I am an optimist by nature- ok, no. If my wife were to read this, she would tell you that is a complete falsehood, because in truth, I am a worrier. I always plan for the worst outcome, and fret over the small things I can't change.
So I don't get called out on my hypocrisy, I will revise my statement - when it comes to sports teams that I follow, I tend to be an optimist. I always expect the best out of every situation, trade and team decision that a franchise I love makes. It might be the very definition of insanity to have this fan perspective. Maybe it's my insanity, or maybe it's a true change in the way business is done in Bridgeview, but I am starting to grow more and more optimistic about the 2014 Chicago Fire season.
The beginning of the 2013 Chicago Fire season knocked the stuffing out of my typical sports optimism. After painful early-season losses to New England and the two L.A. teams, the offseason acquisitions that once had me optimistic left me filled with negativity. The exploits of Mike Magee, pushing the Fire within a breath of the playoffs, rekindled my typical good faith, only to have a season-ending loss to New York send my faith reeling into the depths of despair.
Since the end of the season, the despair has begun to lift. Following Frank Yallop's hiring as the new Head Coach and Director of Soccer Operations, Hot Time held an Off Season Roundtable Discussion where I labeled myself cautiously optimistic. As I write this, I am ready to remove "cautiously" from that statement.
Why, you might ask? The Fire have certainly not made a major acquisition that's sure to turn the tide of last season. No Designated Player has been brought in to provide the Fire with the hammer we need to crush our opponents. The Fire have not done anything to suggest they are ready to spend "Keane like money" in the open market to make the Fire an elite MLS club. There have been no savvy signings or trades to provide the Fire with the boost they need to make them a sure playoff contender in the East. For me, Frank Yallop has been the difference to change my optimism. He has inspired confidence in me that he is capable of making changes to right the ship.
I have heard the criticisms on Twitter that Frank Yallop speaks well and holds a strong press conference (which he clearly does), but he has not yet shown actions that suggest a change from business as usual. These same criticisms suggest that Andrew Hauptman will never allow the changes Fire fans want so desperately to see take place. There is definitely a place for this level of skepticism. As fans, we have been hurt before, and we do not want to leave ourselves open to be hurt again. Other are taking the conservative wait-and-see approach, which seems reasonable.
I, however, am ready to go all in. I would argue that since taking the wheel, Yallop has not only inspired confidence from his straight talk and accessible communications, he has also demonstrated the ability to make the tough decisions early on. In the MLS, there is a tight salary cap structure that must be navigated by every club in the league. Salaries cannot be unlimited no matter what a player's value to a club is, so consequently each club needs to make tough decisions in order to put the best players on the pitch each week. In order to do that, any person in charge of player acquisitions has to put aside sentimentality. Declining options on fan-favorite players like Daniel Paladini, Chris Rolfe and Logan Pause are not easy decisions. These are players that inspire loyalty in the Chicago Fire fan base, and in many ways are part of the club's history and culture.
However, each was the correct decision, and Yallop made them without flinching. Luckily, Rolfe is coming back on a reduced salary, and I would be shocked not to see Logan Pause on the bench in 2014. Daniel we will watch attempting to score goals against us for the Columbus Crew. It is also painful to see players such as Corben Bone and Michael Videira depart on declined contract options without ever getting a real shot with the club. Under Frank Klopas, these decisions seemed to be about loyalty without trust. Why hold onto players and keep them around if you do not have enough trust to put them on the pitch? Yallop seems to be willing to give these players the opportunity for a new beginning elsewhere while indicating to the Chicago Fire community that a new beginning is upon us.
Even the coaching choices that Frank Yallop has made since taking control have inspired confidence in me. Yallop swiftly signaled that he would not be continuing business as usually when he shook loose most of the coaching staff and later Vice-President of Soccer Operations Guillermo Petrei. Yallop's cuts to the coaching staff demonstrate a willingness to take an entirely new approach and signal to me that true change has come.
The two high-profile coaching decisions that Yallop has made since taking control, hiring Brian Bliss and C.J. Brown, have also inspired my confidence in the direction of the club. Klopas left the Fire as a Ring of Fire member and an important name in club history. Yallop, in his wisdom, recognized the importance of tradition and honor in the CF97 community and made a shrewd decision when he brought in C.J. Brown as his Assistant Coach. Brown is much-loved in the Chicago Fire community and has experience on the coaching team for Real Salt Lake, a very successful club. Not only do I have faith in Brown's talents - particularly his ability to straighten out the back line - his return to Chicago is great for public relations with a frustrated fan base.
Brian Bliss coming in as Technical Director is also was a strong move by Yallop that raises my confidence level. Bliss, who is poised to be Yallop's right hand man, has experience with the Columbus Crew and has demonstrated an ability to sign dangerous players. Judging from Twitter and the response from fans, these two coaching moves are widely applauded and strengthen my perspective that change is in the works.
Yallop's one significant player acquisition since taking control of the Fire was also a solid decision. In 2013, the Chicago Fire had little to no depth to the back line. Bringing in a player like Lovel Palmer is a small move, but he provides depth at multiple positions and experience that the Fire is lacking in the defensive line. This is an example of a smart decision to fill a need, rather than wasteful spending on players who are not equipped for the physical style of play of MLS.
With each move Yallop makes, I feel more and more excited for 2014. Without a doubt, Yallop has experience winning with both San Jose and LA. I have faith that he will find similar success in Chicago. At the beginning of the offseason I was happy for the change in leadership, but skeptical there would be a dramatic change in the business approach for the Fire. Now, I am convinced.
Some might argue I have given in to Yallop's smooth talking - which was something the Fire lacked under Klopas and company. Perhaps wiser fans than I are still waiting to see actual change happen before getting excited. I, for one, feel true change is in the works. Though the rebuild might take a couple of years, I have faith in the wisdom of Frank Yallop to lead the Chicago Fire to a better future.