Yesterday's Fire news was firmly in the "not good" category. In case you haven't heard, Josip Mikulic is not with the team as he attends to personal issues. He may never return to the club. Combine this with Yamith Cuesta suddenly being gone (loan ended; Fire opted not to buy) the back line is suddenly very, very thin. Both players have been scrubbed from the team's roster page.
One of the major positives of last season's squad was the depth at CB. Four brand new players proved they could play the position with some level of skill. Cory Gibbs cemented himself at the top of the group while Mikulic, Cuesta and eventually Jalil Anibaba all took turns admirably manning the space in front of goalkeepers Sean Johnson and Jon Conway. All four defenders paired together during the season as your center backs tend to do. All that positivity is mostly gone.
Gibbs, while still an excellent player, has been injury prone his entire career. I like to describe him as being held together by duct tape and twine. Cory survives in MLS due to his excellent defensive technical ability and superior football IQ. He does not excel in raw physicality like many of his counterparts. Thus every season you can count on Cory missing time. You will take that when it comes to Gibbs since the rest of the package is so incredibly valuable. Yet you plan ahead and try to pair or back him up with a quality veteran.
For a team that has been "buzzing" (their word not mine) about being able to compete for all three trophies this is a major blow. You don't compete for the Supporters' Shield, US Open Cup and the MLS Cup without having three capable CB's on your roster. This just does not happen. The Fire have a bit of problem on their hands.
So what happens now? As things stand the presumed starting pair is intact with Gibbs and Anibaba. After that things get very, very ugly with rookie Austin Berry and the previously assumed surplus to requirements Kwame Watson-Siriboe serving as the primary backups. Kwame was sent on loan to FC Tampa Bay (now Rowdies, congrats on getting the old NASL trademark back guys) after not seeing any time last season.
For anyone who remembers the few appearances Kwame had in 2010, this was most assuredly a good thing. Kwame was big, raw, foul prone, and unable to handle the ball with any confidence at his feet. How much of that is gone remains to be seen as camp progresses. The reports out of Tampa Bay were positive at times but this really means nothing as the jump between Tampa and Chicago is a rather large one in terms of overall talent of the teams being played against. His overall level of experience is still very low and as I wrote previously I'd prefer he be cut unless he shows significant improvement.
Austin Berry is the major wild card here. As a top 10 SuperDraft selection you sort of figure he is going to be able to start several games and be a capable squad player immediately. Yet the possible pairing of Berry and Anibaba doesn't infuse me with confidence. While it could be a great pairing down the road this doesn't mean that they are the right potential pairing for any length of time this season.
The other option that is on everyone's mind is the return of one Wilman Conde to the Fire. Personally Wilman can go to NY and lose forever there. His on field behavior during the 2010 season was abominable and I'd rather not give him the chance to repeat it or poison this particular locker room. I'd rather have the nice bit of allocation dollars (rumored to be around $175,000) to help fill a suddenly empty international slot instead of potentially wasting it on Conde. If we are all being completely honest here this team still needs another solid midfielder or striker to help propel the offense (yes I'm worried about Dom).
Some members of the Hot Time in Old Town staff have begun the drum beats for Carlos Bocanegra to return to his first professional club. He would be the ideal option of course (Gibbs and Boca start while mentoring the kids). Yet somehow I don't see him quite ready to leave Rangers unless the money is right. Which really is the only factor as Rangers is no longer part of Europa League. Who knows how much the current Fire ownership values Carlos Bocanegra and what he would bring to this franchise this season. I'm not overly optimistic regarding a Boca return during the 2012 season.
The Fire are probably stuck with Berry manning the primary backup position while Kwame holds down his roster spot for another year. Supplemental Draft selection Justin Chavez is the only other publicly known center back in Chicago Fire preseason right now. College soccer expert Joe Mauceri ranked Chavez much higher than where he was drafted overall but 99% of the players drafted around where Chavez was selected don't make the team let alone contribute significant minutes. The early outlook is the organization made a poor decision in not purchasing Cuesta's rights permanently. Based on performance alone it is odd. Perhaps the team will be able to make a trade and grab a capable veteran MLS defender. I still expect the first choice Fire back line to be very good. The depth at each position is now suspect.