Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Chicago Fire 2015 Season Preview: On Breaking the (Countless) Deadlocks

Good enough. They were ties, man.
What Happened Last Year
The Chicago Fire tied over half of their games in 2014. Literally. Think about that. That's less a season than an intellectual/physical exploration of mediocrity as a philosophical construct – e.g. can mediocrity to have "heights" and, if so, how many draws does it take to achieve the Platonic ideal? I didn't watch Chicago much in 2014. With the outcome at least heavily implied – again, literally, over half the time – I figured I knew how the games would end. I caught enough, however, to form some impressions, among them: Quincy Amirikwa's solid season as a bee-in-the-bonnet forward; Harrison Shipp's Rookie-of-the-First-Half-of-the-Year season; the now-departed Bakary Soumare, by all appearances, not giving a fuck (an impression confirmed by later comments); the essential wisdom of Gonzalo Segares' recent retirement; the nice send-off for the long-serving, lately-suffering Logan Pause; long-time midfielder Jeff Larentowicz shifted to the Fire backline midway through perhaps per Soumare's visible lack of shit-giving; Juan Luis Anangono...he played in Chicago last year, right? (Barely, but right). The Fire had a crap year by anyone’s standards. Six wins is the unpalatable flipside to all those ties...that's blue balls frustration. Worse, something larger loomed over the franchise – specifically, an apparently widely-held belief that the front office is reluctant to invest in winning (uh, turns out the evidence is scarce; swear it showed on message boards; or something). The contrast with the original, winning Fire teams must sprinkle salt in the wounds.
Final Stats: 6-10-18, 36 pts., 9th in the East; 41 gf, 51 ga

What's Happened Since
A lot. And a lot of it tilted toward the attack. Between 2014 and today, the Fire signed David Accam, Shaun Maloney, and Kennedy Igboananike: and those are just the designated players (DPs), peeps. The club replaced the grumpy hole vacated by Soumare (and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado) in central defense with Adailton dos Santos Filho and Jamaican youth product Joevin Jones (well, and Larentowicz), and they added Guly do Prado, a Brazilian who arrived by way of Southampton. Chicago got so busy that I might be missing a player or two (drafted people don't count; OK, maybe). If nothing else, Chicago's front office responded to charges of low motivation (that I might have made up).

What to Expect This Year
Anangono. A one-word cautionary tale, a name that reminds fans, of Chicago and every other club, that a foreign passport isn't enough. Because 1 goal per 5 games isn't a great return. Still, at least two of Chicago's three new DPs are active internationals (Maloney, Scotland and Accam, Ghana), which at least nods toward quality; plus, the arrival of Jones, Adailton, and the backward shift in Larentowicz's lifestyle suggests that head coach Frank Yallop, et al., understood where the worst problems lurked. With all that weight at the front in the back, I am left wondering what they're going to do about the midfield. With Larentowicz shifted to the backline, I don't know who I'd forward as a candidate to cover a back four – maybe one aggressive defender does that work? – but coordinating all the new faces into a coherent family portrait surely poses the biggest challenge for Chicago (if and when the regular season starts). The club's few preseason results could hint at where the pieces aren't yet fitting (one goal in three ain't great, but credit the Fire for not warming up against college kids). The heavy bet on attack (at least as I read the acquisitions) poses the interesting question of whether Chicago opted to follow what I'd call the Seattle Sounders model – e.g. score enough goals to make up for all the ones your side lets in. Both clubs posted nearly identical defensive numbers in 2014...it's just that Chicago managed about 2/3 the offense. Ouch.

I think the brightest thing I can say for them is that they tried harder than at least half the Eastern Conference. A late-season surge seems like a plausible scenario for Chicago. But that’s a guess. Really should have thought harder about that midfield...

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