International Signings Holding Back Domestic Success

USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Fire's international signings are holding back the success of the Fire's domestic players and the Fire's front office efforts to acquire the domestic players in the first place.

Now that the Chicago Fire are entering the 2nd half of the season, some praise should go to the front office for a series of moves that have taken place since the beginning of the 2013 offseason. Chicago's front office has been quite deft at adding players that have domestic status in MLS.

Jeff Larentowicz has been a steady captain in Logan Pause's absence. He is fourth on the team in minutes played and is tied for the team lead in assists.

Dilly Duka started out slow but he is regaining the form that earned him time with U.S. Youth International teams. The 23 year-old winger has 2 goals in his last 3 games. While there is only one assist to his name so far, that doesn't do justice to the setups he has provided.

I've been a big critic of Joel Lindpere and the Estonian winger with a green card even showed signs of life in a two assist performance in Columbus on June 22nd.

Bakary Soumare was acquired from Philadelphia in May when it was determined center back Arne Friedrich had played his last professional soccer game. Soumare has played in the back for all 630 of the last 630 minutes of Fire regular season play.

Then there's Mike Magee. Who needs El Magico when you've got Magic Man Chicago Style? Five goals and 2 assists in 6 games for the hometown hero Magee. He already leads the team in goals scored. By 3. And he's only be eligible to play in 35% of the Fire's MLS Regular Season games.

The Magee praise doesn't even count his U.S. Open Cup appearances. Magee has put a spring back in Chicago's step. There's a little swagger back on the table. For that, we must thank not only Magee but Jeff Larentowicz and the Fire front office for some smooth dealing. Confused? Allow me to explain.

Alternative History Not Good for the Chicago Fire

Back in January, around the eve of the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, the Columbus Crew were about to acquire Jeff Larentowicz in exchange for the rights to Robbie Rogers. It was essentially a done deal. It was going to happen.

Except Larentowicz didn't want to go to Columbus. He wanted to come here. Chicago deserves credit for building an environment that would attract such a veteran player to come here.

This little bit of fate turned out very well indeed. Larentowicz was shipped out with some allocation money, an international roster spot, and the No. 11 pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. You can argue the Fire missed out on Dillion Powers (a heavy top favorite for Rookie of the Year playing for the Rapids this year) but who knows how draft day goes without that trade. More importantly, the Larentowicz trade pushed the dominoes down one fork and prevented them from falling in another.

Because the Fire prevented Larentowicz going to the Crew for Rogers' rights, the Crew still had those rights to include in the Dominic Oduro for Dilly Duka swap. The Fire front office held their ground and got both Duka and Rogers' rights.

This blocked Columbus from trading Dilly Duka to Kansas City in a deal that involved at least one draft pick. In my opinion, that would have made Kansas City a better team right now (imagine Duka in a KC jersey) and it would have helped Columbus in the future (more young blood picked up in the draft). Since Duka appears to have a bright future with the Fire, KC isn't getting anything immediate and Oduro is on a sputtering Crew team, I consider this a huge win for Chicago.

Finally we get back to the rights to Robbie Rogers. Since the Fire acquired those rights (and not Colorado), Chicago had something substantial to offer the LA Galaxy when Rogers wanted to sign with his hometown team. Frank Klopas, Javier Leon, etc. requested Mike Magee come play for the city that plays where he was born. A hometown for hometown exchange of players. Again, the Chicago Fire front office should receive some major credit for working the inside of the league.

International Crisis

What's frustrating to see is all of that inner league savvy is potentially being put to waste due to an utter inability to work the international market.

The Chicago Fire can sign up to 8 players from almost anywhere in the world thanks to the international slots that are allotted to each MLS team every season. Teams can trade these slots among each other and that's just what they did in order to acquire Joel Lindpere (despite being born in Estonia, Lindpere carries a green card) and Jeff Larentowicz. In my opinion, it's fine to be down to 6 international slots if you are using two international slots to acquire players that will certainly be a part of the regular game day rotation that year. It's not a very exciting risk to take when you are talking about 30ish midfielders who don't score very often or create that many plays but it's a decent gamble. Many teams will take that new predictability and build off it to take risks elsewhere.

One such risk was convincing Arne Friedrich to return for another season at center back. When this happened last year, I celebrated. I don't know any Fire fan who didn't want to see this happen. We knew there was a risk for injury but it was risk well worth taking. Friedrich provided great quality in the back all season long. Unfortunately Friedrich was injured in preseason of this year and never even played a minute of the 2013 regular season. He recently announced his retirement from professional soccer. That move opened up his international slot.

[UPDATED] The Fire front office's domestic efforts deserve even more praise than I gave them at publishing time. I forgot that Arne Friedrich received his green card on January 21. The German never took up an international slot during the 2013 regular season. That's a big move and great work on the front office's part. Unfortunately, the great work has been fruitless up to this point because no one has been brought in to take advantage of the opportunity created.[UPDATED]

Brazilian midfielder Alex also stayed with the team after joining the Fire in 2012. He has been solid if not overly impressive in his 13 appearances and 6 starts this year. At the age of 24, he's still a bit of a prospect. The Fire hope he can become something more down the line. For those counting at home, we are up to 3 international slots currently being used by the Chicago Fire. Five international slots remain.

The technical staff has similar down-the-line hopes for Italian goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi. In what's becoming a theme, he was with the team in 2012. That season turned out all right but 2013 has been a nightmare. Tornaghi has given up 2 or more goals in all three of his starts and he has the 2nd highest Goals Against Average in all of MLS. At 25, he doesn't have the progression you would like to see from a player that could become a fixture in MLS for years to come. When Sean Johnson returns from CONCACAF Gold Cup play, Tornaghi will return to the bench but his international slot will stay occupied. Chicago could sign almost any player in the world with this slot and if the roster is at its most optimal performance, that slot is sitting idly on the bench every game.

In Tornaghi's defense, at least he makes the bench. With the 30th pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, the Fire selected Cameroon's Yazid Atouba. They could have picked one of hundreds of Americans in the draft and they picked someone who would take up an international slot. Atouba has had a Davis Paul like start to his Fire career, getting a couple of shots early on before getting relegated out of the Game Day 18 all together. The Cameroonian midfielder impressed in last night's exhibition vs. Club America but he primarily sits in club seats on game day.

I projected the man holding the Fire's 6th international slot, Sherjill MacDonald, to score 11 goals this year and play over 2,500 minutes based on his 2012 season. He majorly regressed and got fat with his limited, earlier success. MacDonald has 1 assist in 7 starts and 13 appearances in 2013. The Dutchman openly wondered when he is going to play again and doesn't care really. This is a disaster. It brings back shades of Collins John, another foreign striker who had questionable fitness and ended up flaking out. At least Collins John was not a designated player. The Fire can play up to 3 players from anywhere in the world that signed for any amount of money and they choose to go just slightly over the salary cap amount for regular players by signing Sherjill. The only designation for MacDonald now appears to be American Airlines, Row 4, Seat 3, One-Way ticket to AnywherebutChicagosville.

As noted earlier, Friedrich's retirement opened up an international slot for the Fire to use. Yesterday, they signed Jamaican left back Shaun Francis. There isn't anything wrong with signing Francis in a vacuum. Chicago has questionable options at left back this weekend against Montreal since starting LB Gonzalo Segares is suspended with yellow card accumulation. Francis has experience in MLS (28 appearances for Columbus between 2010 to 2012) at LB. Segares will return though and Francis will go back to the bench. The international slot goes there with him.

Overall


Name Mins Goals Assists
1 Alex 616 0 0
2 Yazid Atouba 55 0 0
3 Shaun Francis 0 0 0
4 Jeff Larentowicz* 1367 1 3
5 Joel Lindpere* 940 0 2
6 Sherjill MacDonald 579 0 1
7 Paolo Tornaghi 270 0 0
8 OPEN



International Totals
3827 1 6

Fire Team Totals 16830 19 21

International % 22.74% 5.26% 28.57%

*Acquired at least partly by the Fire trading away an international slot

To summarize, the Fire had 8 international slots for 2013 to sign almost any player in the world. One slot helped acquire Jeff Larentowicz and another acquired Joel Lindpere outright. Five remaining slots have been used on a backup GK, a backup left back, a backup midfielder, a midfielder who doesn't even make the 18, and a backup striker who is a designated player and doesn't care when he plays next.

Even if the Fire use the one open international slot to select a golden player (something that doesn't look likely at the moment), the Fire have completely underwhelmed in the international system. They look to have wasted away all the hard work they made wheeling and dealing within the league. Instead of using the international market to put the team over the top, the Fire have acquired players to hopefully prevent the Fire from completely bottoming out.

That's an absolute bone-headed strategy for the following reasons:

  • Domestic players stay in the league longer than internationals (think Logan Pause, Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro, Jon Busch, etc. vs. Sebastian Grazzini, Freddie Ljungberg, Omar Bravo, and Frank Rost).
  • International players have more talent and less restrictions to sign them vs. domestic players (think of the world pool of talent out there vs. the red tape surrounding Robbie Rogers and Mike Magee in the first place)
  • Getting the 4th/5th spot in the playoffs gives you less than a 10% chance at winning the MLS Cup on paper and you also get a lousy spot in the draft. If the Fire struggled this year, they would have a high draft pick and a high spot in the Allocation Order for 2014. Given the success the team has in identifying and acquiring domestic talent, a year of struggle might very well be something the team needs to rebuild greatness. That type of rebirth worked in Chicago post-1871...

Who exactly is to blame for the ineffective international strategy? It's hard to say. Publicly and privately the front office staff is quick to spread the responsibility for failures and quite admirably, the credit for all success.

It makes me wonder. Why does the team seem to be pretty good at evaluating domestic talent but they can't evaluate international players? Does that make sense? I've heard about the dangers of foreign fields but I'm pretty sure that doesn't apply here.

Maybe it's because domestic players already have their contracts worked out with MLS while contracts and dollar amounts on the open international market are more like the Wild West? Right now it appears to be the only thing holding the Fire back. If Arne Friedrich and Pavel Pardo can be acquired for non-designated player contracts, doesn't that suggest that the Fire front office can attract even better and younger players with major designated player contracts? Money does talk.

Throwing Success Away

The situation at hand reminds of a time I was at Enchanted Castle as a kid. I saw two young brothers playing Whack-A-Mole. The first brother nailed every mole in sight. He racked up a ton of points. Tickets poured out of this machine like the first time the Hoover Dam was turned on. The second brother was busy playing skee-ball and holding his own. The brothers, apparently welcoming a new challenge, switched in the middle of their games but the tickets stayed open.

The moles popped up in the new game and in one of the strangest things I've ever seen, the second brother wound up to swing his mallet... only to strike the side of the Whack-A-Mole machine.

He struck the side of it again. The moles stayed up. The machine emitted those insanely annoying mole chuckles. He struck the other side of the machine even harder. Somehow second brother thought that if you hit the machine anywhere, you would solve the problem.

Well by now a crowd formed. I joined in. We were all screaming at the boy to start hitting the moles on the head. Our non-united screams just caused panic and confusion for the poor fellow. There was no clear message.

"You have no idea how hard I'm trying!", yelled the boy.

Tickets started to roll back into the machine. It was horrifying as a child. I visualized the prize going from a stuffed bear to a plastic whistle. Terrible stuff.

When the game ended, the first brother returned and was absolutely furious. Understandably so I thought. He did all that hard work and used all his skill for a pitiful reward.

I imagine if there are Chicago Fire members of the front office that are in charge of international signings and then there are ones more involved in the domestic dealings, there has to be a first brother/second brother divide right now. I feel so sorry for the people who did such a good job only to get the equivalent of a plastic whistle.

Fortunately for the sometime-in-the-1980's-Enchanted-Castle-brothers, their mother came over after all the commotion. She looked at the tickets, looked at the prize booth, and must have thought about the idea of her kids running around the house with a new plastic whistle. She made the first brother teach the second brother how to play Whack-A-Mole properly. She then opened her wallet so the boys could get the plays and the tickets they needed. In the end, everyone was happy.

No one likes the mediocrity of the plastic whistle.

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