There's this point in every creative enterprise - and, let's be clear: building the roster of a professional soccer team is a creative enterprise - where one looks at the lump of clay, or first two paragraphs, or the initial sketch, or the preliminary roster and goes, "Oh, man, just what the f--k am I doing here?"
Fortunately, experience and confidence go hand-in-hand in creating a good outcome from these situations, and Frank Yallop seems to have a fair bit of each. He told us last year that his hands were "a little bit tied" by the salary-cap situation he'd taken over after the collapse of the Javier Leon/Frank Klopas front office. This year, we've seen demonstration of just how bound he was through contrast, as Yallop has turned a junket to England and Scandinavia into three Designated Players who seem both worthy of the label and hungry for success in the USA.
But that lump of clay just keeps looking like a lump to those of us not inside Yallop's head. Of primary concern to the community of anxious onlookers - i.e., you, and people like you - is the seemingly undermanned state of the defensive side of the roster. Of the 23 men currently listed with the first team, only six (6!) have a 'D' listed as their position. Yet Yallop has said repeatedly he's happy with the state of the defense. Let's look at how this lump of unformed clay might look like a solid defense in the mind of the manager.
Seven out of 24
First, let's tidy up the count(s). The actual number of players signed to the CF97 first team is 24; Alex, recently re-signed, is not listed on the club's website, but is with the team. And that same roster still lists captain Jeff Larentowicz as a midfielder, despite the fact that Yallop has also repeatedly said that Big Red is moving to center back on a permanent basis.
The list of defenders therefore runs like this:
CB Jeff Larentowicz - Captain of the 2014 Fire, Big Red's move to centerback produced a more stable backline, if not the shutdown seminar everyone always hopes for. One imagines an entire preseason training in defense will make his decision-making and reading of the game sharper.
RB Lovel Palmer - Iron-man right back is responsible and physically imposing on that flank, while still looking a bit like a defensive midfielder playing on the outside. He's not going to feint a pressing attacker off his feet or storm down the line on a dribbling run, but his duty-first play could be important on a team looking for stability.
CB Adailton - If Jhon Kennedy Hurtado was Yallop's big bet last season, the imposing Brazilian journeyman is this year's version. His recent travelogue (stops in Switzerland, China, Switzerland again - with two different teams - and then Brazil) suggests this wager had slightly longer odds than is entirely comfortable.
LB Greg Cochrane - In spot duty last season, Cochrane displayed plenty of attacking intent, but had the problems typical of inexperience with positioning and decision-making. He and Joevin Jones will likely duel for the starting spot on the left side of defense.
CB/RB Eric Gehrig - One of the local guys Yallop has repatriated, Gehrig is a career center back who played very well at right back for Columbus last year. Gehrig's flexibility and decent passing range likely makes him the first backup both in the center and on the right.
LB Joevin Jones - Jones has played mostly farther forward in his domestic league, attacking off the left flank or from the middle. With the Fire, he'll be asked to beat out Cochrane to start at left back. Should that not pan out, he could be a more defensively-minded replacement for David Accam in the 4-3-3 Yallop seems to be imagining.
LB/CB Patrick Doody - Signed as a Homegrown Player in December, Doody is a left-footed defender whose best position at this level is yet to be determined. He has the size to play in the middle, but the up-in-the-air state of the left back position may be his opportunity to win a spot on gameday.
Finally, first-round draft choice Matt Polster - who has not signed a deal with the league yet, but is expected to shortly - will be in the mix in the center. The SIU-Edwardsville product has said he 'prefers to play in midfield;' he would have plenty of company in that regard when playing in a defense that includes Larentowicz and Palmer. Polster's inclusion would make the defender-count 8 out of 25.
Depth chart and preseason battles
So let's look at that clay again and see whether we can divine any more patterns than before. We know that Yallop intends the Fire to play a 4-3-3 this season, so we'll weigh these battles with that shape and set of responsibilities in mind.
Center back: Larentowicz and Adailton enter camp as the assumptive starters, with Gehrig, Doody and Polster trying to shake up that certainty. When a 27-year-old guy with 32 career starts (Gehrig) is your No. 1 backup, that could be seen as a bit shaky. Of course, Patrick Ianni had plenty of experience, yet was still tragic. We will have to wait and see.
Right back: This is all Palmer, with Gehrig as the sub. If Lovel stays healthy, expect to see him game-in, game-out.
Left back: This is a classic training-camp dog-fight. Does Jones have the tactical nous to start here? Or has Cochrane improved since his frankly naive showings in mid-summer? Doody is left-footed, too - could he win the spot by being more safety-first than the two pure wingbacks ahead of him?
It's notable that the depth, at this point, consists of Eric Gehrig and a bunch of guys we've never seen play. So much depends upon the scouting that Yallop, Brian Bliss and crew did previously. Can Doody impose himself? Is Polster ready for MLS play? Is Jones a defender by any stretch of the imagination?
Whither the destroyer?
One piece the roster seems to lack that would be truly useful in a 4-3-3 is a pure destroyer, which would seem to indicate that the Fire would play a double pivot in front of the defensive line. This ties one's hands somewhat tactically; tasking two of the three-man midfield primarily with marking and shape-minding responsibilities necessarily blunts the movement and creativity from that spot.
So many roles yet to be defined. So many questions yet to be answered. That lump of clay isn't going to mold itself. We'll watch, and hope.