[EDIT: In case you've been living unplugged for a couple of weeks, the Fire did agree to a transfer fee with Wigan, and Maloney was introduced as a Fire player on Monday.]
If you've been waiting to pull the trigger on your new "Maloney #10" Chicago Fire kit, go ahead and enter your payment information. Pull up the e-shopping cart. Do it. It's apparently safe. All the signs say he's coming.
Wigan's Shaun Maloney has agreed terms over a move to Chicago Fire in the MLS. #wafc— Pete O'Rourke (@SportsPeteO) January 19, 2015
While the rest of MLS goggles at Toronto's money-burning antics, Frank Yallop, Brian Bliss and Co. have kept their heads down, working a few angles designed to stretch a not-huge budget into a competitive roster. They've shopped wisely in Scandinavia, repatriating Michael Stephens before spending sensibly on young, ambitious attacking talent in Designated Players David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike. They've found depth up top (Guly do Prado) and speed on the flanks (portsider Joevin Jones) in the free-transfer market. And they've added local guys all over the field - precocious 17-year-old attacker Collin Fernandez, left-footed defender Patrick Doody, and play-anywhere defender Eric Gehrig.
It's been a sumptuous feast for Fire fans. And now comes the cherry on top - Shaun Maloney, one of the most technically-gifted and hardest-working players in the UK, has agreed to a contract to wear the Fire badge in 2015 and beyond.
The only question remaining is, when will we see Maloney stateside? Negotiations are apparently ongoing, with Wigan hoping to realize at least a portion of the $1.5million they left on the table when a deal with Premier League club Leicester City fell through. If the two sides can agree to a transfer fee, Maloney's transfer will happen immediately instead of waiting for his Wigan contract to be completed this summer.
Hot (Time) take
If Maloney can stay healthy, he will be the best playmaker to wear the Fire badge since our beloved Cuauhtemoc Blanco. It's that simple. Maloney's touch is exquisite, he sees the field well, and his ability to shape the ball even during the run of play is a level of skill a touch above the MLS baseline. He works hard for the team and has a reputation as a guy who makes others better.
Don't listen to me. Listen to Everton manager Roberto Martinez, who managed Maloney at Wigan before taking over at Everton:
"Shaun can play in any team. He has the quality of any other top player (in the Premier League) in that position. He can find space and finds it so natural to turn.
"He could have been born in any country, in terms of the technical ability and quality he has."
There is a potential fly in the ointment. Maloney has not been the healthiest player over the last several years, appearing in only 63 league matches over the past four seasons. This year, though, he's started 22 times for Wigan. MLS is a league which is notorious for its physical demands - the mind-blowing amount of travel, artificial fields of varying quality, and inconsistent officiating all make for a different level of challenge to Maloney's potentially fragile physique.
Another question is when the Scot will arrive. Essentially, all that's left to decide is whether the Fire will pony up the money to get him now. The asking price is apparently just north of $1MM. Yallop is on record as preferring to spend the money and get the player now, the better to integrate him into the club's scheme.
This year, MLS has two expansion teams entering the league; their total outlay to join was around $170MM, much of which was split by the 19 existing teams. There's also a new $90MM per year broadcast deal, likewise split up between the clubs. If Maloney doesn't arrive until July, expect to hear those numbers bandied about bitterly by Fire fans in the interim.