Opening on the road against the twice-defending champions is an interesting prospect. In any normal circumstance, the Fire would be given the Washington Generals treatment here, as the Galaxy open their quest for a three-peat at home on Sunday afternoon.
This is no kind of normal circumstance. David Beckham's moved on, of course, and there's the Dawson's Creek story-arc about Lando's soul-searching yet to fully resolve itself. The main additions so far this offseason in LA are mellow-life aficionado Carlo Cudicini in goal and rumors about his former teammate, Frank Lampard.
Which may sound promising - they're sliding backwards a little, we're getting better, right? What that means, to my mind, is that this LA group has played together a great deal in the last year-plus. They know each others' tendencies and runs. They know each others' weaknesses and have worked out how to anticipate or cover for them. That advantage will be heightened by the fact that this is the first game out of preseason.
Another exciting aspect of the opening game is that there is no tactics 'book' on either team. Sure, there's the preseason, but how likely is it we're going to see the Fire roll out in the bizarro 3-4-3 Frank favored for one of the games in Carolina? (Put your hand down - the answer is 'not likely.' Yes, I'll mark that you participated.) Bruce Arena, except for the odd change-up, is a 4-4-2 man; Our Mr. Klopas has favored the same formation for the vast majority of preseason.
Flexibility leverages brainpower
That's how I see this game playing out at a strategic level: An almost old-fashioned game of football, the teams in mirroring 4-4-2s, searching for answers in an ad hoc fashion. The players solving it on the fly, not trying to fashion some sort of meta-victory at the systemic, team-wide level. My best guess is a game of triumphantly pragmatic counter-punching. And that is where, as a Fire supporter, I've got my concerns.
It's not as if these managers - il Bruce and our FK - have just punted, full-stop, on the idea of using strategic thinking and systems to win soccer matches. Frank played most of last season in a hard-pressing 4-2-3-1, which is the very epitome of the modern system tactic. But the proliferation of tactics in the league make the rock-scissors-paper game less productive - at some level, one's commitment to, say, paper won't matter much if one's opponents notice the pattern and answer with 'scissors.'
The transactions this season, then, have blessed the Fire with a roster filled with flexible players, players whose ideas and inspiration are a significant part of the package they offer. Larentowicz, for instance, has been notable not only for his commanding physical presence in the middle of the pitch, but also for the astuteness of his late-arriving runs in the box and his ability to use space to launch absolute Howitzers from 30-40 yards out. Lindpere is another two-way player who, absent a tactical straightjacket, will utilize space all over the pitch. And so on.
The effect is as if - to use the metaphor I introduced in an earlier piece - we've gone with the bêchamel of formations precisely to leverage its incredible adaptability. Further, we've given the players a toolset of spices, cheeses and whatnot for them to take with them onto the field, trusting their judgment and sense of balance to make whatever sauce would work best in this situation. If the Galaxy give you broccoli, you give them a cheddar sauce, that type of thing.
It's not hard to spot the difficulty here: The soccer we hope the Fire are cooking is happening in real time, and everyone's got the spices. The pressure to desperately throw something in there (dammit, like now) grows and grows, and the confidence necessary to wait for the moment is something a group tends to develop, especially with success, over time. This group from LA has done a lot more cooking together than this group from Chicago. Ergo, worry.
Best-case scenario: Acid jazz
In a best-case scenario, the Fire demonstrate to new Galaxy captain Robbie Keane why pure strikers are not often captains - our new, tough-kid midfield, not threatened by 70-yard diagonals or lightning dribbling runs down the flanks, steps into Juninho, Sarvas and company and starves Keane of service. Our wide midfielders pitch into the possession game, pinching in or pulling out into space, reading spacing and making LA's less-than-nimble defenders think fast and change direction constantly. Rolfe and Mackie make triangles with everyone in a Chicago shirt at least once. We Fire are the cat in the cat-and-mouse mental game, provoking tension, waiting for the mistake, and pouncing.
One of the consistent questions of the preseason for Fire fans has been "Why Pause?" Surely we saw enough progression from Jalil Anibaba at right back last season, right? His crossing was getting better. His positioning was coming around. Why, then, sit the 23-year-old who was (putatively) blossoming in favor of a 30-year-old career midfielder?
It's in pondering the best-case scenario above that I think I found the answer. Stay with me here ...
The Fire are going with a different approach this year - an explicitly less-defined approach, explicitly to get the most out of what (we are hoping) is a team strength: Thinking tactically while playing. We hope to stay amorphous, to present no obviously exploitable shape; we wish to confuse the opposition into stasis, unsure where to strike us, unsure where our blow may fall. The lineup card says 4-4-2, but maybe it's more like 2-6-2 in possession sometimes, or 5-4-1 when we're falling back into space, or what have you; but the defining decisions will be made by the players on the field in the moment, not by the coaching staff in the week just past.
In building this hive-mind, then, which player is more valuable: the larger, faster inexperienced kid who's not shown a tremendous flair for the tactical side of the game, or the older, slower leader-type whose contributions (by all accounts) have always been weighted toward the mental - the guy who sees to the shape, who remembers all the scouting report even when dog-tired in the 85th minute? Seen in this light, the decision becomes (begging your pardon) a no-brainer.
Expect Pause and Segares not to play as wingbacks in this one; imagine instead they are oriented perhaps 30 degrees infield, playing to maintain possession and discourage simple balls to the wings. At the very least, Pause will not look to bomb forward like a winger, but will combine up and down the right flank, looking for triangles. If that comes off, the Galaxy are likely having a long day.
Distinct possibility: Stammering stalemate
Each worried by the cleverness and potential lethality of the other's strike force, Chicago and LA come out intending to invite the other to attack. Aimless long balls are easily corralled by the deep-lying defenses. Rolfe and Keane eventually get in the way of their respective deep-lying midfielders. Univision misses its postgame show when the producer dozes off in the truck. In this cat v. mouse scenario, the cat has gone missing, and the mice sit and tremble at each other.
The thing about bêchamel is, y'know, as a stand-alone sauce it's a damned good base, if you feel me. Balancing the pressure on the players to spice the thing up, to put their stamp on the game, is the fear of failure. Especially early in the season, it is easy for everyone - the players, the staff, the fans, everyone - to impart on results a sort of oracular quality: We did well, so we will do well; I screwed up, so I'm a screw-up. For less experienced players, or those in unfamiliar roles, the temptation will be to button it up, play simply and try to avoid screwing up.
Look to see how much gesturing and positioning talk there is amongst the teams - if they seem most concerned with keeping the sanctity of their two-banks-of-four shapes, then we could be in for a classic early-season stalemate - the kind of game that is settled by a surprising moment, if it is settled at all.
Disasterland: Put to the sword
All it takes is a moment's hesitation - and for a young centerback used to two screening defensive midfielders, now trying to cope with the movement of two forwards crafty as smugglers, the moment comes early and often. Juninho pops up everywhere, though usually just for a single touch, and the Fire midfield immediately suffers discipline problems from being just that half-step behind the game. Rolfe is reduced to snatching at half-volleys from 35 yards. Chicago immediately faces the precipice: Were all the changes wrong? Are we going the right direction? Are we the mouse?
It's the time-together thing, really. It is worrying. Man for man, I like our team over the one the Galaxy are going to put on the pitch Sunday. But the game is not played as a series of mano-a-mano contests; there are those glimmering moments, when one man's daring and skill can fashion a difference, but they are rare, and unpredictable, and I worry that the Galaxy's familiarity with each other, with the small differences in each others' games, will spell the difference. Can we group-think better than them? It's possible, especially given the emphasis we have seemingly given the problem; but to think it likely is hubris.