The battle for a coach's trust is one of the most fascinating elements to observe over the course of any sports season. How deep does a coach's rotation go in basketball? Which back gets the hand-off in which yardage and down situations in the NFL? Who is the first batter to come off the bench in pinch-hitting situations against lefties in baseball? It's true that Major League Baseball teams have 40-man rosters that need to be trimmed down to 25 before the first pitch but the way the rules are written make the 25-man roster much more static. That fact in MLB and the way that rosters work in the NFL and the NBA make bench battles less dynamic and more upfront.
In soccer the drama begins before the whistle even blows to start the game. A soccer manager has to slash his roster down to 18 players and has little restrictions for his overall 18 selection. Major League Soccer made top 18 selection a little more interesting when they boosted all team roster sizes to 30 players for the 2011 season. While you can check out the minutes and appearances racked up by the three substitutes allotted in every game, the stats page won't tell you who the manager is putting on the bench but not using. These little moves can suggest big trust in some players while showing a lack of trust in others. With that in mind and with 50% of the Chicago Fire season completed, I unveil the TrustScore rating for each Chicago Fire player so far.
To come up with the TrustScore, I have given each player a 90 for starting or making the bench in a Major League Soccer Game. Someone may not see the pitch for a month or two but if a manager makes a player available for selection game after game, there is a certain amount of trust that goes into that the decision. Below is a table of the results.
The Four Horseman of the Trustalypse
Orr Barouch, Diego Chaves, Gonzalo Segares, and Jon Conway are tied at the top of the TrustScore with 1530. All four players have started or made the bench in every game this year but each has played a different role. Segares leads the team in minutes played (1523) and is a lock to start every game left back if available. Chaves' 1246 minutes played reflect his role as a forward who often gets subbed out around the 80th minute of play and has occasional come off the bench. Jon Conway (540) and Orr Barouch (388) have less minutes played but that doesn't take away from their roles on the roster. All four players will be in the gameday 18. If they aren't, something drastic has happened.
The 'I Had a Knock'/'I Got Here Late' Club
Dominic Oduro, Daniel Paladini, and Bratislav Ristic all have a 1440 while Yamith Cuesta, Sean Johnson, and Jalil Anibaba have 1350s. The team acquired Oduro by trading Calen Carr for the Ghanian forward after the first game of the season. The Fire acquired Yamith Cuesta from Chivas USA on March 23rd three days before the Sporting KC game at home. Bratislav Ristic missed the bench in that game against SKC after being subbed out in the 42nd minute of the FCD due to an aggravation. Sean Johnson missed the two games against Canadian teams in May (7th & 14th) when he was sidelined with a right quad strain. Johnson would reclaim his starting job two weeks later.
Daniel Paladini wasn't confirmed to be injured in early April but Carlos de los Cobos passed him over for the Seattle/Portland road trip. The gritty midfielder stayed home in Chicago when the team went Northwest. I'm putting Jalil Anibaba in the small pains camp for his times missing the bench; May 21 vs. Philadelphia and May 28 vs. San Jose. He did start the USOC game against San Jose in between those two matches but he also had to be subbed out in the 46th minute. Sean Johnson, Yamith Cuesta, Jalil Anibaba, and Dominic Oduro all represent starters at this point and if Daniel Paladini and Bratislav Ristic don't find their way into the XI, you'll at least see them underneath the plastic barriers on the sideline.
Cristian Nazarit rounds out this group with his low score of 540. The Colombian was not signed until May 4 and did not make the 18 until the May 21 game against Philadelphia. He has been getting playing time since the May 28 game and only missed the Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls games due to two game suspension. He's another player that is a lock for the best 18.
The 'None of These Players Are Like The Other' Group
Gaston Puerari, Dasan Robinson, Cory Gibbs, and Baggio Husidic each rack up a 1260 and Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa have 1170 scores. Gaston Puerari was shipped off to Atlas so that explains how he got down here. Before the move, Puerari had started or not just made the bench but substituted into every game. That fact makes his move all the more curious but that's a topic for another day. Dasan Robinson is an interesting case because he has only missed the bench 5 times all season. Two times it was for back-to-back starts on the Seattle/Portland road trip and then he looked so gassed vs. Portland that Carlos de los Cobos didn't put him in the 18 in the following game against the Los Angeles Galaxy. The other two times have been the last two games against Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls. The missing ingredient appears to be Josip Mikulic's recent return to health. I expect to see Dasan Robinson miss the 18 whenever Yamith Cuesta, Josip Mikulic and Cory Gibbs all are all healthy.
Speaking of Gibbs and health, the two have not always aligned this season. Gibbs was out of the 18 between April 23rd and May 7th with an injury. It's important to note that Gibbs has not made the bench at all. If healthy, the coaching staff has had a preference to start Gibbs every game. On the other hand, Patrick Nyarko has been used as a sub and a start this year as he battles concussion symptoms. The four games he missed all happened in the month of May. Baggio Husidic has not been hurt this year but he looked to have disappeared from Carlos de los Cobos' selection when he didn't make the 18 for the three games between April 9-17. Last but certainly not least in this group we have Marco Pappa. The only reason Pappa has ever been out of the 18 was due to his international absences for CONCACAF Gold Cup games. If available, Pappa, Gibbs, and Nyarko are locks. Puerari is gone. Huisidic has stabilized. Robinson's role might be fading.
Logan Pause has a TrustScore of 1,080. Teammates Josip Mikulic and Michael Videira have TrustScores of 810. Logan Pause is the captain of the team and both Frank Klopas and Carlos de los Cobos have played him when available. The most senior Fire player has been fighting concussion issues on and off for the past two months keeping him out of the 18 for Colorado, Vancouver, Toronto games in late April/early May and the past two home games against Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls. Pause was left off Tuesday's MLS Injury Report and will reportedly wear a concussion helmet for this Saturday's game against Chivas USA. Michael Videira has fought concussion issues of his own but he's also missed the 18 when healthy. The American midfielder started the first five games of the MLS Regular Season but hasn't started a MLS game since. His bench games have been against Houston, Sporting Kansas City in KC, Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls. Videira's position with the team is clearly up in the air but he did start against Rochester on Tuesday. Klopas is putting him on the bench in recent MLS Regular Season games midfield signing in the transfer window will likely push Videira out of the 18 once again.
Finally Josip Mikulic's spot in the 18 is stronger than Videira's but weaker than Pause's. Carlos de los Cobos began the season by making him the central lynchpin in the 3-5-2 but when got injured after the Sporting KC game, the 3-5-2 went away. He was one of the seemingly many that missed the Seattle/Portland trip but he recovered in time to start against LA Galaxy on April 17. He started the next three games as well and surprised a couple of observers by putting in a full 90 against Vancouver after getting pulled in the 37th minute of the prior week's match. Mikulic inexplicably made the bench against Toronto despite being questionable and despite the presence of Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Dasan Robinson making the 18 too. What was the plan to have all those central defenders on the bench? That might have been the straw that broke the camel's back for CDLC's time with the club but it's a 90 to Mikulic's TrustScore. The Croatian defender was not to be seen in the 18 again until the Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls home games. He also started against Rochester in the USOC game on Tuesday. There's a good chance that Mikulic could get re-injured or his situation gets complicated by players shifting around and Anibaba becomes the backup CB but that's getting way ahead of things. For now look for Mikulic to start if something has happened to Cuesta or Gibbs.
Corben 'We Aren't Quite Sure' Bone
This is a club of one. Bone has a higher score (990) than Videira and Mikulic (810) but his current situation is a little unclear. No player has benefited more from Pause's absence than Bone. You could argue Paladini but Paladini has consistently made the bench all season when he is not starting. Bone first made the 18 in the first game that Pause was out for and that stretch included five starts in a row between April 30 and May 21. He started the Seattle June 4 game and the June 9 SKC game but has been relegated to bench duty since. He's made two substitutions but he's also been left to sit twice. His pattern suggests he is clearly behind Daniel Paladini and clear ahead of Michael Videira in Klopas' eyes. It gets confusing when comparing him to Baggio Husidic. I think Bone shows equal talent to Husidic and has more potential. Despite that, Husidic has received 5 straight starts headed into Saturday's game. It's possible that Klopas is giving Husidic 'a last stand' of sorts to show what he can do but it's also possible Klopas has a preference for a fellow Chicago based player. A strong midfield signing would provide the ultimate test to the Husidic vs. Bone question with one being sent out of the 18 for good.
The 'Rare Sightings' Club
As we get even farther down the scale of the TrustScore, the stories become more personal and the roster spots become even more in jeopardy. There's no better example of that than Wednesday's move that saw the Fire part ways with Davis Paul. Paul made the bench in the Fire's first 4 MLS games this year and even started in the USOC game against Colorado and provided some rest to the weary when he started against the LA Galaxy on April 17. After his April 17 start he vanished from the 18 completely except for a random bench appearance vs. Vancouver on May 7. Paul's fate was likely sealed once the team trusted Oduro to play on the wing. The final decision might have even been mutual as Paul can go home to the LA area and get regular playing time with a team like the LA Blues. He may not make as much but he'll develop as a player more and enjoy the comforts of home in the meantime.
On June 3rd, the Fire also parted ways with Kwame Watson-Siriboe but with a catch. Watson-Siriboe was loaned to FC Tampa Bay through the end of the 2011 season. Chicago retains his rights while Watson-Siriboe gets more playing time. It was a very positive move overall because the defender who was selected 26th overall in the 2010 MLS Draft only made the bench once all season and that was in the aforementioned '3 CB bench' against Toronto FC. Given the timing of the trip, the team might have taken Kwame as a thank-you/one last time kind of thing. The good news from Tampa is that Watson-Siriboe has played every minute of the four matches FC Tampa Bay has played so far. If he can come back a stronger player and the play on field for the Fire doesn't suffer, it's a win-win.
Next we have Gabriel Ferrari and Pari Pantazopoulos who each have a 270. Pari's story looked brighter at the beginning of the year when the 2011 Open Try-out winner was starting at LB in the Reserves League games. He made his bench debut on April 30 vs. Colorado and again on May 7 vs. Vancouver. While he didn't even crack the 18 for May 17's Reserves League game, he did show up on the bench for both the San Jose U.S. Open Cup and MLS matches on May 24 and May 28 respectively. Then the lights dimmed on Pari as Klopas failed to put Pantazopoulos in the 18 for any of the 6 MLS matches in June. It's true that Pantazopoulos finally got some action by starting at LB in Tuesday's USOC game but Segares was suspended and Ristic started at RB. Given the way that de los Cobos was promoting Pantazopoulos and the way Klopas has lined up his bench, it looks like Pari is one player who lost out in the coaching change.
It's unclear if Ferrari won or lost in the manager switch but his ascendancy has come at the hands of the Gaston Puerari transfer to Atlas. Since Puerari's transfer, Ferrari has played in every game either as a late substitute in MLS matches or Tuesday's USOC game where he got the start. Before Puerari's transfer, it was easy to forget that Ferrari was even on the team as he failed to make the bench for a MLS or USOC game. The New York born player with the Italian sportscar company last name still holds a tenuous spot on the team. In each of his substitute spots he has been the third and last sub. He entered the game against New York out on the RM and he started at RM in Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup game. There is time for him to improve on the wing, but he hasn't shown anything to displace Dominic Oduro, Patrick Nyarko, or even Bratislav Ristic. He looks okay as a striker but he is still behind Diego Chaves, Cristian Nazarit, Orr Barouch and again, Dominic Oduro. If another forward/midfielder is brought into the mix, Ferrari likely losses his spot in the 18 even if it's a small spot as it is.
Leading off this category is Marko Maric. It is a bit unfair to Maric because he not only made the bench against Portland but he substituted into the game to boot. He was injured within 10 minutes and had to be subsequently taken out of the game. Maric has continued to be listed as OUT on the MLS Injury Report ever since with the occasional DOUBTFUL upgrade just to keep things fresh perhaps. Maric being on the team is a curious case we'll be giving the full treatment later so I'll conclude his description here. It might have taken me longer to write this part than his time on the field this year.
Next we have the unfortunate cases of Steven Kinney and Mike Banner. Banner has been out all year with a left Achilles tendinitis. Unfortunately for Banner I don't think a return to health would get him much playing time anyway. He struggled at times last year to get into the 18 and that's when he was relatively healthy and was on a fairer playing field. This year he would have to fight to get into already established lines. The potential return of Steven Kinney would be much more valuable. Kinney is also suffering from Achilles tendinitis after he tore his Achilles in the last match of the 2010 season vs. Chivas USA. The typical recovery time for this injury is 6 to 8 months and 6 months was the original diagnosis for the Norcross, Georgia product. However we are now entering the end of 8 months since his injury and Kinney is still listed as OUT. Kinney's return would add him into the mix at RB. Jalil Anibaba and Bratislav Ristic have been more than serviceable there but with Kinney in the mix Anibaba could start getting some more time at CB. The long-term goal of the team is to have Anibaba at CB and Gibbs isn't going to be around forever. Josip Mikulic is too expensive if he is going to be this injury-prone and Anibaba could suffice. As strong as the defense has been recently, it could be even stronger, deeper, and more flexible with a healthy Steven Kinney.
Alec Dufty made the bench twice when Sean Johnson was injured. He's the third string goalie and nothing will change that unless something happens to Conway or Johnson. It would be almost impossible for him to supplant backup Jon Conway.
Last but not least we have Victor Pineda. The Chicago Fire's first Homegrown Player has featured in the last two Reserves League games but is nowhere near making the bench for the team. He's young, he has time to develop, and when he plays against players his age he dominates.