So it's mid-January 2013, I'm in charge of the Fire, and (thanks to the game editor) we've just lassoed five of the choicest talents in the US of A - what now?
It's evaluation time, of course. Time to look at the budget, and look at the players, and decide who needs to stay, who needs to go, and who's available to deal. It's what is going on in the real front office of the real Chicago Fire right now. In the real world, this would probably mean lots of emails, lots of whiteboards covered in depth charts, long, rambling meetings where the front office and coaching staffs talk about the draft, and people around the league. Someone would mention contacts overseas. I imagine sandwiches are involved, maybe some pizza.
In Football Manager, it's a little different. There may be sandwiches, but mostly there are spreadsheets - pages of text describing every aspect of every player's game, and some glimpses into their personalities and tendencies. It's an exercise in thoroughness and patience, this evaluation process. You think you've found a guy who plays the way you'd like, then you notice that he's got a ‘4' (out of 20) for fitness - forget it, that guys going to be hurt and/or exhausted perpetually in MLS. Or you find a Mexican kid with some promise, and his agent asks for $15 thousand a week. Typically, I spend several hours before ever hitting the ‘continue' button, looking at lists of out-of-contract players, finding a group of coaches with the proper spread of specialties, and generally being nervous about kicking the whole thing off.
This time was no different. The addition of the Family changes the balance of the roster - Anya, for example, is an automatic starter; does that then mean Gonzalo Segares is expendable? And who, of the existing staff, should stay?
Leaders of men
The first job is revamping the coaching staff. It's no use having a bunch of teenagers bursting with talent on the roster if there's no one for them to learn from. The game is brutal in this way; players don't develop properly unless they're given both guidance (from coaches and older players) and great gobs of playing time. So to make the most of this talent, we need coaches.
There were versions of FM where recruiting the coaching staff was a sort of secret code - great coaches weren't picky about where they worked, and didn't demand a king's ransom, so it was a simple matter to pluck incredible teachers out of (for example) the Arsenal academy, or Botofogo's, and build a dynasty with kids. It's not that way any more. The budgets are tighter, and the coaches much more selective. Instead of a staff of seven exotic super-coaches, I have a great staff that's more familiar to American soccerheads: Joe-Max Moore and Ronnie Ekelund are among the training staff, while I hired Diego Gutierrez to run the scouting department. Some guys got canned, but I gave them parachute payments, because I'm just cool like that.
There are a couple of guys in the list who are properly part of the Family save. Mike Hamilton, the assistant, is my brother-in-law and great friend; I usually populate the staff with family members, like my sister Erin (a neonatologist) as the team physio. This time, somehow, I got distracted while editing the database, thought I'd finished up, and began play without the whole cast. Also, waaay up there in the Managing Director's chair, is one Mr. Ben Burton, whose credentials are beyond reproach.
More, better players
The second part of preparations is the part everyone thinks of when they start the game - adding players. Because I've been given a mere $400,000 to spend in the global transfer market, and my scouting department hasn't developed any insight into the bargains that might await, I'm shopping for out-of-contract players. Fortunately, there's a few interesting ones out there.
Jose Antonio Castro, DR
I wanted a real, honest-to-goodness right back to go with my nascent world-class left wingback, and found Castro. He's 32, past his best, but seems dependable and is definitely affordable.
Ivan Klasnic, ST
Klasnic is fairly well-known to the American audience from his time in Bolton. He's years removed from double-digit goal totals in the Bundesliga, but the guy can really finish.
Sergio Ortega, DC
I cannot abide center backs who simply hoof the ball away, and Ortega can pass the ball a bit if he can stay healthy.
William Gallas, DC
Definitely the big signing of the offseason - Gallas' people approached me, and I had him in for a short trial before agreeing to a two-year DP deal with him. His leadership is outstanding, he can pass the ball a bit, and he's tough as hell. If he stinks, Ortega will take his time from him.
The only significant deal in the other direction was letting Gonzalo Segares go to Kansas City for a first-round pick in 2014. I love Sega too much to let him rot on the bench behind Anya, so I let him go and figured Shaun Francis could handle the rare minutes I give a backup at a Family position.
The preseason! Actual games
The preseason in FM just flies past - you set the things you want to emphasize in training, and the staff makes it happen. I generally like to organize the preseason friendlies like a steady crescendo of competition; ideally, as the team is rounding into shape, they're stretching themselves to compete against the stronger teams later in the preseason. When the MLS regular season rolls around, there's no intensity-shock; they're already blooded.
That's the idea, anyway. Some people swear by the opposite, starting with difficult friendlies and then throwing some puff pastries at the team the last couple weeks to lift morale. Life is tough, boys; lift your own damned selves up if it's lifting y'want, I tell them.
Anyway, the preseason went basically as planned.
Rochester 0-2 Fire (Klasnic 27, Lily 77)
A sleepwalk roadshow in Rochester kicked things off. We were badly out of sorts in the early stages until Klasnic calmed nerves with a vicious strike off a rebound in the 27th. The Rhinos seemed content to gawp at the talent arrayed against them. Lily showed her wheels, blurring past a centerback and finishing right-footed to seal it.
In addition to being sloppy, the game was costly from an injury standpoint - one of the Family wunderkinds, midfield enforcer Kaia, tore a hamstring barely 10 minutes after kickoff. She'll be out somewhere between six weeks and three months. This game doesn't pull any punches.
San Antonio 0-1 Fire (Klasnic 28)
More of the same - an incoherent shape, several players obviously off fitness. It's hard not to over-react when the team plays poorly against inferior competition, but we schedule these matches to grind off these rough edges. Klasnic, again, shows what a real finisher is, taking his one chance ruthlessly.
Fire 1-1 CSKA Moscow (Wernbloom og 64, Vitinho 7)
The tough games begin, and the team immediately looks sharper. A long ball beat our offside trap, giving the Moscovites the early lead, but we had the better of play for long stretches. The own goal that tied the game came when Seannie slalomed through two defenders on the endline and rifled a centering pass off Wernbloom's ass.
Fire 0-1 Viktoria Pilzen (Kolar 68)
The only truly crappy preseason performace. The game was just four days after the game against Moscow, and it showed - we were sloppy with the ball and sluggish without it. Plus, it was super cold.
Fire 2-4 Zenit St. Petersburg (Seannie 49, Gallas 93; Hulk 63, Bystrov 67, Neto 69, Kersakhov 85)
Yowza. Zenit came with a full-strength lineup in Champions League form, and we held our own for the first hour until fatigue set in and they destroyed us. Seannie gave the Fire a lead early in the second half, playing a one-two at the top of the box and finishing near-post. Then, the deluge - Hulk hit a laser from 25 yards, then Bystrov turned a loose ball into the net, and Neto lobbed Sean Johnson. The 7,000 fans who turned out in a freezing rainstorm saw plenty of quality, and some of it even came from the guys in red.
With that, our preseason was complete. We had to let some guys go to make the roster work, and then it was off to LA for the season opener. When we return to this Winter Fantasy, we'll talk about the final roster, and the start of the games that actually count. Well, in this world they count. It's all multiple universes. You understand.
In Part 3: The final roster, and the MLS season finally begins