The last time we looked at the Chicago Fire depth chart, Carlos de los Cobos was still going between the 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2. The team was coming off the high of going 1-0-1 against FC Dallas and Sporting KC in regular season play. You memory might be a little foggy but Jalil Anibaba had just scored his miraculous goal from 40 yards out that helped defeat the Colorado Rapids 2-1 in the U.S. Open Cup Play-In match. Sean Johnson was starting in goal and we thought Gaston Puerari was a good shooter. What a difference a month and a half makes.
Carlos de los Cobos has used the 4-1-4-1 formation for the past three games and I don't see that changing for the time being. The team looks confident with it in place. CDLC has been comfortable using the 4-1-4-1 throughout his career and Fire fans saw the coach use it several times last year. We may not be winning but we aren't losing either. With that famous old adage 'if it at least ain't moving backwards, don't fix it' firmly in mind, let's take a look at where each player stands in the 4-1-4-1 lineup.
1. Jon Conway
2. Sean Johnson (injured)
3. Alec Dufty
Jon Conway has been the starter for over a month now. The tricky part of this equation is Sean Johnson has been injured since the May 7th game against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Would Carlos de los Cobos have started Johnson over Conway by now if Johnson was healthy? We'll never know. Johnson has been upgraded to 'probable' on the MLS Injury Report but Alec Dufty started Tuesday's Reserves League match against Sporting Kansas City. The starting job should go back to Sean Johnson as Jon Conway has not done enough to demonstrate he should continue to start over the Chicago Fire goalie of the future.
Jalil Anibaba has played Right Back in every minute of every MLS regular season game except for when Dasan Robinson substituted for Anibaba in the 67th minute of the Houston Dynamo game. Anibaba's consistency has been a positive for team but it is frustrating for depth chart makers. Is Dasan Robinson the backup RB because he started there in Tuesday's Reserves League game? What about the fact that Bratislav Ristic started at RB in the two Reserves League games before that? As long as Jalil Anibaba remains healthy, Ristic vs. Robinson is a bit of a pointless academic debate. We may never get an answer either because when Steven Kinney returns, he will leapfrog both of them. He might even move Anibaba into the CB debate... but that's a discussion for another day. Carlos de los Cobos seems to like using Robinson as a substitute and learned his lesson after starting Robinson in the Seattle and Portland games. If Anibaba needs a rest, I'll go out on a limb and say Ristic starts but Robinson will sub.
2. Cory Gibbs
4. Dasan Robinson
If Josip Mikulic is healthy, he starts. There's no doubt the 25 year-old Croatian is the best center back on the team. It seems like Mikulic has been hurt more than healthy but he has found his way onto the field in 6 of the 9 MLS regular season games. He didn't play in Toronto but he did play in Tuesday's Reserves League match for the first 40 minutes before he was subbed out because the team wanted to give him a look but they didn't want him to use too much energy or get hurt again.
Cory Gibbs is a close second at center back. de los Cobos relies on Gibbs' veteran presence to lead a young team. Gibbs' health is an issue too and he missed the three previous games before starting in Toronto. He should be ready to start against Philadelphia this weekend. While Dasan Robinson started at CB for the Seattle and Portland road trip, Yamith Cuesta has started at CB in the last four games covering for Gibbs or Mikulic. Robinson continues to make the first team bench but Carlos de los Cobos is showing a strong preference for Cuesta as a starter. Kwame Watson-Siriboe rounds out the center backs at No. 5. He made the first team bench on Saturday against Toronto (his first time this year) and has started all 3 games at CB for the Reserves League team. There's a chance that if two of Mikulic/Gibbs/Cuesta were injured, Kwame Watson-Siriboe would start over Robinson. I don't know if Robinson can play a full 90 effectively anymore.
3. Bratislav Ristic
4. Davis Paul
Gonzalo Segares' hold on LB is identical to Jalil Anibaba's on RB. You could say the hold is even stronger because Segares has only sat out 7 minutes this year after Dominic Oduro substituted in for him in the 83rd minute of the Seattle game. Unlike Anibaba, we probably will see someone else start at LB soon because Segares is one yellow card away from having to sit out a game due to yellow card accumulation. When that happens (if you aren't familiar with Segares, trust me, it's a 'when that happens' situation), signs point to Open Tryout winner Pari Pantazopoulos getting the nod at LB. The only question is will Pari be healthy. Right now the MLS Injury Report lists Pantazopoulos as Questionable with a left quad contusion. Pari started the first two Reserves League games at LB and made the first team bench against Colorado and Vancouver. I'm putting Ristic third on the list because he started at LB in Pari's absence on Tuesday. CDLC used him at LB last year and Ristic regularly makes the bench. Davis Paul is listed fourth basically out of necessity. The team does not have anyone else suited to play LB that is not needed elsewhere in the pecking order. Paul has been working one on one with Segares in a mentor/protegee capacity where Paul is learning how to play the left wing.
1. Logan Pause
In the 4-1-4-1, one player in the midfield plays between the defense and the rest of the midfield. Chicago Fire team captain Logan Pause has made a strong career out of that role. Pause was out for the Colorado, Vancouver, and Toronto games but he should be healthy for the Philadelphia game this weekend. Daniel Paladini started in the DM role in all three games Logan Pause missed. He's a solid second choice behind Logan. That said, I do think there's a small chance Paladini might start taking starting time away from Logan Pause. It is a small sample size and there are 11 players on the field, not just one... but with Logan Pause at DM the team is 1-3-2 while the team is 0-0-3 with Daniel Paladini at DM. Either way the Fire will play 9 games in the 42 days between May 21 and July 2 so players will be rested accordingly. Don't think the return of Logan puts an automatic pause button on Paladini's playing time.
Michael Videira started the first 5 games of the season and subbed in for Baggio Husidic in the 65th minute of the 6th regular season game before hitting the Injury Report with concussion symptoms. He remains out and he had unfortunately started slipping down the chart anyway. We wish him a quick return to the field but he'll face an uphill battle when he returns. Baggio Husidic has made the first team bench the last three games and entered as a sub in two of them. He has started and played a full 90 minutes as a DM in the last two Reserves League games. Given Carlos de los Cobos' tendency to 'forget' about guys on the roster (see Peter Lowry getting big minutes at the beginning and end of 2010 while not even making the bench for stretches in the middle of the season), this is not a good sign for Videira.
1. Patrick Nyakro
3. Davis Paul
4. Bratislav Ristic
Patrick Nyarko has started at RM when he has been healthy. He did enter the Colorado game on April 30th as a sub in the 90th minute but I'm not sure the team didn't want to use the next day's Reserves League match as a test of Patrick Nyarko playing the lone forward in the 4-1-4-1. Nyarko hasn't played since that weekend due to concussion symptoms. He is currently listed as Out in the Injury Report. Dominic Oduro started at RM in that Colorado first team game in addition to starting in the last two games against Vancouver and Toronto while Nyarko has been out. Oduro's status as second banana is not threatened by Davis Paul who has struggled to even make the bench regularly since the team returned from the Seattle and Portland road trip. I get the feeling that Bratislav Ristic is becoming CDLC's Dasan Robinson in the midfield: a veteran who can enter the game late, won't bring a game changing dynamic to the table but has the sense not to screw up anything either in their limited playing time.
1. Corben Bone
3. Orr Barouch
4. Baggio Husidic
5. Daniel Paladini
Two central midfielders will start in the 4-1-4-1 formation every game. In the three games (Colorado, Vancouver, Toronto) we have seen the 4-1-4-1, Corben Bone has played a more traditional midfield role while Gaston Puerari has played more forward. Orr Barouch subbed in for Bone in the 74th minute of the Colorado game and then came in for Puerari in the 84th minute against Vancouver and in the 58th minute against Toronto. It might be misleading to put Barouch down as No. 3 because he has appeared in 7 of the 9 games but he is one of few players on the roster that hasn't started game. He might have earned a start with his play last week where he finally scored a goal. Then again he is excelling in the super sub role, why not keep him there? Barouch can enter for either central midfield player depending on which one looks the most tired. That's a pretty nice luxury to have.
Baggio Husidic is at No. 4 because he started several times last year in the central midfield. Husidic has played the defensive midfield role in the last two Reserves League matches but I think the front office just wants to get a better look at him in that spot. Husidic did start in the central midfield in the 4-4-2 against Houston but was subbed out in the 65th minute by Michael Videira. I was tempted to put Michael Videira at No. 5 but I have to think Daniel Paladini has boosted his stock over the past three weeks while Videira's star has fallen. Paladini played more of a #10 role with his former club the Carolina Railhawks. The offensive chops are there. The fact that he has done well in the defensive midfield spot is a testament to his overall playing ability. Husidic might even need to watch his back here.
1. Marco Pappa
2. Davis Paul
3. Bratislav Ristic
Marco Pappa is the only Chicago Fire player that has played all 810 regular season minutes this year. Davis Paul is the only player other than Marco Pappa to play on the left wing. Paul started against the Los Angeles Galaxy and Carlos de los Cobos put him on the left and Marco Pappa on the right. When Patrick Nyarko came in for Paul in the 46th minute of the match, Pappa and Nyarko switched back to their regular roles. Ristic has the same position here for the same reasons he does at right midfielder. Victor Pineda started at LM in the latest Reserves League game and really, there's no other place for the kid to crack the lineup at the moment. I wouldn't be surprised to see the team give Pappa a game off, start Davis Paul at LM, and sub Pineda in at some point.
1. Diego Chaves
2. Gaston Puerari
3. Orr Barouch
After Marco Pappa (810 minutes), Gonzalo Segares (803 minutes), and Jalil Anibaba (796 minutes), there is the last workhorse of the team so far, Diego Chaves with 794 minutes played. Chaves is tied for the team lead in goals scored with 4 but he has been cold as of late. I would be very surprised and a little concerned if he did not get some rest next week with games on May 21, May 24, and May 28. I'm listing Gaston Puerari at No. 2 and he does have the second most time played at forward behind Chaves. However, Puerari (5'7) is probably too short to play the lone forward position while his finishing is too poor to be left as the first line of offense. Orr Barouch has played as a forward in two of the three Reserves League games and a couple of times as a sub in first team play. It helps that he is 6'2 but he hasn't looked anything special in the air. Cristian Nazarit is billed as the lone target forward we have been waiting for but he probably still needs some time to be 100% after not playing for a couple of months. To Nazarit's credit, he did score a goal and play 69 minutes in Tuesday's Reserves League game. If the preference is to play Puerari in midfield, keep Barouch as a sub and give Chaves a breather, Nazarit might find himself the starter.
This depth chart does not even mention Mike Banner, Gabriel Ferrari, or Marko Maric. Mike Banner continues to be out with left Achilles tendinitis and Marko Maric is on the disabled list with a left deltoid sprain/talar contusion. Gabriel Ferrari was out with an injury before but he is back to training. Unfortunately for Ferrari, his playing time has been limited to starting the Reserves League game on April 24 against Houston and entering as a 69th minute sub in Tuesday's game against Sporting Kansas City. Ferarri has yet to make the bench for the first team yet.
Once Nazarit and Nyarko are up to full health, there is a very good chance Carlos de los Cobos will move back to a 4-4-2 offense. The forwards are so deep, I didn't even list Dominic Oduro in the forward depth chart. I think even with a healthy Nyarko and a 4-1-4-1 formation, CDLC would keep Oduro or Nyarko on the bench in case a substitution needed to be made for RM. In a 4-4-2, Oduro can bring a positive boost off the bench late in a game. I think in a field of Chaves, Nazarit, Puerari, Barouch and Oduro, it would be difficulty for Oduro to get a start. Gabriel Ferrari might even start before Oduro given the teams needs for flexibility. There are still some questions but the jam packed game stretch coming up should give some answers. Stretches of nine games in 42 days has a way of making that happen.