Alright, it's time to get serious. It's 2014, y'all. It's time the Chicago Fire won some trophies again. So how is this going to happen?
We've already gotten some aspects of new head coach Frank Yallop's plan from the man himself at the town hall meeting for season-ticket holders..
He's said that the roster is "solid" and that the team "is not far from being a serious contender."
He's said getting the defense sorted out after a terrible 2013 is a priority.
He's said that the club is looking to acquire another keeper, as he expects Sean Johnson to go to the World Cup.
He's said that he's looking for an attacking midfielder "to play off (Mike) Magee and (Patrick) Nyarko."
He's also said that he strongly prefers playing from a 4-4-2, feeling that it gives the team a stable base from which to build.
Taking those statements at face value, let's turn to the current roster. Below I sketch a two-deep roster chart, trying to get a sense for the positions where the Fire need to invest and those where they've got plenty of quality. The results are a little surprising: The club is solidly two-deep in only a couple of positions - right back and striker - while positions which last season were log-jams (central midfield) now could potentially use some bolstering. Yes, there are Homegrown signings in the offing, and yes, the SuperDraft still hasn't happened, but here's the two-deep roster as it stands today:
Preseason Chicago Fire two-deep lineup (4-4-2) as of Jan. 7. (Format is POSITION: Starter / Backup)
GK: Sean Johnson / Alec Kann?
LB: Gonzalo Segares / ?
CB: Bakary Soumare / Hunter Jumper
CB: Austin Berry / Stephen Kinney?
RB: Jalil Anibaba / Lovel Palmer
CM: Jeff Larentowicz / (Chris Ritter?)
CM: Alex / Victor Pineda?
LM: Dilly Duka / Yazid Atouba?
RM: Patrick Nyarko / Chris Rolfe
ST: Juan Luis Anangono / Quincy Amarikwa
ST: Mike Magee / (Harrison Shipp?)
Italics and a question mark mean the backup is unproven in the role; parentheses means the Fire haven't even acquired these potential Homegrown players yet. I've avoided putting players in two positions; Chris Rolfe, for example, likely starts the season as the first backup at either striker position, at right wing for Nyarko, and possibly on the left wing for Dilly Duka.
Of course, none of this factors for Yallop's talent evaluation. Everything changes when the coach actually gets on the field with his players - no two people see players identically. It's just possible that, taking the example above, the new coach watches Rolfe for a while in the preseason and decides he wants more bite from a midfielder. Or that one of the Homegrowns makes a case for starting from the opening whistle. What we're doing here is speculative, not definitive - picture this post as the whiteboard in our Hot Time office. We can, and will, erase and juggle the names listed above.
That said, where are the Fire in good shape? And where are they hurting? Some in that list leap right off the screen:
Trouble Spot: Left back
I have to admit that Gonzalo Segares is one of my favorites in the current squad, a true left back in a league filled to bursting with failed wingers - but he's 31, playing at one of the most demanding positions in the modern game, and he has exactly no one behind him pushing for minutes. Heck, there's not even a warm body to offer as ‘Zalo's backup - the club cut ties with Shaun Francis after a single 90-minute stint, and Hunter Jumper's left-footedness doesn't change the fact that he's a centerback. Segares may have had a slightly down year in 2013, but most players will when they know beyond a shadow of a doubt there is absolutely no one who can take their minutes away.
The Fire need a left back who will push Sega for playing time, and whom Sega can tutor in the finer arts of playing on the defensive wing. The Costa Rican has a lifetime of experience to share with someone - but who? This is probably the thinnest position in MLS, in terms of both top-end quality and depth; dealing within the league would carry a high premium. Meaning there's a couple options: Draft a project (Ben Sweat comes to mind) and let Sega work with him, or go shopping overseas for a player looking to break through. This position is probably the team's top concern at the moment.
Trouble Spot: Center back
The center of defense is always going to get scrutiny when the club gives up a record number of goals, which the Fire did in 2013 (52 in 34 games). It's hard to fault the work ethic or athleticism of either starter, but neither Berry nor Soumare has shown either ability or desire to be the person who organizes the defense, and neither seems comfortable with the ball at their feet. Jumper's limited minutes didn't hint at any organizational skills hiding in his portfolio, either, and Kinney is listed with a question mark, simply because he's been healthy about five of the last 30 months.
Could the Fire draft help here? In the SB Nation mock draft, I bypassed left backs to draft centerback Grant Van De Casteele from Notre Dame, further opining that he could be the organizer our rugged, aggressive starters need alongside. But is he? These kinds of finds are where a scouting organization really gets a reputation - if they can dig up a guy whose communication and awareness get the most out of Berry, it would be a massive find.
Trouble Spot: Center midfield
Seriously? Didn't we have, like, 18 central midfielders on the roster last year? Well, sorta, but most of them are going. We didn't renew with Egidio Arevalo Rios, who's off to Mexico; we traded Danny Paladini to that awful yellow team; Logan Pause still hasn't signed with the team; Joel Lindpere still has his middle finger raised in our general direction. Last year's best central tandem returns, though, so barring injury we're concerned about depth here.
Central midfield also seems to be where our most talented Academy products play. Yallop's already said enough good things to Victor Pineda to convince him to re-up with the club, and with talents like Collin Fernandez and Cam Lindley percolating up through the system, it's just possible the Fire will patch these holes by signing Northwestern's Chris Ritter to a Homegrown deal and waiting for more CF97 talent to graduate high school.
Trouble Spot: Wing depth
Rolfe can spell Nyarko or Duka on either wing, but who else on the club can play on the edge? Rolfe's had injury problems throughout his career; Nyarko gets beaten to a pulp by halfway through the season; and Duka was pulled for fatigue more often than is comfortable. Yazid Atouba's return to the club is a question mark - if he returns, this concern drops down the pecking order, but if he doesn't ...
Magee can play on either wing, but doing so sacrifices his astute movement and pinpoint finishing in the box. The club could use another winger to push the starters for minutes; in all likelihood, this is the role we will see Harrison Shipp in when camp begins.
Trouble Spot: Backup ‘keeper
Sean Johnson is the most unassailable starter in the lineup, but the possibility that he'll be on the USA squad for the World Cup - along with the potential for a host of suitors from Europe thereafter - mean that we need a quality second keeper, stat. The club released Paolo Tornaghi just a couple of months after he acquired his green card, leaving third-string netminder Alec Kann, he of zero (0) MLS minutes of playing time, as our starter for something like six weeks, minimum. And even in that case, we'd need someone to back up Kann.
Where do you see the Fire strengthening in the next month? Who should they take with the eighth pick in the draft? Are there MLS players who'd fill these holes, and if so, how would we acquire them?