Prime Your 2013 Fire Pump: The Soccer is Back

Huddle up fellas. We're in for a long ride...(photo: chicago-fire.com)

Huddle up fellas. We’re in for the long haul. (photo: chicago-fire.com)

OTF editor Scott Fenwick brings you what he sees and what he wants from his beloved Men in Red, Chicago Fire SC, and Fire Nation in 2013…

Prime Your Fire Pump. Ahh, it feels so good, and I’ve waited what seems like an eternity to write it.

It’s the weekend Fire Nation, and the MLS regular season steadily approaches. After months of worries, spats, hemming, hawing, wheeling, dealing, waiting, hoping, and dreaming, Chicago Fire soccer – the real thing – is upon us (this is me, barely able to contain my excitement)!

What a difference a year makes. For example, Fire writer Anthony Zilis recently tweeted: “Strange looking back at last year’s season-opening #cf97 depth chart. Segares is the only field player still starting at the same position.” To quote a favorite Englishman, “ch-ch-ch-changes” indeed. 

Roster and Lineup

As things stand Chicago does not have a depth problem. Clearly, they had one in 2012, which partially explains their early exit from U.S. Open Cup competition and poor form down the home stretch. Given their means, it appears manager Frank Klopas and the technical staff have done a fine job of assembling a squad that will take the club closer to the trophies they seek.

So far, 2013 has been marked by less uncertainty, more options, and sufficient time for the players to gain proper fitness and gel before the start of the regular season. Instead of questions about whether the squad will be good enough, we’re wondering just how good they’ll be. Now, roster-wise, it’s less about how to plug holes and more about which good man to play at a given position. One year on, expectations are higher across the board and, for the most part, they’ve been met. I’m bullish on the Fire. Are you? 

The roster won’t be set until next week, but let’s have a look at the players who will most likely be your Men in Red in 2013, from back to front:

Sean Johnson, GK

The “Milkman’s” talent is evident. He’s one of the best ‘keepers on this side of the pond and one day might very well be playing on its other side. Honestly, it’s only a matter of time before the club ships him off to Europe for the right price. But before that happens, Sean J must work on his mental preparedness, decision-making skills, and goal kicks so the club can maximize its return on its investment. Oh yeah, his improvement in these areas will certainly help in the here and now as well.

Paolo Tornaghi, GK

If  Johnson is on USMNT duty for World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup this year, the Fire’s resident paizano will get plenty of time between the pipes to show us more of what he learned from the Milanos at Internazionale.

Alec Kann, GK

He’s the third goalkeeper. Need I say more?

Gonzalo Segares, LB

Unlike many MLS fullbacks (who are simply converted wingers), Sega is a true defender. As such, and because of his age, I’d like to see him perhaps sit back a bit more and not venture into the attacking third as often – especially if the Fire are protecting a lead. But, two things must occur if Gonzalo is to take a lesser role in the attack: 1) Duka must prove he can play “total football” on the left wing and 2) Jalil Anibaba must play on the right, where he’ll push up field and use his athleticism to aid the attack. However, the way things are developing, it doesn’t look like the latter will come to pass. Klopas seems convinced Logan Pause is the man at right back.

Austin Berry, CB

There’s no reason to think the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year won’t be as good as he was last year, and that’s pretty damn good.

Arne Friedrich, CB

If Logan Pause winds up being a twelfth man, so to speak, Friedrich should wear the captain’s armband. He’s a World Cup veteran and an intelligent leader both on and off the pitch. Aside from political concerns however, what intrigues me most about Arne is when he’s got the ball at his feet. When Ze German is free to roam and push forward, he effectively threads passes to his teammates and generates attacking play. When this happens, Berry will center himself, the fullbacks will pinch in a bit, and Jeff Larentowicz will drop back into defensive space. Das ist gut! 

Jalil Anibaba, RB/CB

My pick to start at right back, and I’m not alone. Yes, Anibaba fits better at center back. And yes, he struggled mightily at times on the right flank in 2012. But there’s a hell of a lot more upside in playing this young man regularly over Logan Pause. Allow him to show what he learned while with Atlético Madrid last fall. Let him grow. It would be a shame to have this kid (who led the first-team in minutes played last season) regularly hitting the pitch with the reserves to get minutes.

Steven Kinney, RB/CB

Kinney’s a proven starter at right back. He can also admirably fill a void in the middle if necessary. If his health is at 100%, we’ll know why Dan Gargan became expendable (holding back the tears now).

Hunter Jumper, LB

If young Hunter has the potential to perform as well on the pitch as he does on Twitter, well, I’m sold. Seriously though, if Sega goes down (God forbid), I have no idea what will happen if the Jumper plays in his stead. Anyone? Bueller?

Logan Pause, RB/LB/DM

Sigh. This is a tough one. First, let me say that I respect and admire Logan Pause’s professionalism and humanity. He merits the esteem with which he is regarded. But given the current available personnel, it is a mistake to place Chicago’s adamantium man in the regular starting eleven. He’s simply not the best option at any position, especially in a 4-4-2.

However, that said, I (along with many others) would love to see Logan Pause used as a utility starter/bench player at fullback and defensive midfielder. This move will strengthen both the starting eleven, the eighteen, and will aid in the rotation of players in and out of the lineup to preserve their health and fitness.

Michael Vidiera, DM/RB/CB

Another solid utility man who will again see a lot of time with the reserves.

Jeff Larentowicz, DM

Although I prefer Arne Friedrich, it seems the Ginger Ninja will be Klopas’s choice to wear the captain’s armband should Logan Pause be on the bench. I can live with that. Larentowicz is a lynchpin, a destroyer, a leader. He’s the type of player every winning team needs and I still can’t believe he’s wearing Fire red. When it’s all said and done in 2013, Jeff may be the squad MVP for those in the know.

Daniel Paladini, DM

A fan favorite and according to Eric Wynalda, MLS’s most underrated player. Agreed. The more minutes he can get, the  better. Daniel’s a good sport, has a fine sense of humor, and is a friend of the blog.

Wells Thompson, RW

Brother Wells is like a Honda Civic. He’s not going to wow anybody, but you’re glad to have him in your garage. He’s a reliable veteran who, for all of his shortcomings in attack, can help control play in the midfield and defend when needed. Plus, he’s got friends in high places.

Victor Pineda, RW

If there’s perhaps a small chink in Chicago’s armor, it’s the lack of attacking depth on the right side of the midfield. If healthy, Victor Pineda would provide it now. But the Fire’s young homegrown player is still recovering from meniscus surgery and it doesn’t look like he’ll hit the Toyota Park pitch anytime soon. I’ll be surprised if he sees first-team minutes before June.

Dilly Duka, LW

So far, so good. Young Dilly’s shed his yellow banana suit and seems quite comfortable in Fire red. Chicago’s likely starter on the left wing has rediscovered the form that made him such a hot commodity a few years back. He’s a quick, heady, technical player who can stretch defenses, whip wicked crosses into the box, and unleash accurate, on-frame blasts from 20-25 yards. Trust me, Dilly will make you forget about Dominic Oduro – if you haven’t already.

Yazid Atouba, LW

Impressive. Fearless. A ” livewire.” These are just some of the superlatives used during the past month to describe Chicago’s 20-year old Cameroonian MLS Superdraft pick. He won’t start, but should get full minutes in the reserve games. The question is though, how often will Yazid make the eighteen, and will Frank Klopas be willing to experiment with him on the pitch during the first half of the season? If he gets first-team minutes and continues to “dazzle,” as Fire writer Jeff Crandall put it recently, Dilly Duka – for all his quality – may have a fight on his hands.

Brendan King, RW/LW

I don’t know much about this kid except that he’s local (Chicago ‘burbs), a Fire PDL kid, a golden domer (my apologies), and can play both sides of the midfield. Brendan is still a work in progress and will most likely be confined to the reserve pitch in 2013.

Patrick Nyarko, RW

The Fire’s unsung hero. A tireless worker. The people’s choice. Nyarko = 100% class. Understandably, much of the wing talk this offseason has been confined to the left side of the midfield. But what of a reliable back-up for Patrick Nyarko? The Fire need a player who can 1) sub-in for Nyarko in during the second half if the result favors them and 2) spell him from time-to-time and go the full 90 during matches of less consequence. I guess Wells Thompson is the (underwhelming) choice here. Pray for Patty’s health at least three times a day.

Joel Lindpere, CM

The Estonian Rocky looks to be the guy who will take corners and free kicks. He’ll also boss the midfield in a severe manner. As opposed to last year with RBNY, Joel’s playing where he wants to – centrally. This guy is a tireless worker, a beast, and was a fan favorite in New York. I can’t wait to watch him destroy from my seat at midfield. Hävitaja!

Corben Bone CM/RW/LW

During training, he’s the Texican Xavi. During MLS match play, he’s Corben Bone. The question is whether or not the latter will channel the former and get some long-overdue first-team minutes and a place in the eighteen. If Alex plays up top, will Corben be Lindpere’s backup?

Alex, CM/F

What will become of Alexandre Montiero de Lima? Just exactly where does he fit in? Well, after his performance vs. Charleston Battery in the Carolina Challenge Cup, the answer may lie up top. Since his Fire debut in 2012, Alex has shown flashes of attacking prowess that simply can’t be taught. It’s clear his skill set merits a regular spot in the Fire’s eighteen, perhaps in the second forward line alongside Maicon Santos. This Brazilian connection would feature a post-up and poacher combo like that of Chicago’s starting forwards Sherjill MacDonald and Chris Rolfe. Slotting Alex in the fourth forward spot makes for interchangeable parts, and that’s what a manager wants. Plus, if Joel Lindpere can’t go in the center midfield, Alex can cover. One way or the other, look for Frank Klopas to find creative ways to get Alex first-team minutes in 2013. #JogoBonito

Chris Rolfe, F

Chris Rolfe did not score a goal in preseason. Is this cause for concern? Perhaps. But this guy’s scoring punch will be as a poacher; patience is necessary while he finds the right moves and spots with a new mix of teammates and in a new formation. If Duka and Nyarko can create width on the flanks in the attacking third, and MacDonald and Lindpere can muscle opponents in the box, Rolfe will be able float into space at the top of the penalty area and accept service he’ll quickly convert into shots on goal. Again, such a dynamic will take time to develop, and it might not even come to fruition during the first third of the season. Remember, in MLS patience is a virtue. All you’ve got to do is finish in the top half of your conference to get a legitimate shot at lifting the Cup.

Sherjill MacDonald, F

Mackie finally feels fit, which should equate to better offensive production – both in terms of goals and assists. Chicago’s Designated Player is out to prove that he’s worth the coin. Can he consistently find the form he showed last October when he simply owned New York at Red Bull Arena? If so, look out. In the end though, anything less than 12 goals and 5 assists in 2013 will be a disappointment.

Maicon Santos, F

“Striking overlord Mike Sanders,” Chicago’s other Brazilian, strikes me as an enigmatic fellow. He’s got skills, experience, and a devastatingly powerful shot. But I want to know what goes on between Maicon’s ears. He appears tempestuous at times; a valuable trait if channeled properly. I also wonder about his susceptibility to injury. He seems tightly wound, and that can pose problems for a soccer athlete. Anyway, 7-8 goals and 2-3 assists in 2013 from Santos will be worth his price.

Quincy Amirikwa, F

He played well as a guest player versus San Jose in the preseason, providing an attacking spark off the bench. Quincy’s been around MLS a bit and seems like a good man to add to the roster at this point. He arrived in Charleston recently, so a deal is likely in the works.

Kellen Gulley, F

Frank Klopas made it clear that the club is looking to loan young Gulley out to a USL side. I wonder if there are any takers, as the kid could use the minutes. Roster-wise, it appears that Quincy Amirikwa is Kellen’s replacement as the fourth “true” forward if the club can get a deal done with Toronto FC.

That’s 27 players. If Gulley is loaned out, 26 remain. The roster limit is 30, but Frank Klopas has led us to believe he’ll go with 28 for now. So if Amirikwa replaces Gulley, two additional Fire men will likely be added to the list above. Who are the choices?

Colin Rolfe, F

I don’t know much about this guy except that he was Austin Berry’s teammate at Louisville and isn’t related to Chris. With Amirikwa’s arrival, odds are he’s on the outside looking in.

Pascal Chimbonda, RB

Veteran defender Chimbonda has one hell of a resume (English Premier League, French national team), but doesn’t appear to be fit enough to make the cut. But if the Fire can get him on the cheap, perhaps its worth a shot to see if Tony Jouaux can work him into shape.

Leo Lelis, CB

This guy intrigues me. He’s young, raw, and played for Fluminense’s (Brazil) youth team. Leo strikes me as the type of kid the club will want to take a chance on.

Aside from these latter three, we could also see a player(s) who was released during the first two phases of preseason camp return to the club. We’ll know soon enough. In addition to forward Amirikwa, I suspect two defenders will be added to the current mix.

So with all that said, here’s my eighteen in a flat 4-4-2 formation. (NOTE: There are a few tough calls here):

Goalkeeper (2): Sean Johnson, Paolo Tornaghi

Defender (6): Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry, Arne Friedrich, Gonzalo Segares, Stephen Kinney, Hunter Jumper

Midfielder/Defender (6): Patrick Nyarko, Jeff Larentowicz, Joel Lindpere, Dilly Duka, Yazid Atouba, Logan Pause

Forward/Midfield (4): Chris Rolfe, Sherjill MacDonald, Maicon Santos, Alex

Wells Thompson, Daniel Paladini, and Corben Bone, i’m afraid, are out. The toughest decision appears to be whether to carry five defenders and seven midfielders or go with an even six in the back and six in the middle. If 4-4-2 is the primary tactical formation, I expect Klopas to switch between 6/6 and 5/7, depending upon the opponent.

Who’s in your eighteen? Your eleven? Let us know in the comments section below!

Coaching & Tactics

Frank Klopas oozes Chicago Soccer. There’s no doubt he’s the man. He’s an old school Gaffer. He’s driven. He wants to win. From the standpoint of motivation and image, he gets an ‘A.’ It’s hard to argue with his record as well. At 29-19-16 (MLS & U.S. Open Cup combined), Klopas’s coaching career is off to a solid start. Furthermore, as evinced by the club’s off-season roster moves, it appears Frank Klopas is more than a coach: he’s an adept manager. Soccer fans know the difference.

My only concern is his tactics.

Klopas must change his tactics when needed. In 2012, he (to a fault) was married to 4-2-3-1. The problem down the playoff stretch last year wasn’t simply squad rotation and depth; it was also tactical flexibility. By the time late September rolled around, opponents figured out how to neutralize Klopas’s 4-2-3-1. But Pavel Pardo’s retirement and the acquisition of Joel Lindpere (among others) changed things. Now, it appears the Fire will employ a flat 4-4-2 as their primary look. The current personnel (especially at striker) warrants a move, primarily, away from 4-2-3-1.

But 4-2-3-1 is still an option. Klopas has the personnel to implement it. And as far as 4-4-2 is concerned, a diamond should be on the table as well. Furthermore, What would an attacking, pressing 4-3-3 look like? Disclaimer: I don’t want Jeff Larentowicz to leave the pitch. But let’s just say the Fire need to score with 20 minutes or so remaining in the match…

Pure Adrenaline.

Pure Adrenaline.

In sum, if the Fire fall into a tactical rut like they did in 2012 and fail to keep opponents guessing from week to week, serious questions will be raised about Klopas’s competency as a manager.

Also, like last year, despite a number of key personnel changes, Chicago has continued its bad habit of conceding the first goal this preseason. With more offensive firepower in the eighteen, perhaps this isn’t as consequential now but its still worrisome. Even with a juiced up attack, no team can expect great success if they’re constantly allowing themselves to go in the hole 1-0, especially on the road. 

How do you prepare a team to work together to resist conceding the first goal? It must be some sort of combination of tactics and mental preparation. Hold the shape and keep your concentration. But how does a manager accomplish this? I have no idea.

What does the Gaffer have to say about this issue?

Klopas: “I know that we have quality players to allow us to come back in those situations but we want to see more clean sheets. We want to make sure we don’t give up any goals. That’s the onus and mentality we have to have.”

“We do have the kind of players with that mentality and attitude and now we have to make sure from the first whistle that the concentration is there on every second, every play. This is something we need to keep working on.”

Absolutely. But again, how do you accomplish this? What does the “work” look like? I’m curious.

Finally, set piece defending remains an area of concern. The Fire have got to work on their marking in the penalty area. Fundamentally, this strikes me as a matter of mental awareness and concentration as well.

Wish List

Or perhaps it’s a “want” list? 

Supporters

Season Ticket Holders

Take at least one person to a game this season that’s never been. If you can’t make it to a game, make sure your seats are filled. Convince all non-season ticket holders to invest in season tickets.

Non-Season Ticket Holders

Try to make it out to Toyota Park as much as possible. Cheap tickets are usually available online (StubHub for example) for most games. Then, become a season ticket holder. Trust me, one day in the near future you’ll be glad you did.

Section 8

More tifo, more ruckus, no throwing shit at players. That is all. Keep up the good work. 

Sector Latino

More beats, more horns, and more collaboration with your compadres in the Harlem End. Buena suerte!

All Fans

Get to Toyota Park! Attendance increased 13.4% from 2011 to 2012 (3rd best in the league), but we still ranked 12th out of 19 in MLS with a 2012 average attendance of 16,409. This means that our stadium is, on average, roughly 4,000 below capacity. That’s simply not good enough. We can do better. No excuses in 2013.

Also, try to travel to at least one away game this season. If a road trip strikes you as cost prohibitive, hit up the Section 8 On Tour folks. They’ll hook you up with a bus ride, some food, and a ticket for a very reasonable price.

Finally, and this is a pet peeve of mine, pay attention to the game and applaud when appropriate. If you don’t know what I mean, watch a Premier League game and study the crowd. It is certainly within the realm of possibilities to sing, chant, drink, and eat while looking for and reacting to soccer’s finer points. And if you’re not familiar with the latter, learn.

C’mon ‘Murican fans. We can do better.

The Club

Communications & PR

I’ve only one request from mis amigos in the PR and Comm department: More Prize Patrol. I just can’t get enough of their gonzo filmmaking antics.

Toyota Park

The beers are great, and so’s the Bobak’s sausage, but Toyota Park concessions really needs to step up its game in the realm of Mexican fare and pizza, two Chi-town specialties.

Management/Ownership

First, let’s just get this out of the way: we’d like a third kit please. Click here for OTF’s compelling request.

Second, here’s the rest of what I want:

More visibility in Chicagoland media. This doesn’t just mean television. It also means radio, billboards, local newspapers, online advertising, etc.

More front office transparency and engagement. Many vocal, savvy, attentive supporters simply aren’t happy in this realm. Peter Wilt’s never coming back, but frankly, this fix isn’t too difficult. It’s all about personality.

An aggressive marketing campaign that dispels the pervasive myth that Toyota Park is somehow hard to get to. It’s not. But for some reason, a good number of the more than nine million folks in the Chicagoland area think it is.  

Work with the City of Bridgeview to help repair a broken relationship with its citizens. Their taxes have exploded since the opening of Toyota Park. Promises were broken. Financially, things are a mess. And while I recognize that the club isn’t technically responsible for the city’s sad state of financial affairs (see: politicians behaving badly), they are complicit in the arrangement. Chicago Fire SC continues to reap rewards from a sweetheart deal while the city in which it resides hemorrhages cash and squeezes its taxpayers year after year. From a public relations standpoint, the club is failing miserably here. 

Now, all that said, I think the club is doing a pretty good job overall. Attendance is up, personnel has improved, and there are a couple of areas (communications, ticket sales) where Chicago Fire SC shines bright. But this is Chicago and we want an elite club in all phases. We do not want to play third fiddle to LA and New York. And furthermore, the perception is that the organization’s overall standing in the league is much lower than that right now. We can do better. I suspect ownership agrees with me.

So, my final wish for 2013 is to help bridge the gap between perception and reality. OTF will have the opportunity to sit down with club ownership and management executives this season. We plan to open up a dialogue, dispel some myths, and get to the bottom of where the club’s been, where it is now, and where it’s going.

As such, we hope you’ll join us in this endeavor. If you have any questions, comments, or criticisms for ownership and management, please send Scott an email at manonthefire97@gmail.com or type what you want to say in the comments section below. We promise to do our best to bring your voice to light.

Well, that’s all for now folks. Do stay tuned to OTF this season, as we intend to crank it up a notch.

In the words of famed pop poet and football fan Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” We’ll do our best to do the latter for Fire Nation.

P.S. – I’ll make one prediction for 2013. I will not feel like this on October 28th…

scott press table

Don’t fret. Keep Hope Alive!

7 thoughts on “Prime Your 2013 Fire Pump: The Soccer is Back

  1. Scott – Very good article and you kind of said it all. Let the season begin! I’m going to get Bob Suarez out to a match. He was my first soccer coach. I owe him at least a game in my club seats Sec 127 – Row 2 behind the Fire bench

  2. Starting 11: Johnson, Anibaba, Arne, Berry, Sega, Larentowicz, Nyarko, Duka, Lindpere, Rolfe, McD

    Consistent 18: Tornaghi, Kinney, Pause, Paladini, Alex, Santos, Atouba/Bone

    Reasoning: I see us playing a type of 4-1-3-1-1 so I see Anibaba/Kinney being able to play on the right or centrally and Pause being able to spell time at RB, LB and Holding Mid interchangeably. Meanwhile Paladini can also fill in for Larentowicz or Lindpere and Atouba/Bone can fill in on the wings. Alex to swap for Rolfe and Santos to swap in for McD. This is a deep team!

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