…football is a capricious game. There is always more failure than success and its successes are either ephemeral or uncontrollable. In the end the belly requires more than trophies and ecstasy." – David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer
Not long after the acquisitions of Mike Magee and Bakary Soumare and a win over DC United, I wrote a piece stating it was ok to be optimistic. Sure enough the men in red earned 13 of a possible 15 points in June and advanced past Orlando City SC in the Quarterfinals of the U.S Open Cup. July brought a less impressive 7 of 15 possible points in the standings and understandably, pessimism crept back in from some of the Fire faithful.
Criticism: A very popular criticism that came to the forefront once again was management’s ineffectiveness in the area of acquiring quality Designated Players. Long term, this is, and will continue to be an issue until it is addressed. The perspective that gets lost with this criticism is, that during the season, nothing can be done about past signings (with the exception of MacDonald - just get rid of the guy already). They are just that: in the past. If Nery Castillo somehow worked out and was a phenomenal player, there would have been no guarantee that he would still be playing in Chicago today – none. With that said, the two players mentioned above (and other DP signings) were all met with their share of fanfare and delight. Heck, at the end of last season, fans were licking their chops at the prospect of MacDonald playing a full season with the Fire. I don’t think anyone from Andrew Hauptman to Frank Klopas, to the groundskeeper to me or you were anticipating him showing up fat and out of shape. Well, couldn’t the front office have sent out a trainer or a coach to keep tabs on their prized signing and make sure he was staying fit? Please. Sherjill MacDonald – whether you love him or hate him – is a grown ass man. It was his responsibility to keep himself in shape.
Optimism: The Fire have acquired Arevalo Rios from Palermo of Serie B in Italy. Admit it. This move excites you. That beating in your chest when you watch his YouTube highlight reel as he dispossesses an opponent or threads a pass to his forward, that beating signifies your optimism. He was playing in Italy’s top division and has been a central piece in Uruguay’s national team set up. He might not be the attacking mind in midfield many of us were hoping for, but the scouting report and various video footage shows he can go box to box. Most importantly it seems like Rios wants to be in Chicago. According to a club official it took the Fire nearly two years to finally gain Pavel Pardo’s signature in 2011. He would then eventually sell Arne Friedrich on how great it was to play in Chicago, and there isn’t a single doubt that some of that spiel trickled down to Rios. It’s clear that due diligence in this acquisition has been done. Extra props to coach Leo Percovich on this one. The marriage seems perfect at the moment. Only Rios (or to an extent Frank Klopas) can screw this up. Then we can throw on our trusted Captain Hindsight costume, and say it was a terrible deal from the start.
The negative evaluations of past designated player signings is warranted and just, but this Rios move might be what turns the tide. Many of you want to see heads roll in the front office. I get it. Accountability normally comes quick in the world of pro sports. What I got around to thinking was, you often don’t see this in sports anymore. "This" being a coach and/or a GM getting a vast amount of time to build something from the ground up. If the Rios acquisition ends up a dud, there must be changes in management both at the coaching and front office level. But why think that way? We have Arevalo freakin Rios. Let’s be optimistic.
Criticism: A recent piece by Tweed Thornton shined a light on the Fire’s Homegrown Player situation. In summation: it’s rather puzzling. Victor Pineda and Kellen Gulley receive zero playing time. The Fire have neither been basement dwellers nor Supporter’s Shield contenders the last couple seasons which creates a need to constantly put out the best side. That doesn’t change the fact that Pineda is now in his fourth season under contract and has yet to sniff the field. Critics will recently point to the Montreal Impact waiving LB Dennis Iapichino to make room for Homegrown Players they’d like to give more playing time to along the backline. That’s a club that’s been at or near the top of the standings for the entire season. If they can afford to play some of the youngsters, so can the Fire.
Optimism: At least we aren’t San Jose? No, really, this criticism is pretty legitimate. It’s in the control of the coaching staff now as opposed to the failed DP signings. Is Klopas entirely to blame for not playing Pineda or Gulley? Was it upper management that told him to stick with the same 13-14 players every week? Doubtful. I think being a fringe playoff team has put more pressure on the gaffer to play his best men. Gulley, as Tweed had mentioned, has barely played for Atlanta on loan in the NASL this season. He might just simply be the equivalent of a Single-A pitcher who blows away batters only to hit a wall when he graduates to Double-A. Although many fans expected it this year, the Fire will see the benefit of Homegrown Players and the cap relief they bring, especially when it comes time to extend Mike Magee’s deal. It’s only a matter of time before Pineda, or a new home grown signing will find their way onto the field at Toyota Park. It has to happen in order to keep key players under contract. Let’s be optimistic.
Part of what we all love about this game is the passion and love a fan base has for its team. There is an undying, unwavering desire from fans for their club to be successful and respected. Sometimes that passion plays tricks on you. You compare the team you root for to more successful teams and you emphasize the shortcomings and lack of success, rather than merely giving credit to the likes of Seattle, Los Angeles, Kansas City and Salt Lake to name a few. There will always be an upper echelon of clubs at any given time. They will all go through their peaks and valleys much like Yankees, Red Wings, Patriots and Lakers all do. It’s time for us Fire fans to put in perspective that the club hasn’t won the league in two decades. MLS has since grown and competition is more than stiff. It goes back beyond the days of Andell Holdings. If me or you or any other sane person purchased a sports franchise for $35 million we’d be doing everything in our power not just for a return on investment, but for sustained success for as long as humanly possible.
With the moves made this season I’m not only hoping for a playoff berth, I’m expecting it. None of this "backing into the playoffs" nonsense either. When the holiday season rolls around I’ll admire the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 from afar, but I won’t bite. I’ll remind myself I have season tickets to renew. I’ll remind two of my friends that they told me they’ll also be buying season tickets. It’s because at some point this season we saw something on the field that made us believe. There’s a vision this club has and it finally began to take shape with Larentowicz, Duka, Magee, and now Anangono and Rios. I feel it’s just the tip of the iceberg and that more will be done in the coming months to quell the fears and concerns of many caring fans. Perhaps it’ll be another successful Designated Player signings in the offseason, more Homegrown Players, or maybe expanded communication and transparency between management and the fans.
There’s a game in Massachusetts coming up this Saturday, and artificial turf be damned, I smell 3 points! After all there will be 11 players (plus 3) that will be ready to play their asses off because they have playoffs to qualify for. They’re optimistic. I’m optimistic. Are you?