While the Fire back line solidified to become a very steady piece of the 2012 Chicago Fire team, beyond Austin Berry and Arne Friedrich there are some questions that need to be addressed by the team this off-season. As it stands, the Fire ended the 2012 season with a more stout defense than our play sometimes showed. Only 3 other MLS teams allowed fewer goals than the Men in Red in terms of 2012 regular season MLS play. That's a pretty good statistic to be carrying over into 2013. The big question will be how potential personnel changes might affect our collective defense in 2013.
I definitely have to give credit to Frank and company for bolstering the defense between the end of the 2011 season and the start of the 2012 season. Going off of goals allowed again, in 2011 only 5 teams gave up more goals than the Fire. I realize that goals allowed is not the only, nor perfect, measuring stick of a team's defensive quality. Were this piece meant to be more of a stat cruncher I would certainly include more numbers. For my purpose in this analysis, goals allowed certainly does help paint the picture. After all, MLS is about scoring more goals than you allow. And no matter how you do this, as long as the ball is staying out of your own net you are going in the right direction.
Obviously the emergence of the A-Team in 2012 played a big role in this, as well as a more experienced Sean Johnson. In looking at the defense, those 3 players are integral pieces for 2013. For the most part, this analysis doesn't look at them much because we know how good they are and we know they will be back in 2013. In regards to the rest of the defensive roster, we need to look at a couple of things. First, barring injuries, did the back line we employed a majority of the time in 2012 give us the best chance to win? And second, what sort of changes are needed for next season to make us even better? With that in mind, on to the analysis. The format will be the same as what I used for the goalkeeping analysis.
Let's start with Jalil. For me, this is the biggest debate in terms of the defense that I think this team needs to address in the off-season. Mark O'Rourke had a good comparison piece that actually showed statistically it may be better for us to have Jalil in instead of Gargan. If you haven't read it then you definitely should give it a look. The only problem with the stats is that they don't take something very important into consideration- experience. Jalil is of course younger and in much better shape physically. Sometimes those tools can mean the difference between a win and a loss. Other times those tools are not nearly as important as experience. How many aging veterans do we see still playing at a high level in MLS? Although the physical skills may have diminished, some of these players more than make up for that with experience and mental mastery of the game.
I am in the camp that we would have in fact been better off with Gargan at right back. He would have needed rest, and Jalil could have filled in at RB and still got some learning time with the position. To be completely fair, in Anibaba's defense, there are going to be growing pains anytime you take someone out of the natural position they have played for the whole lives. He is doing what Frank is asking and doing his best. These growing pains showed themselves at times as Jalil was caught out of position, flat out beat, and was poor at marking at times. He seems to struggle with marking especially on set pieces, and unfortunately this has been a team wide problem area the past few seasons. Again, keep in mind that you are asking someone to learn on the job at the highest level of the game (at least here in the United States) That's a taller task than learning a new position at the high school or even college level.
For what it's worth, to his credit, I did think Jalil showed improvement as he increased the number of games at RB. He did do better pushing up the flanks and in particular his crossing got much better as the end of the season came upon us. He was pretty poor with crosses early in his campaign at RB, and this is something he was quite a bit better on as he worked at it. Despite this, I think we would have been better off with Gargan due to his experience in most games than Jalil.
So, what will the team do with Jalil, I ask you? On one hand, if Gargan (or someone else) does play Jalil doesn't have a spot. There is no way he plays before Arne or Austin so his development would be severely hurt. If Arne does only stay one more year, the door to Jalil could be open again but that is a risky chance. Jalil would likely be unhappy relegated to the bench, and if Arne does stay another year longer, that puts us back to square one at curbing his development anyway. On the other hand, if we have a better option (either currently on the team, trade, or draft/sign) then at this point would we considering trading Anibaba? It's certainly something we have to discuss.
I don't see Gargan getting his spot back from Frank, and he may not be on the team come 2013 depending on the strategy Frank has. The draft could see a RB land in our laps. However, every draftee is not MLS ready, Rookie of the Year material like Austin so any draft of a RB would be for depth most likely. However, if Frank finds a player on the open market to sign or trade for at RB, then Anibaba could definitely become expendable. I like Jalil but I think we need to have more quality at RB. If there isn't room for him at CB then maybe it's time for a tough decision?
Looking at CB, as I stated previously, we know we are set with the A-Team for at least 1 more year. Austin should be in Fire red for a long time (hopefully). The main thing we need at CB is depth. There needs to be a plan in place for when Arne does leave, which will be sooner rather than later. I would expect Frank to bolster the roster behind the A-Team this off-season. It's nice to be heading into 2013 knowing we have that duo back though!
The last spot to look at is LB. I think Gonzalo had a steady, good, but unspectacular season at LB last year. He is getting a bit older (now 30), and most fans would argue he still hasn't found the form that he showed before he left for Apollon Limassol in Cyprus. Other than Hunter Jumper there is not a lot of depth at LB either. This is something that I look for Frank to address this off-season as well. While most of the starting back line is set for next year, a serious injury can really throw a wrench into the plans. We saw that this year when Cory Gibbs went down, and we were lucky to have just signed Arne. Austin emerged and everything looked rosy. That's not always the case if you don't have proper depth in place. I would be ok with Gonzalo staying for another year but LB needs to be examined carefully this off-season.
The first name that sticks out here is Cory Gibbs. I think he has a situation similar to Dan Gargan. His status is very much up in the air. While he should be fully healthy by next spring, there isn't a spot for him right now. Given that he probably doesn't have many years left to play, I don't think he is going to want to sit on the bench. I am a big fan of Cory and wish we could keep him, but unfortunately I don't see it happening. It looks likely that 2013 may start without either Cory or Dan.
We could always play Hunter Jumper or Tony Walls at CB in a severe emergency, but that is not their ideal positions. Jumper is a LB and Walls a RB in my opinion. Their body of work in MLS is not large enough to draw too many conclusions from. While they have performed well in reserve matches, the true test is MLS play. At this point they are there for depth and emergency situations, and that's about it.
Steven Kinney is an interesting name. While he should be good to go for the preseason, the only way to really tell how he has recovered from a serious injury like that is to give him playing time. He is too much of a question mark right to put a firm prediction on though. If he shows that he is back to 2010 form, then things at RB become very interesting. If the team does not have that sort of confidence in him, then you have to wonder if he has a future in Chicago. Again, I hope he stays because he looked like he could develop into a really nice RB a couple of years ago. But, if the injury has hampered that a change of scenery may be necessary.
As I have mentioned numerous times, the name of the game this season is to add depth. While LB and RB are certainly up in the air, the heart of the defense is back. If Frank can add some depth in the draft, and make a shrewd trade or signing (or two), we could see an even better back line in 2013. While our center defense was good for the most party, I honestly think our full back situation needs to improve some to take the next step in 2013.
It will be interesting if the team continues to tap their connections with clubs like Atletico Madrid and Club America. Creating these pipelines has been a good step, but we need to tap them and use the resources we get. This might mean help with the back line. Having Rafael Carmona in the picture adds another intriguing element as well. Let's see what the team can do to improve this off-season.