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The Last (of) Ward: Have the Fire missed out on Tottenham youngster?

Grant Ward had a positive loan spell with the Fire in 2014; is there any chance we'll see him at Toyota Park this year?

At our first opportunity to pick the brain of Chicago Fire head coach Frank Yallop, fans were curious to know how his philosophies on young talent differed from those of previous coaches. One hot-button question was of his access to young talent in Europe. In what was either an odd case of serendipity or foreshadowing, one long-time season ticket holder brought up the example of looking to Tottenham Hotspur for youngsters that might do well with the Fire. Yallop was coy, saying that he’d sign a player from anywhere if he thought he was worth it, but it gave fans a reason to be optimistic, as Yallop has connections in England through his playing time at Ipswich Town.

Fast forward to March 2014, and the Fire announced the signing of a young Tottenham player by the name of Grant Ward after a positive showing at Fire preseason. Despite having fractured his foot prior to the start of the season, Yallop and the Fire saw enough potential in the young player to have him join the team once he made a full recovery.

Steady output

During his time with the Fire, Ward made 23 appearances, with 12 of those as starts. His first goal for the fire came in US Open Cup play in a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and his lone league goal came in a 5-1 loss to San Jose. Ward’s role on the Fire was transitional as Yallop tried out numerous personnel changes throughout the season, but his impact on the squad was undeniable. Perhaps the best example of this came in the Fire’s last match at Toyota Park, better known as Logan Pause’s farewell match.

Ward had come on for defender Gonzalo Segares in the 60th minute when the Fire were trailing 1-0. In the 63rd, Ward was running down a through ball into the box. Ward was taken down by Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric for a penalty kick that was converted by Jeff Larentowicz. In just three minutes, Grant Ward made an impact to get the Fire back into the match in search of an all-too-rare win at home.

He wasn't done. In the 90th minute, Ward swung in a cross from the right side that found the head of Florent Sinama-Pongolle for the go-ahead goal that would give the Fire just its sixth win of the season, and send captain Logan Pause into the Toyota Park offices on a win. There is no doubt that Grant Ward was the player of the match, and the catalyst the Fire needed on this particular day to end an abysmal 2014 campaign on a high note.

Uncertainty of the future

It felt like Grant Ward had closed out his loan spell with the Chicago Fire in 2014 positively. Yallop was correct in his feeling that Grant was a young player who could make a powerful impact on the squad, leaving fans optimistic for the chance that Fire would exercise Ward’s buyout clause to make him a permanent member of the club - MLS, notoriously, insists upon buyout clauses in every loan into the league.

But now, on this 13th day of January, we’ve yet to hear much of anything coming from the Fire front office regarding Grant Ward’s future with the club. Since the completion of his loan with the Fire (which presumably ended on December 31), Ward has returned to London. He began training with the Tottenham Under 21s almost immediately. Ward played his first match with the squad on January 9, facing West Ham and scoring two goals to solidify a 3-1 win.

It was evident throughout his time in Chicago that Grant Ward is a promising young player with tremendous upside. His play on the field showed how much of an impact he could continue to make on the Fire going in to the 2015 season. He is well liked by his teammates in Chicago and had quickly become a fan favorite to many, including myself.

Has this ship sailed?

It’s likely that Ward’s loan with the Fire expired on December 31 2014, and with it also expired the Fire’s option to buy Ward outright from Tottenham. I spoke with Grant briefly over social media, and when I asked if there had been any ongoing communication between him and the club, he said there had been "slight communication", but nothing substantial in terms of a new agreement. Now Fire VP of Communications Doug Hicks confirms that Ward will not return to the Fire for 2015.

This is a difficult and frustrating conclusion to come to given the incredible advantage the MLS buy-out clause gives the Fire in any loan situation, especially this one. But it is also frustrating when it is known that Grant would provide some much needed depth at the wing:

  • The presumptive starter, Patrick Nyarko, will need to focus on getting healthy for the 2015 season after knee surgery in December.
  • There has also been talk that we might see Mike Magee spending some time on the wing as he did with the LA Galaxy, but he will also need time to get back into form following his season-ending hip surgery in 2014.
  • Harry Shipp did well on the wing for the Fire last season, but as a natural central midfielder, one has to ask how long Yallop will keep Shipp on the wing and continue to postpone his development as a center attacking mid, a position that is of great need for the Fire going into next season.
  • Perhaps they are hoping that Michael Stephens, or newly signed Designated Player and forward Kennedy Igboananike will play out of position as a midfielder in 2015 to make up for the lack of depth at left and right midfield. Or who knows, perhaps Yallop’s golden boy Alex will continue to bounce around the field positionally and spend more time on the wing next season as well.

It’s worth noting that Grant Ward doesn’t owe anything to the Chicago Fire, and the Chicago Fire owe nothing to Grant Ward. It’s perfectly understandable for Ward to feel that he’d better develop under a Premiership side like Tottenham, just as it is understandable that the Fire benefited from a great loan spell with Ward. In any case, it seems an opportunity missed to add some real depth to the midfield in 2015.

What do you think; could Grant Ward’s services benefit The Chicago Fire going into the new season?