The excitement is building for Fire fans across the globe as the first game of the 2012 MLS season is almost upon us. First Kick week is always fun in MLS, but that fun is diminished a bit when the first week is a bye week like the Fire experienced. Although the wait has seemed to be long and agonizing, we are almost there cf97 fans! I am feeling like a child does on Christmas morning when they rush down the stairs and find presents under the Christmas tree. I have high expectations for this season and I think the Fire will show everyone that they are back to their winning ways. I figured today would be a good time to go over a few things that are at the front of my mind as a primer for 2012 Game #1. Follow me after the break for more...
1. As I mentioned in a previous hat trick article, Montreal is going to have a huge, likely rowdy crowd on hand for their home opener against the Men in Red. The Impact are now expecting over 50,000 fans for the game. Montreal is even considering adding 2,000 seats in an attempt to get to the 60k mark and break a previous attendance record. No matter what MLS team you are a fan of, crowds like this are great. It shows this league is for real, and that soccer is being supported and growing in North America in large numbers. And, it's just really cool to have 60k fans for a soccer match, especially ones involving the Chicago Fire.
One thing that Fire fans (us here at the site especially) have debated in the past is how this effects the Fire. On the one hand, it seems like every time a new team in MLS is playing their first home game or a new stadium is being christened, it's against the Fire (Sporting KC, Portland Timbers, etc). Obviously, an event like this puts the home team at quite a significant advantage, especially in an already tough place to play like Portland. So there is a camp that says it's unfair to the Fire and shouldn't be allowed to continue. I used to be in this camp as well, but recently I have gotten to thinking about this more and have seen the light so to speak. I now am firmly in the opposite camp- the one that wants the Fire to be at the forefront of each and every event like this.
First of all, it's good for the club. Even if the game is away from home, there is tons of exposure (and extra exposure is always nice). I think it also says something about the rich tradition and history of the club itself. Rather than teams picking star studded lineups like the New York Red Bulls or LA Galaxy, they pick the Fire. Other teams want to play the Fire because of the success and pedigree of our club. The fact that we are always at the forefront of events like this can only be good in my mind, and it's something I definitely welcome.
My other main argument for games like these is that it helps the club on the pitch as well. Especially for a game of this magnitude so early in the season. We are going into a game with a ton of opposing fans on a very big stage. These are the matches I want the Fire to be playing in. The fact that it's the first game of the season makes it better. Right off the bat we will face adversity and we will be better for it. The more a team can play in pressure atmospheres like this, the more resilient the team gets. Whenever the Fire are facing a hostile away crowd, or when a big prize is on the line (USOC Final for example), or when the Men in Red need to dig deep to come back from a deficit or need to win a big game in crunch time, they can refer to games like this. It's also invaluable experience for the younger players to be able to compete/witness in an atmosphere like Saturday will feature. If we can go to Montreal and ruin their party, we can do it in Portland, Seattle, USOC Final, MLS Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.
2. One interesting roster battle a bit under the radar (at least in my opinion) will be the backup GK job. With Sean Johnson missing the first 2 MLS games, as well as more this summer due to Olympic/International duty, it becomes vital that the Fire have a competent backup GK that can do the job and help lead us to wins in Sean's absence. Frank did a great job of addressing that this offseason by bringing in Jay Nolly. Jay certainly has the presence and veteran leadership to keep goal adequately in Sean's absence. I think it was definitely an upgrade over Jon Conway.
The true wild card here is newcomer Paolo Tornaghi. I came away extremely impressed in his preseason play. The Fire were also impressed, signing Tornaghi to a contract. The fact that he is taking up an international spot as a 3rd string goalkeeper right now should tell you the quality Frank has seen in Paolo. The fact that he came through the Inter Milan youth system, a world renowned academy, speaks to his pedigree. No matter who is in goal, as long as they are doing well when Sean is away from the team, then I think all Fire fans will be happy.
To be honest, I personally can see Paolo earning the back up role if given enough playing time this season. Don't forget, he can also impress in training and in reserve games. If Paolo turns out anywhere near as good as I think he can be, the Fire will be truly lucky. How many clubs can boast of having 2 top notch goalkeepers? And while I hope Sean is in Fire red for a long time to come, let's all be honest here. Not to put the cart before the horse, but if he continues his career progression, a move to Europe or another league is a distinct possibility sooner rather that later. If we have a quality goalkeeper waiting in the wings so to speak, it can only be a boon for the Fire. Additionally, I am not sure that the Fire would carry 3 goalkeepers throughout the entire season. It will certainly be a battle to keep an eye on.
3. The depth added this offseason along the backline will be vital to Chicago this season. We have all debated this here and there this offseason, but Saturday marks the first time we get to see the backline that really solidified the last half of last season spring into action in 2012 regular season play. Preseason gives us glimpses, but Saturday the fun starts for real. The Fire finally seem to have a legit LB in Hunter Jumper, who is great backup in case of injuries and can also give Sega some rest at times. Sega logged a lot of minutes last year, and a rest here and there can only help Sega and the team as a whole.
The battle at CB will be a very interesting story that will be unfolding. Consensus seems to say that Gibbs and Anibaba will be the CB choices, at least for the first game or two, and I agree. Arne Friedrich is a huge signing, and once match fit I don't see him sitting on the bench. If Arne is healthy and in form he has to be considered the best CB in the league given his career history. You don't get a guy like that to ride the bench. The beauty is that if Cory Gibbs has some injuries issues like he did last year, we have depth to help cover that. While a worst case scenario of both Gibbs and Friedrich being injured could strain the back line, then we still have Austin Berry available. Considered by most to be MLS ready right now, it's nice to have a CB talent like that as a backup option. While Austin will no doubt pick up minutes here and there, there is no reason to rush him into a starting role if there are capable players ahead of him. I think it would be great if Austin gets minutes right away, but even more beneficial if he has time to learn the league and be mentored by the likes of Gibbs and Friedrich.
The position that could still use some depth is RB. While Dan Gargan has the RB spot to call his own, if he needs a rest or gets hurt then the intrigue really starts. Jalil Anibaba can slide over and play the position he played for the first half of last season, but I would rather have him at his true CB position. Logan Pause can play RB in a pinch. This is especially true if the midfield picture ends up developing with Logan on the outside looking in. And Friedrich can also play RB, so we do have options there. Still, it would be nice to have a true RB as a backup, but I think the Fire will be ok in this regard barring a disastrous development (knock on wood).
As you can see, a new season always brings excitement and intrigue. There is certainly no shortage of underlying stories below the main event of game #1. The above topics will have a very big impact on how the Fire end up doing this season, as they all involve integral elements to the team. While there are other topics and ideas to look at, these are the ones sticking out in my mind right now.
If the Fire can come away with 1 or all 3 points in an environment like Montreal will provide (and I am confident we can), then that should give the team a huge confidence boost heading into the first leg of the season. The long winter wait for that first MLS Fire game is nearly upon us. Saturday is only 3 short days away!