Backline Beef-up, Part Two: Yallop adds rookies and vets

Chicago's new soccer boss added five defenders this week in his quest to strengthen the club's weakness. (photo: chicago-fire.com)

Chicago’s new soccer boss added five players this week in his quest to strengthen his club’s greatest weakness. (photo: chicago-fire.com)

A look at what Chris Ritter, Marco Franco, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Patrick Ianni will bring to Chicago Fire’s defense…

Last season, Chicago Fire shipped 52 goals, tied for third worst in Major League Soccer. Yet despite the sieve that was now-departed head coach Frank Klopas’s backline, a mere tiebreaker cost the Men in Red a shot at advancing to postseason play.

In the end, a non-existent rotation in the back, as well as midfielders masquerading as defenders, conspired to keep the Fire out of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. To be sure, a lack of defensive depth was Chicago’s Achilles heel in 2013.

But now there’s a new regime in town, led by a man who plied his trade in the back at the highest level in England, and his first assistant, one of the greatest defenders in MLS history. Moreover, both are backed by a new technical director who knows his way around the league.

With their latest moves, Frank Yallop and C.J. Brown, with Brian Bliss’s help, have completely revamped a Chicago Fire defense that had fans shaking their heads in disbelief last season. 

Indeed, the additions of rookies Chris Ritter and Marco Franco, along with new arrivals from Seattle, veterans Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, are wise moves that, while not necessarily sexy, help fix what was broken. And let’s not forget Lovel Palmer, another seasoned defender who was picked up a few weeks ago in exchange for some MLS funny money.

Certainly, some Fire fans will lament the departure of Jalil Anibaba, who was given up for Hurtado and Ianni, along with a pick swap in the first round of the Superdraft and a conditional 2015 third round pick. That said, there’s no strong evidence that suggests the loss of Anibaba will hurt the Fire.

Last season, Frank Klopas tried to make Jalil a right back with mixed results. Now, he heads to Seattle with an eye on returning to his more natural position, center back.

All things equal before the trade, it’s likely Jalil Anibaba would have rotated at right back with Palmer and spelled Bakary Soumare at center back from time to time. Now though, the additions of Hurtado and Ianni solve the depth problem in the middle of the defense, and offer Palmer an opportunity to assert himself as a first-choice MLS fullback after years of toiling as a utility man.

A healthy Steven Kinney will provide backup to Palmer at right back and possibly challenge for the starting role. Add today’s Superdraft pick of the highly-touted Marco Franco and the Fire look to have last year’s most confounding position taken care of.

That said, skeptics fairly assert that all three players, for different reasons (perennial sub, injury-prone, rookie), don’t necessarily breed confidence at this point. On the contrary though, things certainly look to have improved on the right side of the defense overall.

Finally, Chris Ritter, a product of Chicago’s academy system who is primarily slotted as a defensive midfielder, will occupy one of the Fire’s ten off-budget roster spots. If needed, Ritter can be called upon to fill in at center back.

So, without further adieu, let’s take a closer look at Chicago Fire’s four latest additions…

Chris Ritter (photo: btn.com)

Chris Ritter plying his trade in Evanston. (photo: btn.com)

6’2″ Chris Ritter comes out of Northwestern having led the ‘Cats to two Big Ten titles. Described as “tough,” hard-working,” and “skillfull,” Ritter was recognized as a top national prospect before Yallop locked him up as the fourth homegrown player in club history. Ritter’s salary will not affect the cap.

A former youth player under none other than C.J. Brown at the Trevian Soccer Club, 23 year-old Ritter trained with the Fire’s first team last season and is well acquainted with his new mentors Logan Pause and Jeff Larentowicz. Chris grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, and is a product of New Trier High School.

Marco Franco with Brian Bliss and Frank Yallop at the Superdraft (photo: @ChicagoFire)

The dapper Marco Franco with Brian Bliss and Frank Yallop at the Superdraft. (photo: @ChicagoFire)

The consensus surrounding right back Marco Franco is he’s “pro material” and a good pickup for Chicago. Considered to be an A.J. DeLaGarza type defender, LA Galaxy’s Bruce Arena had his eye on the young man from UC Irvine as a possible replacement for now-departed wide man Sean Franklin (DC United).

The 22 year-old, 5’11” Franco was a second team NCAA All-America selection and Big West Conference Player of the Year in 2013. Like DeLaGarza, the fullback’s game is described as “versatile,” as he’s seen significant time at center back. Marco describes himself as “attack-minded,” and is adept at combining along the flank.

Jhon Kennedy Hurtado muscles Sebastian LeToux (photo: zimbio.com)

Muscleman Jhon Kennedy Hurtado handles Sebastian LeToux, the French Flaco. (photo: zimbio.com)

Though Jhon Kennedy Hurtado certainly has his critics, he’s been a perennial starter for Seattle when healthy. Despite rumblings heard about his inconsistency and overratedness, one thing’s certain about the Colombian center back: Don’t cross him.

At worst, Hurtado provides a strong, solid substitute center back for the Fire. At best, he’ll push Bakary Soumare to be better, and perhaps take the starting job away from Chicago’s tempestuous, overpaid Malian.

Patrick Ianni knows how to impress in MLS. (photo:  mlssoccer.com)

Patrick Ianni knows how to impress in MLS. (photo: mlssoccer.com)

While Patrick Ianni‘s minutes have slipped in recent years, he’s always there when you need him. The center back has plenty left in his tank and, like Hurtado, should be able to step onto the pitch without worries of a drop in quality.

Ianni’s got plenty of experience playing for winning clubs (Houston, Seattle) and will bring stability and a veteran presence to Chicago’s back line. Patrick’s is an aggressive game and he’s known for his skill in the air.

Heading into training camp, here’s how Chicago’s Fire’s defensive depth is shaping up:

Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson, Kyle Reynish, Alec Kann

Right back: Lovel Palmer, Steven Kinney, Marco Franco

Center back: Austin Berry, Bakary Soumare, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni, Hunter Jumper, Marco Franco, Chris Ritter

Left back: Gonzalo Segares, Hunter Jumper, Lovel Palmer

Defensive Midfielder: Jeff Larentowicz, Logan Pause, Lovel Palmer, Chris Ritter

Scott Fenwick founded On The Fire in 2012 and is its Executive Editor. Scott co-hosts the On The Fire Soccer Radio Podcast, contributes to the Guardian’s (UK) MLS fan previewsThe Cup.usPickles Magazineand is America’s #1 Rapid supporter.

7 thoughts on “Backline Beef-up, Part Two: Yallop adds rookies and vets

  1. Great write up. I’m still not sure Soumare stays. Wouldn’t be opposed to putting that money toward another AM if they can find some quality at a good price. I’d be confident with Hurtado in the starting role. That said, if nothing jumps out at them as far as an AM fit, I’m fine with the loaded back line. Not like they are rolling out 3-5-2 anyway.

    • Thanks much. You know, if my memory serves me well, I heard that Soumare had dinner with Klopas the other night at Le Bouchon, a French restaurant in Bucktown. I wonder if there will be a trade between the Fire and L’Impact?

  2. Agreed. These are all intelligent, pragmatic moves. None of them, individually, would spell disaster if they don’t work out, and all of them have the potential to leave us all very happy.

  3. I’d say that Austin Berry is in trouble. It seemed (from afar) that he struggled last season as he was forced to take on more responsibility w/out Arne Friedrich. Plus Hurtado and Soumare have proven their MLS bona fides whereas Berry is a potential star who had a very good rookie season and a very mediocre second one. I’m thinking a slow start from Berry could mean lots of time on the bench.

    • This is a good point. One thing to consider is how gassed the kid was. He played every single minute of every league and cup match. That said, his start was indeed a shaky one. With a new coaching staff, he’ll likely be unable to depend upon his favorable image and past ROY status. The best players will play. Klopas was guilty of favoritism that hurt the team last season. Yallop, on the other hand, doesn’t (right now at least) seem inclined to behave similarly.

      • I’m willing to give Berry the benefit of the doubt. He thrived under the guidance of Friedrich, and let’s face it, Soumare is no Arne Friedrich. Not sure Hurtado can fill Friedrich’s shoes either, but he can’t be any worse. IMHO, bringing Soumare back was a desperation signing that didn’t pay off and it’s time to let him go.

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