likely center forward, aiming to play a more traditional target role at least until Magee returns.
In midfield, Shaun Maloney is now officially the Next Big Thing. He will be taking the number 10 from Nowak and Blanco and hoping to be the dynamic playmaker the Fire have been missing for the last 5 seasons. Under the radar is the addition of Michael Stephens, a local boy by way of Stabaek, and I, for one, hope he can be Mix Diskerud without the poetry or the price tag. Both Maloney and Stephens add offensive potential to a midfield that has traditionally been more defensive than creative. The defensive midfield roles have been relegated to some combination of Alex, Matt Watson, and Chris Ritter, and it appears the Fire are still looking for an upgrade if at all possible. Jeff Larentowicz would be fine here at his natural position, however the current plan is to continue his move to CB.
The Fire defense needs all the help it can get. While Sean Johnson is a fine young goalkeeper, he hasn’t been able to work miracles behind shaky backlines. Larentowicz adds experience and leadership to the backline and will likely partner with newly signed 31-year-old Adailton from Bahia. The plan is to surround the two veterans with enough young talent and hope a decent backline presents itself. Joevin Jones, Eric Gehrig, Patrick Doody, and Matt Polster join Greg Cochrane and Lovel Palmer, a group that has little experience playing together. They will have to find their feet quickly, even if the offseason seems to be geared towards bombarding on offense and hoping for the best.
Depth-wise, it is usually damning with faint praise to say this is the deepest Fire team in years. However, it might actually be true this season. MLS fans on Twitter have been pulling their hair out trying to find a role for Harry Shipp on this roster. I’m of the opinion the season is a marathon, and there will be plenty of minutes to go around. Shipp is going to get plenty of playing time to start the season and having a would-be Rookie of the Year as your 1st sub is not a terrible problem to have. The discussion itself confirms the fact that the Fire have made enough upgrades to keep most of the 2014 team on the outside looking in. This plays directly into Yallop and Bliss’ plans, creating competition for positions outside of defense, and maybe, just maybe, some honest-to-goodness rotation opportunities. At best it is a complete rebuild, at worst it is the same old Fire, flipping over the roster and doing the dance for another year.
Most importantly, however, is that this plan was fully designed and implemented in a single offseason. There should be less reliance now on the summer transfer window to salvage a playoff run. Almost half of the roster and potentially the majority of the new starting XI have been signed this winter, leaving little doubt how the technical staff has planned for 2015. If a foundation has been built this offseason it will put the club on a path it has not had after wandering for several years.