While depth is certainly needed along the back line, the midfield picture could be quite different come opening day 2013. We know that Frank likes to employ 2 defensive midfielders, and he also likes to use set formations (much to many fans' frustrations at times this year). Different games, teams, and strategies call for different looks, so we need to be able to adapt and play the formation that gives us the best chance to win. However, the other part of the equation is having the personnel to do so.
Depending on how the cards fall, there could be a few personnel changes this offseason. With Frank out scouting and the draft looming, hopefully some of these issues will be resolved sooner rather than later. This will ideally allow us to get players in sooner rather than later. It has always been my belief that players who are able to get some training camp/pre-season time under their belts mesh with the team much quicker and perform better than joining the team as the season starts. The more time spent with a new club and new teammates when the games don't count, the better. With that being said, away we go...
Starters: Pavel Pardo, Logan Pause, Patrick Nyarko, Alvaro Fernandez, Chris Rolfe
Let's start with Pardo. We all know the talent and quality he brings to the Fire. To recap, he re-signed with the Fire for 2 more years back in January. MLS is of course very obscure about contracts and compensation, as well all know. While Pardo is not making a DP level salary, he is still being compensated well. And his level of play is still high, and as long as that continues and he wants to be in a Fire jersey, I want him here.
The problem with Pavel is age and health. When he is able to play, we don't have anyone close to his defensive midfield talents (as well as his offensive contributions). But, he is not getting any younger. We saw this last year as a few different injuries caused him to miss time. When he wasn't in the lineup, it really hurt that team, much like Grazzini's absence 2 years ago hurt because we didn't have anyone near as creative to step in. This becomes an even bigger problem when we are in a congested stretch of games, or a Wednesday-Saturday game week. This is when we really need people to be able to step in and give Pavel some rest. Being able to do this works as a preventative measure- rest before an injury happens due to overuse. We do have some players that can fill this role on the bench, and I will get into that when we look at substitutes.
Going on to Logan Pause, this is another player where we know what we are getting. He has been with the Fire a long time and as such, carries the added responsibility of the captain's armband. While he is not a loud, "Fire and Brimstone" type of leader, it's clear the team holds him in high regards. He works hard, doesn't complain regardless of the role he is asked to play, and is an example for the younger players. If he is doing his job, he is one of those guys that doesn't get his name mentioned a lot. Logan usually flies under the radar, and puts in a good, if unspectacular, 90 minutes.
Will he score that really flashy goal or slice the defense with a killer through ball? No. Will he get in the face of the opposing players and play the role of enforcer? No. While most people not familiar with the Fire are going to watch a Fire match and not take notice of him, he still has his value to the team. He will be back next year and that is a good thing I think. Logan isn't the fastest, strongest, or most agile. But he finds ways to do lots of things well enough to provide a valuable overall package. The Fire are at their best under Frank when 2 good DM's are out on the pitch. As long as we are careful with Pavel and have the right personnel to help out when he is injured or needs rest, then I am pretty content with this part of the midfield.
Moving to the offensive part of the midfield, Patrick Nyarko is the heart of the Fire. I don't care what anyone says, he is our most valuable player in my eyes. He works hard at all times. He tears up and down the wings. He tracks back well. he plays defense and creates turnovers. He creates lots of chances with his speed and ability to cut in from the wing. And he can even put in a goal or two. His value is evidenced by almost every other team's approach. Those of you that watched the NBA as I did as a kid (when the NBA was actually watchable and not a 3 hour long rap video) should recall the earlier Jordan era. This would be the late 80's and early 90's, just before they started winning titles. Michael Jordan was so far above the rest of the league, everyone was scrambling to find a way to stop him but couldn't. Well, the bad boy Pistons came up with the "Jordan Rules", and other teams followed suit. Basically, the plan was to physically beat Jordan all game. By the 2nd half, he would start to wear down from all the abuse. In turn, Jordan decided he needed to combat this by lifting weights and bulking up, which he did.
Getting back to Nyarko, I am not advocating that he bulks up with weights. My point with the above departure from soccer talk was to show that almost every team now is employing the "Nyarko Rules". All of us that watched Fire games this last year, especially in the 2nd half of the season, know what I am talking about. He was getting tripped, stepped on, kicked, elbowed, tackled, pushed, etc. You name it, he experienced it. As one of the most continually underrated players in MLS, teams know how dangerous he is. So they physically beat him up to try to intimidate and tire him out. Although Patty does not have a big, physical frame, the guy has endless heart and a seemingly infinite amount of energy. I don't care who you are a fan of, you can only have respect for a player like Nyarko.
Nyarko is one of those players that we should keep for as long as possible. Other than needing the occasional rest, he is a must for the Fire lineup. Imagine the attack with a Nyarko on both wings? That would be pretty incredible. Unfortunately this brings me to my look at our other winger...Flaco.
Alvaro Fernandez came to the Fire with much fanfare and hope. He has a pedigree of good play from his Seattle days. And the Fire didn't really have to give up much to get him. Seattle needed to clear a DP spot, and Flaco was falling out of favor. Sounded like a win/win, right? Unfortunately, we are seeing some of the reasons why Flaco was shipped out of Seattle. I do have to give credit to the Front Office for this move before I go further. It was a hell of a trade considering the player we were getting and what we had to give up. No one could have foreseen his precipitous drop in form.
So what is to be done? As I mentioned the other day, Adam Merges and I were discussing this via Twitter a couple of days ago. it is a real conundrum. Frank's job is to put the best XI available out on the pitch at any time, regardless of name, reputation, etc. But it's hard to justify a DP riding the bench. So the other option seems simple, right? If we don't think he can cut it in Chicago (and from what I have seen so far he can't), then let's just trade him, correct? I wish it were that simple. It's hard to trade a player that has such a low value right now. Imagine being Frank when trying to sell him to another team. What would you say when asked why Flaco can help my team? Exactly, you would probably say a lot of "umm's, ahhh's, and but's". Simply put we would have to take a loss most likely to clear him out of Chicago. And we have to weight that loss vs. the option of keeping him and trying to figure out a way to get him going.
Despite my personal feeling about Seattle, I don't hate the guy and I want him to succeed. But his turnovers, poor passing, mental checking out during games, and his missing of open nets is something that is not acceptable on the pitch. Yes, mistakes happen, but when they happen that regularly you go from being a commodity to being a cost and that's something we simply can't afford. If it had been only a handful of games then I would say give him more time. But he had more than enough time to adjust to his new team and shouldn't be struggling this mightily. He did have a couple of good games and had some bright spots but overall his time in Chicago has been mostly poor.
If we can upgrade at this position we need to I think. This is where Frank's skill comes into play. He has to know Flaco well enough to put his finger on what is wrong. Is he unhappy in Chicago? Was he nursing a hidden injury? Was he battling personal problems? Is his play just going downhill? The key here is why he had the dip in form. If Frank has a good idea what's wrong and thinks it's something he can deal with and help fix, then it may be worth a shot keeping him. If it's something unknown or not easily fixable, in my opinion we are better off looking elsewhere. For an offense struggling to score goals, we can't afford to have a winger out there massively under producing a large percentage of the time. The bad has far outweighed the good for Flaco as a member of the Fire.
And this brings me to Chris Rolfe. Not much to say here. While he should be listed solely with my forward analysis, we all know that he was forced into a midfield role for most of 2012. This is another guy that I want in Fire Red for as long as possible. He is our most dynamic player right now. He is also our most dangerous player, and we are again seeing this with opposing teams focusing on shutting down Rolfe late in the year. Unfortunately, it worked as the Fire offense ground to a halt late in the season, greatly contributing to our late crash in form.
One of the main priorities for me this off-season is to get a regular goal scorer up top next to Rolfe. I will address Sherjill in part 4 of my roster analysis. For now, it's clear that Rolfe needs help so teams can't just key on shutting him down. If we can get him freed up, he will hurt teams. Simple as that. But when he is being suffocated by the defense there isn't a lot he can do. And let's also get this out of the way too- the days of Rolfe being forced into the CAM role need to be over. He is a forward, simple as that. Playing him anyway else barring an injury crisis negates a lot of his value and is irresponsible in my opinion.
Backups: Alex, Corben Bone, Daniel Paladini, Victor Pineda, Wells Thompson, Mike Videira
Clearly the biggest question mark here is Alex. He is still young but had an up and down 2012 season. At times he looked like a young Grazzini. At other times, he struggled to make the impact that a CAM should. Right now he is not under a long term deal. The Fire will need to extend his contract if they are committed to him. In my opinion, we haven't seen enough of him yet. He hasn't had enough regular action to really adjust to the league yet. Yes, he did have a string of starts, but then he was relegated to the bench as the team searched for other options to get the offense going. I think he can be quite the talent for us, but we are going to have to commit to him. Which raises an interesting quandary.
Let's say Frank finds a dynamic CAM to bring in to the squad. We obviously can't and shouldn't say no to this. If this happens, we still need to re-sign Alex I think, even if he will be coming off the bench again. Alex hasn't shown me enough to trust him to run a sputtering offense in 2013, but it's too soon to give up on him. We need to find a legit CAM, and let Alex learn under him. Although this would curb Alex's development a bit (the more playing time, the better theory), it could help in the long run (much like Anibaba at CB). For me, our biggest need quite obviously is someone that can pull string in the CAM role. Alex I think can get there but is not ready yet. He is a good commodity to hold on to and I want to see Frank do this.
Heading on to Corben Bone, this is another decision that needs to be made sooner rather than later. There isn't room for him clearly, so he should have the chance to go elsewhere and prove himself and get playing time. With his Generation Adidas (GA) status running out, he is a pretty pricey option to have on the team just to play reserve games. I don't have anything against him, but at the same time we could use all that money we are paying him on other signings. If I was Frank, I would thank him for his time, wish him the best of luck, and give him the opportunity for greener pastures.
Daniel Paladini I am a fan of. He can provide depth at DM (albeit not at the level of a Logan Pause or Pavel Pardo). He can also contribute offensively, but he has a penchant for errant 30 yard shots off goal. He is nice to have on the team because of his grit, tenacity, toughness, and not backing down from anyone attitude. He was able to fill in when Logan and Pavel were hurt, and he is an important commodity to bring back in my opinion. He also provides a good locker room presence and example for the younger players. He will continue to be a valuable player for the Fire to have in the fold in 2013.
I really can't say much about Victor Pineda because his time is yet to come. Although many of us expected him to see some late season minutes, the team was in a playoff fight for their lives the last few games. While it would have been nice to get him some experience in an atmosphere like that, it simply couldn't be risked. That's not to say Victor wouldn't have done well. But asking such a young player to spend his first official MLS minutes in a playoff dogfight is a bit much. We definitely should see him to start next season coming off the bench. A good pre-season would boost Pineda's argument for first team minutes even more. And the offensive contributions would be very welcome in the sometimes anemic Fire offense. His time has not yet come, but it is imminent and I can't wait to see what he can do. He could truly be quite a game changer if he can fulfill all his potential.
Wells Thompson is good at the role he occupies on the current team. And that is pure depth and injury coverage. In no way is he a starting XI player with our current squad. But when we need to rest a body or need a late game sub (or to help hold down a lead), it's nice to have Wells there to help. He has a reputation for being a rough, tough, hard nosed player (even a reputation as a "dirty" player to some fans). His veteran presence and experience is of value, but I don't see him as an integral part of the 2013 team. If he is on the team, i won't complain. But if we have a chance to upgrade our depth with someone better, then that should be the way we go.
Finally, that brings us to Mike Videira. When I hear his name, I think "Meh". Yes, he can be plugged into the DM role or even a back line role in a pinch, so that alone has some value. He has shown good play when he has had very brief looks, but he falls into the same category as Wells for me. If he's on the team next year, great. If not, that's ok too. He's not making a lot but I think we can do better than him in the depth department. He has hung around for awhile so is doing something right, but personally I have never been that impressed with his play.
Well, there you have it folks. CAM and Winger are the 2 big areas of need in the midfield this off-season. If we can fill both of those, and make sure we extend Alex, I will consider it a pretty successful off-season. While most people will equate offensive punch with a top tier striker, CAM and Winger can contribute just as much. In fact, imagine the team with an in form Flaco and a CAM like Grazzini. That would have been a pretty scary offense, huh? While you don't just go kick over a stone and find a pacy winger or a marionette-like CAM, it's time for Frank to earn his pay and bring in what we need.
He should do whatever he needs to move Flaco and bring in someone else. Frank has shown creativity in acquiring players at times, so I am sure he is exploring all the options. With our Atletico link strengthening I want to see us start using it to acquire players. We have looked towards South America recently in player acquisitions. While we should continue to scout there, the Atletico link should help us break into the European market. I also think there is value in divisions like the lower Dutch and French divisions as well. If we expand our horizons in terms of foreign player recruitment, we could really make this team a force in 2013. While a chunk of our returning midfield is set, there is a lot of work yet to do on the key positions listed above.
It seems there might be a bit of confusion about formations I discussed. Just to clarify, when I stated that the Fire were best last year with a 2 DM formation, I believe that was true. Given the personnel we had, our best chance was to play 2 DM's and hope to poach a goal or two. While the offense did start to roll for that 8 or so game stretch, overall the offense was very inconsistent during the season. I think the time has come to look at going to a 1 DM look and focus on the offense more. Something needs to be improved obviously as evidenced by our early exit.