There's been much made of the Chicago Fire's increased marketing reach this summer - the billboards and public-transit signs are doing their part to make the club feel like a natural, vibrant part of the city, and the massive crowds at Grant Park for World Cup viewing parties were hosted by Fire players and broadcasters. The Pub-to-Pitch program has helped mitigate Bridgeview's essentially nonexistant public transport options. "Chicago Fire IS Chicago Soccer" is at least aspirational, if a bit presumptuous.
So it's clear that there's a marketing budget, and that at least some of it is being spent in ways which are at least noticeable. Presuming the marketing team has done its job, though, and delivered the newly Fire-curious to Toyota Park, what do the newcomers see? What are the Fire doing on the field to capitalize on all this marketing, marketing, marketing?
The initial plan
On December 14, all was right in Fire-land. New manager Frank Yallop met with the season ticket holders and assured them that, far from being a reclamation project, "the roster is strong." He said there wasn't much room under the cap, but that with "some tweaks, some pushing and pulling by me, and [the roster] will be very strong."
Tactically, Yallop repeatedly edged away from claiming credit for San Jose's direct, ‘Goonies' long-ball style. "I like to have the ball on the deck and play football," he said. He and the staff spent most of the preseason working on a flexible, high-pressing 4-1-4-1, as if underlining Yallop's tactical preferences: Reduce the space for others to play in; keep the ball when you can; think and act as a unit.
At the heart of Yallop's plan was a complete makeover of the Fire defense, which had given up a club-record number of goals in 2013, including a spectacular collapse against New York Red Bulls in the final match of the season. It seems they felt that youth was the problem; Chicago's defense was anchored by two recent first-round draft picks, Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry.
After dealing Anibaba to Seattle for two older, more expensive centerbacks, Berry - the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year - was adjudged so surplus to requirements that he was sold to Philadelphia for some allocation money. The rumors swirled that Ianni was on the market, too. Yallop had the starting centerback duo he wanted: Bakary Soumare and Hurtado.
There are times that Helmuth von Moltke's famous dictum "No plan long survives contact with the enemy" comes to mind; this is clearly one of them. Perhaps it was that horrible start - getting surprised on the road by a sprightly Chivas TBD side - but the Soumare/Hurtado partnership has simply not produced the kind of lock-down defending their resumes and attributes suggest should be possible.
The 4-1-4-1 lasted nearly as long as the confidence of the centerbacks, mostly down to the problems with the ‘1s.' Juan Luis Anangono's inability to beat out Quincy Amarikwa for a starting striker slot meant that, instead of a point-of-the-spear classic target striker up top as a point of reference, the Men in Red instead had a movement-oriented player in that role. Amarikwa's preferred service, a through ball rolled into space, didn't gel with the tactic. His movement needed a foil off of which to play.
The other ‘1' in the formation, captain Jeff Larentowicz, also proved a bit of a problem. Big Red is an honest player, even an earnest one, but all the wanting-to in the world won't make him capable of covering the amount of ground he needed to cover to make the 4-1-4-1 tick. His occasionally wayward passing and uncertainty turning against pressure made keeping the ball problematic. And so the 4-1-4-1 was shelved almost immediately, after two months of preseason work.
All that talk of ‘keeping the ball on the deck?' Through 21 MLS contests, the Fire have had more of the ball than their opponents exactly once. The Men in Red are statistically the worst passing team in the league
In Chicago Fire lore, 2013 will forever be Magee's year: Returning home to a moribund franchise, the clever forward lifted the entire team, scoring with abandon and leading from the front, urging his teammates on at every turn. Unfortunately, 2014 is looking like a cautionary tale about believing one's own hype: After an offseason spent drinking deep from the chalice of MVP publicity, Magee skipped two weeks of preseason preparation due to ‘family problems' in a blatantly obvious holdout ploy.
It worked - Magee's now making over $400 grand - but at what cost to the club? Where Magee's impetus was always forward, forward in 2013, urging his teammates on, this new, wealthier version seems to focus his competitive urges at another target: The officials. Rather than living in the moment, the star forward seems disconnected from play far too often.
The question now is, what can we expect from Magee? Is he capable of finding the kind of locked-in intensity that drove him to the heights of ‘13? Or is this new, distracted, irascible Mike the only one left?
In addition to trading Anibaba and selling Berry, Yallop & Co. dealt long-time favorite Chris Rolfe to DC United, apparently for cap relief, "because of depth at the position." Then they gutted the depth at the position, loaning Anangono back home to LDU Quito and releasing Orr Barouch and Guiseppe Gentile. A team that began the season with a large stable of young, hungry strikers now features three: Magee, Amarikwa and new, highly-affordable journeyman Matt Fondy.
Perhaps trading Rolfe was a deal made with an eye toward Harry Shipp's development; if so, Shipp's recent struggles with the grinding fatigue of a full professional season should have been anticipated. Shipp - who has been the best player on the team, full-stop - was not even a regular starter until his senior year at Notre Dame, specializing instead on the kind of super-sub appearances that Ole Gunnar Solskaer would turn in for Manchester United. Now, asked to be the creative impetus for the Men in Red, he's exhausted, and there's no one on the roster who can fill his free role, since Rolfe is busy boosting DC near the top of the East.
So what now?
Having shed all those players - and adding only Fondy and Romanian midfield Razvan Cocis - the supporters, understandably, have taken to social media to guess who else might the Fire add this season. Missing out on Damarcus Beasley was saddening, but understandable; no one really thought left back was a problem area. But the Jermaine Jones saga is starting to wake some old, terrible echoes from the dark days of Javier Leon's regime.
In short, the Fire are still (apparently) negotiating with Jones, who's essentially strolling around the USA wearing a ‘come get me' sign. The worry is this: When reports came out that Jones had turned down a contract offer, it was quickly leaked that the offer was $6 million over 2.5 years. Jones took to Twitter to refute one particular fact: The dollar amount.
Good Morning my fans! The offer of chicago fire honors me! There are rumours in the news. But all the figures mentioned are not the truth.— Jermaine Jones (@Jermainejunior) August 2, 2014
Nothing is ever simple.
The elephant in the room for the Fire is the stadium deal that got Toyota Park built. It's bankrupting the city of Bridgeview, which means they skimp on things like maintaining the field or paving the parking lots. If you're a newcomer who's just rode a Pub-to-Pitch bus to the game, exiting the bus into the swirling dust-bowl of the TP parking lot cannot feel like you're heading to a big-time sporting event. And there's no good solution - it's a 30-year lease. Keep your dreams of returning to Soldier Field (and immediate relevance in Chicago) in dreamland; the closest the Fire are getting to downtown any time soon is at the Northside Soccer Center, a year-round training site currently under development.
Not terrible, just not good
It's not like this edition of the Fire are terrible - just terribly underwhelming. They've won only three games, but lost only five. They're still just a three-game winning streak away from being surprise postseason gate-crashers. But last December's happy talk has utterly melted away; this is a club with a threadbare roster filled with guys no one in MLS would trade for, playing tactically undistinguished football, leaning on a 22-year-old rookie to shake off his fatigue and help us win some games, for the love of God.
Now we ask: The marketing is up to snuff, finally; when will the team be? And what is the plan now? Because, at this point, the Frank II regime feels a lot like Frank I, redux.