I am like most fans: I like to see immediate results. I get excited over high-profile player acquisitions and immediate difference-makers added to the Fire's roster. Like most fans, I burst at the seams with the hope that this season this will be the one where the Fire bring in a high-profile designated player, an immediate difference maker, maybe even a prolific goal scorer.
The reality is that this dream is not practical, would not have addressed the issues the Fire had in 2013, and was probably never the plan to begin with.
Major League Soccer has been a league founded on frugal finances and thrift spending, asking front offices to shape a roster within a restrained, salary-capped budget. High profile player acquisitions by Toronto - the Reds added Gilberto, Michael Bradley, Júlio César and Jermain Defoe during the off season - has left some CF97 fans scratching their heads, wondering "Why can't the Fire do that?" With Toronto's money moves and high-profile money clubs (Orlando City, NYCFC and the Beckham whatevers) coming into league many fans feel that a shift to a new style of financing clubs is on the horizon. Shouldn't the Fire be hopping that train?
I would posit that this was never the plan for the Chicago Fire, and probably shouldn't be. There is more than one way to milk a cow. Throwing money at a problem, even acquiring high profile players, is not always the best solution. I believe that Frank Yallop was chosen to be the Fire's Head Coach and Director of Soccer because of his ability to build a club from the grass roots by prolifically collecting young talent and supplementing that talent with a sprinkle of experienced veteran players to give the club some backbone. I like what I see so far.
Prior to Yallop's arrival the Fire seemed like a club moving in the wrong direction. Without the presence of Mike Magee, the 2013 Fire seemed just a collection of overmatched young talent and experienced veteran talent who had begun to lose a step, failing to compete with other clubs in the conference. Sentimentality had led the Fire to focus on bringing in "ready" talent such as Joel Lindpere and Jeff Larentowicz over bringing in the next generation of youth talent to prepare for time in the MLS. Further, the Fire seemed unwilling to give first team time to younger players on the roster for several years, instead giving every minute to those same veterans, who began to look worn down on the pitch week-in and week-out.
Yallop's style of club-building has been a dynamic new approach for the Fire. The new boss has used a variety of different tools to acquire young players (and a sprinkle of experience) - signing Homegrown players, looking to fill needs through the Superdraft, winning Benji Joya in a weighted lottery, scouring the waiver draft, and giving a look to trialists that could lead to potential loans. As the pre-season rolls on and Fire supporters get their first look at some of this young talent, there is a lot to be excited about.
Meet the young guns
Leading the rabid pack of youth talent anxious to prove themselves on the pitch is Harrison Shipp. In pre-season play Shipp has demonstrated why he was awarded 2013 ACC Offensive Player of the Year and All-ACC First Team honors after leading the Fighting Irish to a championship. Shipp has already collected two goals and an assist and has had several more good looks on goal, all while demonstrating impressive comfort on the ball. Shipp is probably the most likely of the group of young talent to see a lot of first-team minutes. Clearly, Shipp was a home run for Yallop. It should be pointed out that Shipp was brought in as a Homegrown talent, so the work of the previous administration helped Yallop luck into this move - but none of that changes the fact that he is a talent for Fire fans to get excited about in 2014.
Another player who I think will see serious first-team time this season is Joya. Joya was brought in on loan from LigaMX's Santos Laguna via a weighted lottery earlier this month. A year-plus pushing for playing time in Mexico, plus Joya's USA U20 experience alongside teammate Victor Pineda, has prepared him to face MLS talent. Joya is a box-to-box midfielder who, if he can handle the physicality of MLS, could be the type of player who holds the midfield together. In pre-season play Joya has made Orlando City, DC United and the Colorado Rapids young talent look silly at times and has accumulated a goal and two assists so far this pre-season. He is a very exciting player to watch and it stands to reason he will find minutes on the Fire roster this season.
Speaking of Pineda, Pineda as a young talent returning to the Fire has shown well this pre-season as well, accumulating a couple of assists so far. Victor's time has been a long time coming - he has yet to receive many opportunities on the first team - but it is my hope he is given a fair shot this season. Yallop has already expressed that he likes what he sees.
Another player who has been exciting to watch this pre-season is Grant Ward. Ward is a FA Youth Cup player whose contract is owned by the EPL club the Tottenham Hotspur. Ward was in camp as an invitee, and has since returned to England while the Fire and Tottenham bang out the terms of a loan arrangement. The talented outside back/winger knocked in two goals this pre-season and has been an effective contributor on the pitch so far. Is it possible that Ward might be considered for a loan to the Fire at some point during the 2014 season? We’ll have to wait and see.
Another young potential contributor worth mentioning is Giuseppe Gentile. Yallop was able to acquire Gentile in the waiver draft, since he left school at UNC Charlotte prior to graduation. Gentile scored the lone goal in the opening Fire pre-season Friendly against Florida Gulf Coast University. The 'classic No. 9' forward is not likely to see a lot of playing time with the first team, with Chris Rolfe and Quincy Amarikwa (who contributed a goal this pre-season) as the likely backups at forward. Still, he provides some depth to the roster, is a back-up in case of injury and will be given the shot to prove he might be a forward for the future. If a player like Gentile shows heart, we might see more of him soon.
The pre-season has also given Fire fans our first look at other young talent acquired during the off season, and young talent returning. Chris Ritter, who the Fire also brought in as a homegrown player, stand to be in the mix in the future if not right away, although niggling injuries have slowed his progress this preseason. Marco Franco, the Fire's first-round Superdraft pick, stands to compete with Lovel Palmer for minutes at right back. Orr Barouch returns from a loan to fight Gentile and Amarikwa for time as a target man. And Yazid Atouba and Hunter Jumper have each played reasonably when given minutes over the last month.
Exactly what role each will play, and whether each player receives first team minutes, will depend on two things: How they practice, and how the starters play. In any case, having a roster packed with young players hungry for minutes gives Yallop a plethora of options going into the season.
Youth in attack, experience in defense
Yallop also used a wise approach to building this year’s club by bringing in veteran talent in the back line, looking to stabilize the obvious weakness from last season. Out went two 25-year-olds still learning the dark arts of defending (Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba), and in came Lovel Palmer (29), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (29) and Patrick Ianni (28) to join Gonzalo Segares (31) and Bakary Soumare (28) as the core of the defensive unit.
The Fire defense should now have steadier approach to protecting the goal. These players will provide leadership and experience to the new youthful talent on the club and provide calm on the pitch as these young players learn and grow. The backline acts as the backbone of the team. A steady backline frees the midfield up to support the attack and makes the whole unit stronger. A strong backline will provide the cover the youthful attackers need to grow.
While some fans are still skeptical about Yallop’s approach, and would rather see the Fire free up more cap space and bring in more star power, I believe there is a lot of merit to this team-building approach. One or two extremely talented players do not always make much difference in the success of a club - soccer is a team game. In many ways, it is a wiser approach to bring in a wealth of young talent, "throw them against the wall and see what sticks."
Clearly the Fire will have more depth options than we have seen in many years, and there might be 3 or 4 of these guys who the Fire can build a club around for years to come. That is the type of success that lasts long term, which allows a club to build, season upon season. When the core of a team is strong, that is when it is time to spend on that big-ticket Designated Player. You don't start decorating the Christmas tree by putting the star on the top.
All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again
It is also good to remember that Yallop has built around youth successfully before. During his time in San Jose, he overcame a limited budget with good scouting, bringing in players who have become prestigious MLS talent. In 2001 as head coach for the Earthquakes, Yallop brought in a certain young player on loan who was unhappy with his time in Germany: This young talent was called Landon Donovan. In addition, Yallop took a chance on a young Canadian footballer who was banging in goals for the Richmond Kickers, Dwayne De Rosario.
He supported his you talent with a veteran backbone of Jeff Agoos, Manny Lagos, Ramiro Corrales and Ronnie Ekelund. He filled up the tank on young talent in the Superdraft including: Chris Carrieri (1st overall), Eddie Robinson (20th), Craig Waibel (31st), Fabio Eidelwein (37th) among others. First overall pick Chris Carrieri was later traded to the Colorado Rapids for Manuel "Junior" Agogo, a contributor to San Jose's successes in the early '00s. Some of these players contributed, some faded into obscurity, but what he built from all of these moves was a successful club. Yallop demonstrated his abilities with training his young talent, getting a lot out of the players he brought in. We all know how this the rags to riches story ended: Yallop led his new club to the cup.
I am not saying that Harry Shipp and Benji Joya are going to be the next Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario, but his history speaks volumes on Yallop's abilities as head coach to get the most out of his talent. I suspect Andrew Hauptman knew all along that this is the direction he wanted to see the Fire go, and that was why he reached out to Yallop so early in the off-season. Under Yallop’s leadership, even if the Fire young talent only achieves a fraction of the success he achieved in northern California, the Fire may have some powerful young weapons moving forward.
Still, some would argue that rebuilding by youth approach is not the direction the league is going in and that the Fire might be missing the Designated Player train. Further, if the Fire do not try and bring in household names to play for the club fan interest in the team will decrease. Certainly a well-known European, Mexican or (specifically) Polish talent on the roster would boost attendance.
I would argue that sustained winning would be just as effective as an established DP and filling up seats. Bringing in one or two stars can certainly be fun to watch, but it is not a long term solution. I am not opposed to spending, but I think it should be done smartly and when the club is ready to take the next step to dominance. First, fix the problems that the club has, draw down the budget to a reasonable level, rely on young talent to rebuild and add new players from a position of strength. If the league changes its financial system and it becomes necessary to bring in star talent to compete, the Fire will then have a core of reasonably priced talent to build around.
It is my opinion that Yallop is taking a wise approach by bringing in a glut of young talent. It is clear that the Fire under his leadership have subscribed to a plan of rebuilding which I believe will be sustainable over the long term. Although a club rebuilding is never terribly sexy, sometimes it is a necessary tactic to enable further glories.