Late last week, the Fire's battle-hardened veteran skipper Logan Pause re-upped with the Men In Red for what will be his twelfth season. This ended a brief period of uncertainty when Pause was initially made available for selection in the re-entry draft before opting out of the second round. A consensus among Fire supporters greeted the news with relief, and for good reason: Pause lends a sure and steady hand in the Fire's defensive half of the pitch, keeping the midfield organized and the back line ready. But more than that, he's a stalwart presence in the dressing room- possessed of a calm and assured demeanor, he imparts a sense of continuity (along with a winning mentality, having two US Open Cup wins to his credit) and keeps the team disciplined and inspired. If you're new to the team, or fresh out of college or the academy, and training or a difficult game is leading you to want to give up, Logan pushes you to give One More.
Last season was a difficult one for the captain. Pause struggled with injuries for much of 2013, with a particularly bad knock picked up in the first half of a 2-1 away win against That Yellow [Expletive-Deleted] Team sidelining him for over a month. When he finally regained match fitness, he had lost his place in the Starting XI. Jeff Larentowicz - an MLS veteran halfway through his first season as a Man In Red - stepped up to handle both holding midfield and armband-wearing duties, a job he took up with a mix of humility and professionalism that did credit to the badge. Pause spent much of the rest of the season on the bench - sometimes staying there for the full 90 minutes - while relying on reserve matches to stay sharp. Yet he maintained a good attitude (not that any reasonable supporter would expect different) and did his level best to keep the dressing room together through some excruciatingly difficult weeks in the season.
And let's not kid ourselves- it got pretty bad. There were tough losses were the team had simply checked out. There were players who had given up. There were PR blunders by the club's front office. I certainly didn't envy Logan's job. This was a club that had a horrendous start, started to recover in the middle with the arrival of Magic Mike, but then slowly came off the rails again. There were points in the season where all I could do was yell "Who's in charge here?!" at the television or the Twitters.
And as painful as it is to contemplate - let alone put down in words - I'm not entirely convinced that Logan Pause is the one in charge anymore.
The Chicago Fire's 2013 season had a myriad of problems, but one, I feel, went under-reported: that the team had something of a John Terry situation developing. Which is to say, the club captain and the team captain started to become separate positions. The club captain sat on the bench- or lined up for the reserves- while a new team captain went out and tried to scrape together some points. For some clubs, this dynamic works out fine. I'm not sure this works for the Fire, however. I think the team needs one person to be The Guy, the one who keeps the team together on both ends of the tunnel. This is especially true this season, with a new coaching staff combining with expectations that aren't quite as managed as you would typically find in a transition year. I don't think the club can continue to have a split captaincy and expect either success on the pitch or cohesion on the training field next door.
Here are three solutions for the Armband Conundrum. Obviously, this list isn't comprehensive, and I'd love to hear your feedback for additions (or subtractions) in the comments, but this is my take.
This is my preferred solution. Logan's history of service to the club speaks for itself. Even incoming manager Frank Yallop knows the value he brings to the team, saying at a November press conference that "... he's been a fantastic servant to the club, and I don't take that lightly and I'm not just saying that. I think he's a good person, I've always liked him from afar coaching against him." With three months off to rest and recover, a new coaching team (which includes former teammate CJ Brown), and the vote of confidence that comes with a new contract, I think he has enough in the tank to give One More.
Pros: He has a long record of service, he's an established presence in the dressing room, and he knows how to hold a team together.
Cons: Can he stay healthy? And more to the point, can he still perform effectively? The Fire conceded 52 goals last season- and as a first-choice defensive midfielder for a good chunk of the campaign, he bears at least some responsibility. Yallop has stated that one of his main priorities this season is shoring up the defense. Logan's job right now is to convince Yallop that he's part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
The former Colorado man wore the armband in Pause's stead for most of the second half of last season, and he bore that responsibility with dignity and aplomb. He led the side through both fist-pumping wins and frustrating losses. He wasn't the most inspiring figure on the pitch, but he did a job and he did it well. The Fire could do much worse than to let the Ginja Ninja keep the armband.
Pros: He spent a significant part of the season doing the job anyway and did so convincingly. He's shown himself effective at advocating for the team following questionable referee decisions (of which there were plenty last season). And in a dressing room where tensions sometimes ran high, he remained cool as the other side of the pillow.
Cons: To be honest, I had some trouble thinking of one. So I took an informal poll of my Twitter friends. One Steve Sanders (@mtziongamer) replied that if he had to think of one, it would be that he's not overtly emotional. Which, as he pointed out, can be both good and bad. I'd have to say I agree. I'd also add something that isn't really Larentowicz' fault but is nonetheless something he has to contend with: the one defining quality in effective captains is experience, something which our Fearless Ginger has plenty of in the league but is still building at the club. Like searching for an entry level job, Larentowicz finds himself in a Catch 22: the best way to earn the armband is with experience, and the best way to earn experience is to do the job. Despite his many years in the league and his custodial duties of the captaincy last season, trusting him to lead the players on a permanent basis will take something of a leap of faith.
If Pause and Larentowicz are the de jure leaders of this team, Magee has quickly become the de facto leader. The recently-returned hometown hero and 2013 MLS MVP immediately and almost single-handedly turned the team's fortunes around, taking a squad that was muddling about in the basement of the Eastern Conference for the first few months of the campaign and dragging it - perhaps kicking and screaming - into playoff contention. While fans and observers will indelibly point to his production in front of goal as the catalyst for the Fire's turnaround, the players themselves talk about the passion he instills in the dressing room and on the pitch. He took the armband a few times throughout the season - usually following a substitution - but he led the team out of the tunnel for their disappointing away loss in New Jersey in the final game of the season.
Pros: "Wait, you mean he's not captain already?" But seriously- he's already a key emotional leader, and he backs up his presence and inspiration with stellar performances. The armband seems more than a natural fit.
Cons: There is defensible argument to be made that forwards shouldn't be captain, owing to the singularly-focused nature of their position. I don't buy it, but take it however you want. Other than that, I got nothin'.
Logan Pause was the captain when I migrated from casual fan to active supporter. He's still (nominally) the captain. I want that to remain the case. Like one of my other club's captain, I wish he could wear the armband forever. But he can't. And like Stevie G, the longer the difficult conversation is put off, the more it will end up hurting the team. I want Logan Pause to remain captain. I want him on the pitch, patrolling the midfield, reminding opposing attackers what happens when they come to Harlem Avenue thinking they can have it their way. I want him picking everyone up off the floor after a bad result. I want him putting freeloaders in their place. I want him teaching the new signings - especially the draftees and Homegrowns - what it really means to wear the badge. But if he can't do all of those things, then someone else has to step up.