The first phase of the Chicago Fire's 2012 pre-season is in full swing. About 36 players are working with the Chicago Fire technical staff down in Ave Maria, Florida. Marco Pappa recently arrived in camp. New striker Federico Puppo resolved his visa issues and made his way to the Sunshine State. Sean Johnson just wrapped up his recent USMNT call-up. He will join the team shortly for phase two in California.
The Chicago Fire's Frank Klopas is feeling his way through his first training camp as head coach. On Thursday, he was gracious enough to take some time out of his day and update reporters on what it's like in sunny Florida. Most of the news was good but there could be some storm clouds on the horizon.
Klopas started off with some positive words about Sean Johnson's performance in last night's USMNT's 1-0 victory over Venezula. Johnson was a second half substitute for starter Nick Rimando in the shutout. However, the Fire goalkeeper is not taking a direct flight to meet his teammates. "Sean will join us for the second phase of pre-season in California. Right now we will take the opportunity to have him get some rest", Klopas said. With that schedule, Sean Johnson will not join the first team until February 8th in Ventura, California. Johnson will miss a Sunday, January 30th exhibition against DC United, a Wednesday, February 1 exhibition against Florida Gulf Coast University, the team's trip to New Orleans, and of course the Saturday, February 4 exhibition vs. the Honduran side Real C.D. Espana in 'The Big Easy'.
When asked if any of the players had impressed him in pre-season, Klopas decided not to identify anyone. "We are using this as an opportunity to evaluate the players and look at the draft picks." The Fire head coach likes what he sees overall though and feels strong. "This is a group that will work hard. There is a very good attitude from everyone and we are happy where we are." On whether or not the players have a different mentality this year, Klopas would not say one way or the other if it was different but did say the players from last season know him better. "We expect nothing but the best and the players are expected to be doing the little things."
He did let the group know some detailed plans for the first exhibition this Saturday. "Against DC, we will play three groups. There will be 30 minutes per side... We have been working hard in practice. It is time to see what will happen in game situations." Later in the conversation he talked about the upcoming games with enthusiasm. "You can't duplicate game sessions in training. We try in practice but it's not quite the same." He said he was looking forward to the players making real 'game decisions' in the exhibitions coming up.
Things got a little hairy when Klopas was asked about the center back situation, specifically on how Josip Mikulic and Yamith Cuesta were doing. Klopas revealed, "Josip has a family situation that is making it difficult for him to come... Josip is not here." On Cuesta, Klopas said, "Cuesta was on a loan... We are trying to work it out." He made it clear that the Fire still hold both players' rights in MLS. The news of Mikulic's issues came to him just recently.
Klopas dismissed the notion that the team drafted center back Austin Berry in the first round because of the situations revolving around Mikulic and Cuesta. "We felt Austin was a solid center back. He has a high maturity level and is ready to contribute."
Later in the day, the Chicago Fire website had removed both Josip Mikulic's and Yamith Cuesta's name from the team's roster page.
A question about the team's defensive struggles led Klopas to discuss some tactics. He emphasized that the team must keep its shape and stay compact. "We want to be no more than 40 yards apart... we will use our speed to get behind the other team's defense." Klopas added that he 'believed in his attackers' and said 'movement off the ball is the most important thing in the attack'.
The midfield is suddenly the deepest looking part of the team and that's fine with the Fire head coach. On where Logan Pause fits in with Pavel Pardo, Sebastian Grazzini, Marco Pappa, and newcomer Rafael Robayo, "It is good to have options", Klopas said "Whoever deserves to play will start this year." The battle for those regular season minutes has already started in Florida.