Frank Yallop has talked, from the first time he spoke as a Chicago Fire manager, about his desire to improve the defensive side of the squad. He spoke about it frequently in preseason. He speaks about it virtually every week after games. It's a constant drumbeat: Defense, defense, defense; we've gotta figure out the defense.
And it's not just been talk - he shipped out the two youngest, cheapest starters from last year's unit for older, more expensive replacements (that's Jalil Anibaba-for-Hurtado-and-Ianni, if you're keeping score at home) and the allocation money needed to fit them under the cap (Austin Berry to Philadelphia). He dealt a draft pick for more depth on the left (Greg Cochrane from LA). And he signed a tough-as-nails journeyman to fill the Anibaba-shaped hole at right back (Lovel Palmer).
It's no wonder he's focused so closely on the defense. The Fire have been among the more productive offensive teams in MLS since Mike Magee pulled on the badge last May, but their goals-against-average in 2013 was a club-record 1.74 per game.
Put simply, it hasn't worked. This year, through 11 games, the Fire's goals-against is 1.73. That's right: We traded young two stalwarts, swapped a draft pick for depth on the flank, and signed a 31-year-old journeyman all to shave a magical one-hundredth of a goal off that number. To be fair, Yallop's contract is for three years, which means 102 league matches; perhaps his foresight is good enough that he knows saving one goal over that span will make the difference. Or maybe, just maybe, it hasn't worked.
It's frustrating to us watching, certainly, and it seems frustrating to everyone in the locker room, too. But is it really that unusual? Defensive performances are as much mental as physical; the best defenders in the world can be had if their communication isn't sharp and they don't work within the framework of the team's shape. Stability and repetition are the only ways to build those characteristics, and the Fire's influx of new talent on the team's back end virtually guarantees missed assignments and miscommunication.
A glance at the league table tells the same story. As bad as the Men in Red's defensive outcomes have been so far, there are several teams who've given up even more goals than the Fire. Virtually every one of them have made serious changes to their defensive group, for various reasons:
- Philadelphia has coughed up 24 goals. Jeff Parke pushed the eject button in the offseason, which opened up a starting slot into which (it was presumed) Berry would slide - but instead John Hackworth has left injury-plagued Berry on the bench in favor of trying rookie forward Aaron Wheeler at the position. At least, until Wheeler started coughing up a penalty a game and played his way out of the lineup. Now Berry's injured; career flank defender Sheanon Williams started in the middle against Los Angeles, to hilarious effect.
- Houston, traditionally a nightmare to break down, has also given up 24 goals. Bobby Boswell was allowed to walk in the offseason, but the other three-quarters of the group remains. The biggest culprit here seems to be Ricardo Clark's struggle with concussion symptoms - without Boswell's leadership and Clark's cynical fouling rangy screening from deep midfield, the Dynamo have been exposed on the break repeatedly.
- Montreal is a dumpster fire, and our 1-1 draw against l'Impact is looking more and more shameful. It's hard to know where to start with Klopas' bunch, and so I'm not gonna. They're bad for a whole lot of reasons, including, possibly, their best players tanking games to get Frankie canned.
- New York added Jamison Olave, then paired him with La Liga veteran Armando - but to say the two haven't meshed is an understatement. Kosuke Kimura is keeping Richard Eckersley on the bench; Kimura was the right back whose dithering on the ball led to the final goal of Harry Shipp's hat trick when we visited town.
- Dallas got its annual "I'm not gonna be here much" sick-note from George John, and registered its annual shock and dismay. Matt Hedges has instead paired with one-man physical comedy act Stephen Keel most of the time. On the flanks, Zach Lloyd has not returned to form after working back from injury, and Jair Benitez is, what, 50? Michel serves up a lovely set piece for a defender, and he needs to, as training cones are as effective without the ball.
- Portland's tradition of finding, then discarding, international defenders continues apace, with Norberto Papparato the latest jewel in the circular file. They've got Jack Jewsbury playing on one flank - Jack Jewsbury! And their centerback combo of Pah Modou Kah and Futty Danso clearly wins the International Centerback Name Cup, but seems unlikely to win much else.
- Even Seattle is struggling to keep clean sheets. I mean, they're trying to outscore everyone, which makes sense given the makeup of their roster, but Djimi Traore's groin problems and DeAndre Yedlin's still-emerging defensive understanding have unsettled the lineup.
In short, we aren't the only team struggling defensively in MLS this year. Yallop and gang still have plenty of work to do, but they've got a lot of company. I'm not saying we shouldn't be frustrated and worried for the rest of the season; just that, in that regard, we have the cold comfort of knowing others are feeling it, too.