With the 30th overall pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, the Chicago Fire selected Yazid Atouba Emane. Atouba is a player from Cameroon. On the face of things, this might appear to be like when the Chicago Fire selected Patrick Nyarko in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft. Atouba is quite different from Nyarko though.
For starters, Atouba's birthplace of Yaounde, Cameroon is farther away from Nyarko's birthplace of Kumasi, Ghana than Chicago is from Dallas, Denver, or D.C. Nyarko is a proud Hokie having graduated from Virginia Tech. Atouba has never attended school in the United States and his last soccer experience was playing for Rainbow FC Bamenda, a Cameroon soccer club.
So why the heck was Atouba available for selection in the SuperDraft anyway? It's a great topic but not the one I want to focus on today. International players in the draft are a reality. Some of them even work out well. Perhaps you remember the success Joao Plata had for Toronto FC recently. Plata is another young player who never attended a United States university but was selected with the 49th overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft.
Plata would have been selected higher in that draft if it weren't for the fact that he was going to take up an international slot. A note for those who forgot or are not keen on MLS' rules, each MLS team has 8 international slots. Teams can trade those slots among each other on a temporary basis but each team has 8 international slots that are originally assigned to them. If Atouba signs with the Fire, he, like Plata with TFC, would take up one of Chicago's international slots.
This is a very important point because Frank Klopas and the front office recently traded away, not one but two, of Chicago's international slots for the 2013 season (and perhaps longer). This is a drastic reversal of Klopas' strategy regarding these slots in the past.
Since taking over as technical director in 2008, the now 3rd year head coach Klopas had never traded away or traded for an international slot coming into 2013. The 8 international slots have typically been filled to the brim with players from all over the world. I have always been surprised that the Fire never traded for an additional international slot or two considering the fact their squads were so foreign centric.
On the other hand, I'm now not surprised that Klopas appears to be moving away from foreign players given the mixed track record of international slot fillers between 2010 to 2012: Collins John, Alex, Krzysztof Krol, Arne Friedrich, Julio Martinez, Deris Umanzor, Federico Puppo, Rafael Robayo, Diego Chaves, Marco Pappa, Yamith Cuesta, Freddie Ljungberg, Wilman Conde, Nery Castillo, Pavel Pardo, Bratislav Ristic, Sherjill MacDonald, Josip Mikulic, Cristian Nazarit, Gaston Puerari, Guillermo Franco, Paolo Tornaghi, and Sebastian Grazzini. That's a whole lot of mess with a smattering of success right there. I find it encouraging that most of the successes are recent acquisitions. The pessimist in me wonders if maybe the new players just haven't had enough time to fail. The optimist wants to break down the international situation to see what the options can be as we finally get into pre-season.
The Planet and the Eight: Where the Fire's International Slots are Going in 2013
Slot 1 - Arne Friedrich
Signed in the 2012 pre-season, the veteran former German international was the rock in the Chicago Fire defense last year. Friedrich pushed back retirement and declared that he wants to finish his playing career in Chicago. He will likely retire after the 2013 season but never say never. This slot is not opening up until Friedrich hangs up his boots.
Slot 2 - Sherjill MacDonald
The Dutchman showed newer Fire fans that yes, target forwards playing for Chicago do exist. Klopas and company picked up MacDonald in the 2012 summer transfer window. His contract goes through at least the end of 2013. MacDonald seems to like it here and his teammates like having him; Sherjill racked up 4 goals and 4 assists in just 14 games after joining in July. Since he speaks English well and has adjusted to his surroundings quickly, I see no reason why the Fire couldn't keep him for a couple of more years. This is another solidly held slot going into the new season.
Slot 3 - Paolo Tornaghi
When Fire starting goalie Sean Johnson was out for Olympic qualifiers at the beginning of the 2012 season, the Milanese product started in net for the Men in Red. His performance was admirable if not spectacular. His contract is a bit of a mystery. So are his reasons for wanting to play in the United States. Tornaghi is not paid very well according to the salary records. At 24, this seems like the time in his life when he should be pushing himself to try and play for the best clubs in his homeland. It's great if Tornaghi wants to live out the American Dream. Maybe he'll stick around to become a team fixture. For 2013 purposes, this slot is padlocked like a bike in Logan Square.
Slot 4 - Traded to the
This slot was shipped off to the Red Bulls in the deal that brought veteran midfielder Joel Lindpere to Chicago. Lindpere himself was born in Tallinn, Estonia but he doesn't take up an international slot because he has a green card.
This is a good time to mention that several other Fire players are in the same boat as Lindpere. Alvaro Fernandez, Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro, Maicon Santos, and Gonzalo Segares were all born outside of the United States. All five of them have green cards. The Uruguayan-born Fernandez might have signed his loan deal with a new club in Qatar but that won't open up an international slot because Seattle has the foresight and organizational strength to get their foreign players green cards.
If Chicago is committed to keeping MacDonald and Tornaghi on a long-term basis, yesterday was the time to get their green-card process started. The player must want a green card and the team must spend some extra time and resources making it happen, but the benefits are huge down the line.
The Fire should get 'international slot 4' back for the 2014 season but we don't know for sure. Teams don't always share that information and for now, I don't know the answer.
Slot 5 - Traded to the
This slot was shipped off to the Colorado Rapids in the deal that brought veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz to Chicago. Again, I don't know how long the slot is gone for but it's probably just a year. Either way this slot is off-limits in 2013.
Slot 6 - Guillermo Franco
Since he's listed on the Chicago Fire roster page, he's still part of the team. He's still taking up an international roster slot. Franco will not be with the team to start the year though. The slot will open up.
Slot 7 - Alex
Things get tricky here. Alex was brought in on a six-month contract and supposedly the Fire have an option to renew for a full year. The 23 year-old Brazilian midfielder impressed upon making his debut in June. It would be a shame to see him go but his status has a little bit of limbo around it. The acquisition of two veteran MLS midfielders and the drafting of another midfielder haven't helped to make Alex's situation any clearer. I assume he will be back and he could even be a player the Fire try to lock down for many years to come. The club has a terrible recent track record of holding onto South American players so I'll say this is more wait and see. The good news is that Alex showed up to the first day of training. I hope there's many more because it wouldn't be easy replacing him on the international or domestic market.
Spot 8 - Pavel Pardo
Veteran former Mexican international Pavel Pardo re-signed with the Chicago Fire exactly one year ago today. He has been a main part of the Fire's great success since the beginning of August 2011. He seemed like a sure thing for the 2013 campaign but Pardo is 36 and finished the season with an injury. Rumors about his retirement began to pop up in the past couple of weeks. Yesterday, Chicago-Fire.com even had an article where Frank Klopas appeared to soften the inevitable blow of Pardo's departure. Unlike Alex, Pardo did not appear at training today.
International Slots 2013 Outlook
Chicago should start the season with 4 international slots solidly filled (Friedrich, Tornaghi, MacDonald, and Alex) and 2 international spots out the door (New York and Colorado). The team could use a backup full back, a backup center back, a midfield wing player, and perhaps another forward. Franco's inevitable departure will open up an international slot. If Pardo leaves, that would open up another slot yet.
However, even if both slots are filled with competent international players (never a sure thing), Chicago would still be a player or two short of an optimal roster for MLS competition. The draft pick Atouba could fill one of those roles but how ready will he be at the age of 20? For better or worse, Klopas and company have slightly boxed themselves into an area where they must use more domestic talent to fill their areas of need.
The next question is will that come from players already on the roster or somewhere else in the world? After all, just because a player is playing outside of the United States doesn't mean that player wouldn't qualify as a domestic player for MLS. International intrigue indeed. I can't imagine Klopas is set with the roster he has at hand.
UPDATE: 9:30 PM CST on January 21, 2013--------
Between the time this article was published and the time of this update, the Fire declined to re-sign Guillermo Franco, Pavel Pardo retired, and Arne Friedrich received a green card. The only Chicago Fire players that are taking up international slots right now are Alex, Sherjill MacDonald, and Paolo Tornaghi. There are three open international slots at the moment for the Chicago Fire.