Now that the Fire's season has unfortunately ended prematurely, the news mill also slows down. All of us here at HTIOT will strive to have regular posts up but sometimes there are periods where there just isn't much to report related to Fire news. During periods like this, doing some roster analysis/debate can help fill the gaps. Plus, I thought now would be a good time to take a look at the team we have and the holes we need to fill this offseason.
Personally, I think this is a huge offseason for us in terms of what sort of direction the club will continue to take. Frank knows what we need, and he needs to fill these holes, add some depth, and take the club to the next level of being a very serious contender. As Frank continues to evolve as a coach, he also needs to evolve his techniques and make changes where necessary to take us to the promised land. A good way to get a grip on what is needed is to look at what we have and what we need, which is what I plan to do in this multi-part series.
I am starting from the front to the back, with goalkeeping followed by midfield, forward, bench, coaching, and ownership. I think this will give a complete picture of the state we are in heading into this winter, as well as the upcoming MLS Superdraft. Enjoy the series, and feel free to join in with your own comments.
Starter: Sean Johnson
Ok, this one is glaringly obvious. As long as Sean is in a Chicago Fire jersey, he is the starter. After struggling early in 2011 and seeing the bench, Sean has come back and has been progressing nicely. He overcame an even bigger blow in Olympic qualifying earlier this year to once again rise above the ashes, so to speak and get back in his groove. Going through hard times like this early in his career (and overcoming them) can only help his growth and progress, and Sean is already displaying this.
Yes, he still makes mistakes. Yes, there will be growing pains. As I have said numerous times, show me a 23 year old GK that doesn't make mistakes, and I will show you a leprechaun. We will both be disappointed because neither one exists. Young keepers will make mistakes and have growing pains. That is just how it is. I just ask that people keep in mind the fact that Sean has an incredibly high ceiling but is also still learning the game. I would put him in the top 2 in terms of athletic ability in MLS with Bill Hamid. In fact, I think Sean could compete with goalkeepers the world over in terms of raw athletic ability.
With the above being said, Sean can get better and needs to improve some aspects of his game. One glaring weakness is his distribution, especially on free kicks. Too many times the ball is kicked directly to the other team or kicked out of play. While he has improved a bit after his training stint with Everton in the winter of 2011, ball distribution remains one of the biggest parts of Sean's game that needs improvement.
The other major skill I want Sean to improve upon is still his bossing of the box, so to speak. Again, he has improved his decision making from last year in terms of coming off his line vs. staying back, etc. But, he still has some work to do. He was caught off his line when he shouldn't have been more than a few times this year. He also would punch the ball when he should have caught it (possibly causing dangerous rebounds), and vice-versa. The best medicine to improve on these skills, as with anything, is experience. If Sean can continue to improve his decision making in the box, a lot of those cheap goals we have given up this year and last should disappear in large numbers. This is a skil Sean must get better at.
Now that I have brought some of his issues up, we need to look at some of the strong points too. He is good at communication and organizing the backline. He helped solidify a backline that featured a CB playing out of position at RB. He also helped integrate Rookie of the Year favorite Austin Berry alongside a German International looking to come back from injuries and extend his career a bit longer. He also had the services of the veteran Gonzalo Segares. I think Sean did a fine job with the backline considering his young age.
Sean has shown maturity for his young age, and can make saves almost no other GK can make due to his athletic acumen. He has the ability to put the team on his back when needed (watch the highlights of the SJ game from this year). I truly do believe that Sean can take us to an MLS Cup win with an improved team around him. If he keeps up his progression the question becomes how long is it before Europe comes calling?
Sean's contract is coming up and I think it is a top priority to get him resigned for as long as we can. I am sure most teams would take Sean in a heartbeat. We already let one great GK in Jon Busch get away needlessly. I don't want to see it happen again. Until Sean departs for Europe (if and when that happens), he should be in a Fire jersey. The mental toughness and effort he has shown the past year and a half is something that helps embody the badge every time he pulls on his jersey.
Backups: Paolo Tornaghi and Jay Nolly
I don't have nearly the in depth look at these two that I did for Sean. They round out the GK triumvirate for the Fire, and I think we sit in pretty good shape with these guys on the club. In Nolly's case, you know what you are getting. I will admit I am not as familiar with him in his time before the Fire. He is a veteran, solid keeper. You won't see the spectacular, athletic plays from him like Sean, but that's not his role. He is there for depth, experience, and mentoring for the younger guys.
I have no problem with him coming back as the #3 GK for the Fire. He provides good cover for the Fire should an injury happen to SJ in MLS or International play (or Tornaghi in reserve matches for that matter). Remember, Sean will be too old to play for the U23 US squad, so he may be more available to the Fire next year even as he continues to get tabbed by Jurgen Klinsmann for USMNT appearances.
In the case of Paolo Tornaghi, that's a tougher nut to crack. I say that because we just don't have a lot to go off of. Paolo looked good during the preseason, as well as reserve matches. He also played very well the first few games of the year when he started in my opinion. To move to a new country, new club, and make some starts right off the bat is quite the tall task to handle. Tornaghi did as well as he could do given the circumstances and he showed some real promise.
In the short glimpses I had of him, Paolo distributed the ball well, seemed athletic, and also capable given his young age. The fact that he went through the Inter youth system also speaks volumes. My question becomes how long he will be here as the backup, especially given the fact that the club was confident enough in him to give an International Spot to Paolo. You don't often see that with backup GK's. The pedigree is there in my eyes. There just isn't room for him with Sean at the top.
If Sean were out of the picture, I would absolutely like to see what Paolo could do over the long term. I think he could develop into a great MLS keeper, judging off the small sample size I have seen. But, Sean is the main so I have to wonder what Tornaghi's future is with the Fire. I would love to see him stick around, but he is young so being a backup for the next 2-3 years may not be ideal for him. It's possible we could trade him too and bring in a serviceable, solid backup. Here's to hoping he stays but I won't be shocked if he doesn't.
This is clearly a position that is set this offseason. Especially if Paolo and Nolly stay, there is nothing that needs to be changed or fortified. Right now, GK is the most stable of our positions and I will drink to that. This isn't the case for some of the teams with GK messes out there.
Keep and eye of for Part 2, which will focus on defenders. This should hit late this week or early next week.