Continuing Waking the Red's build in the fourth game of the 2015 season, I exchanged some questions with Sean Spence of SB Nation's Chicago Fire site, Hot Time in Old Town, to shed some light on the opponent from their perspective.
Question the First
Chicago was very active in the off-season as Frank Yallop set about building a side in his image. A bus full of new arrivals, three designated players, and the retirement of long-time servants Logan Pause and Gonzalo Segares have left the Fire with a very uneven squad. What's with having so many midfielders and so few defenders? Is that a concern heading into a long MLS season?
The feeling here is that the management duo of Yallop and Brian Bliss were given 2014 to evaluate the roster and clear the decks of the truly odious contracts left behind by the 'stewardship' of Javier Leon. And boy, have they done so - fully half the roster are new faces, and as many as eight men who will start Saturday afternoon were not with the club last year.
The midfielder/defender numbers are skewed quite a bit by Yallop's tendency to place people where he thinks their skills fit, regardless of their previous tenure in the position. Jeff Larentowicz is a prime example; given an aging defensive midfielder, no longer able to cover the width of the field alone but whose communication is crucial, Yallop moved him to the back line, where he could keep play in front of himself, use those organizational skills, and contribute. It's the kind of adjustment which is lauded when the team wins and ridiculed otherwise; we shall see how it goes. So far, the defense has been pretty solid, with the glaring exception of everything having to do with set pieces.
Question the Second
Through four matches, Yallop seems to have a bit of a conundrum on his hands, namely that both his potential creative midfielders have appeared to operate in the same area of the pitch, but to play them both creates a bit of a soft centre, which opponents will no doubt seek to exploit. Albeit a little early to be alarmist, how is the Shaun Maloney-Harrison Shipp dilemma to be resolved?
I'd argue that Shipp and Maloney have been playing each other's roles, and that's part of the problem. Shipp is the real thing, a guy whose immaculate first touch allows him to function in the very crowded spaces in the center of midfield, while Maloney is more of a swashbuckler coming off the wing, trying technical feats of derring-do. Unfortunately, whether because of the promises made to Maloney in recruitment or because Yallop just thinks this will work, they've been flipped; Shipp has played nominally from the wing, while Maloney has struggled to find the ball, coming deeper and deeper to get the space he needs for a clean touch. The results have been very muddled, as you note.
The hope here is that defeating Philadelphia will help Frank notice that a midfield triangle of Polster-Stephens-Shipp is a much sturdier base to build from, and will move Maloney back to the creative wing role in which he excelled at every previous stop in his career. A 4-3-3 with David Accam and Shaun Maloney on the attacking wings offers a lovely variety of pace and trickery.
Question the Third
Again, very early for concern, but so far none of the three designated players have hit the ground running and, to be honest, Chicago has a history of DPs that have underperformed. Does this year's class have what it takes to be difference makers in the league and will Yallop be under pressure should their lack of production continue?
Oh, man, the Fire DPs - as motley a crew as allocation money and half-assed scouting could assemble. There's already signs that Yallop is disenchanted with Kennedy Igboananike; the guy Frank 'scouted for more than two years' hasn't been able to displace the willing but limited Quincy Amarikwa up top, and Yallop has implied in interviews over the last couple of weeks that they're not afraid to dump an underperformer when the summer transfer window opens. So, Mr. Igboananike, welcome to underneath the bus.
That said, the other two are looking more hopeful. Maloney obviously has some quality, but is just as obviously struggling with understanding his role on the team. The presence of Shipp has, I believe, surprised him a bit; it's not hard to imagine that Maloney assumed he'd be the creative axis for the side, The Man rather then one of the guys. I suspect he'll figure it out. Accam, on the other hand, is living the Mike Magee 2014 Experience - come into camp late because of national-team call-ups, never quite get fit, pick up a niggling injury. Now that he's fit, we'll see - he certainly showed more in his 45-minute cameo against San Jose than we've seen from a Fire winger in a while.
As the major markets go in MLS, Chicago could be considered the most under-performing – aside from TFC of course – in terms of success both on field and off field, what's the deal with that? Does the local populace know where the stadium is? Or is it a conscious decision to stay away?
It's useful to remember that a fanbase isn't a cohesive, monolithic thing - it's thousands of people making their own decisions for their own reasons. For casuals, fans who just want an affordable entertainment for the evening, the club's shrinking market presence means fewer randoms getting the message. The stadium's placement well off any public transit means that the club struggles to mine the hipster hordes that've swelled attendance elsewhere. And the team has been pretty consistently frustrating if not truly terrible, so there's no bandwagon effect at all.
That said, there is a growing sense of betrayal and rage amongst long-term supporters, especially those who remember the club's years in the league's elite. The feeling is that Andrew Hauptman bought the team on a whim, found the criticism too harsh for his liking, and is now merely trying to invest as little as possible until the expansion bubble pops and he sells his (vastly-appreciated) interest to another party. Those interested in the discontent should explore the whimsical world of the #HauptmanOut hash-tag for more insight.
Lineup (4-3-3): Jon Busch; Joevin Jones, Adaílton, Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Gehrig; Matt Polster, Michael Stephens, Harry Shipp; David Accam, Quincy Amarikwa, Shaun Maloney.
Score Prediction: 1-1 draw.
Goalscorers: Altidore, Accam.
Many thanks to Sean for spending some time with Waking the Red – he can be followed on Twitter @scyldsceafing – and be sure to check out all the latest Fire news over at Hot Time in Old Town.
My answers to their questions can be found here.