Ever meet an old friend who's undergone a huge amount of plastic surgery? There are similarities to the person you knew - their eyes are the same color, say, and their characteristic laugh is intact - but the first few minutes are full of obliquely staring awkwardness: "Wasn't his chin longer? Did he get his cheekbones shaped?" There are familiar parts in unfamiliar places, and unfamiliar parts vying for attention. Depending on the relationship, the experience can be fascinating, or alienating, or anything in between.
Today, the vast majority of Chicago Fire supporters finally get to meet the 2015 version of the club, and hoo boy, have they been under the knife. Frank Yallop's dissatisfaction with the roster was clear last offseason, but he gave most of the players a chance to play their way out of favor; clearly, most did, as half of the current 25-man team sheet is new to the club. It may be hard not to stare.
Early indications are that the surgery will be considered a successful one. Shaun Maloney is the highest-profile of the Fire's additions, a buzzing, relentless attacker who is a club legend at Celtic and a star for a resurgent Scotland national team. A pair of Africans recruited from Sweden round out the Designated Player slots: Kennedy Igboananike was pulled from AIK, and will start up top, David Accam is a slashing wing forward who was signed from Helsingborgs IF. The scars from the procedure are just healing, but the evident excitement of the surgeons bodes well.
But those were just the overt phases of the makeover. Yallop and Brian Bliss' restructuring had two other sections (beyond ‘sign better DPs'). There was a move to repatriate leader-types with local ties: Eric Gehrig, Michael Stephens are Chicago natives, and Jon Busch is fondly remembered as a former team MVP. They also recruited a couple of hardworking Brazilian journeymen to join Alex in that category - former Southampton man Guly do Prado and iron-willed centerback Adaílton. Finally, they added local young blood in the form of homegrowns Collin Fernandez and Patrick Doody and regional draftee Matt Polster.
Still, some carryover is needed. Sean Johnson remains a fixture between the pipes. Most of the central midfield - Razvan Cocis, Matt Watson, Alex, Chris Ritter - from last season remains. Lovel Palmer is still at right back. Harry Shipp will still get minutes all over the attacking zone. A couple of the returned do so in new roles - captain Jeff Larentowicz at centerback, bulldog forward Quincy Amarikwa returns to a ‘spark off the bench' role. Greg Cochrane will challenge T&T recruit Joevin Jones for minutes at left back.
Today will be our first glimpse of these men as a team. The roster looks stronger, with a notable increase in both attacking ideas and overall team quickness. How will it all turn out? We have no indications, really, as of yet; but the surgeon seems pleased, so that's something.
Here's where, on a normal game-week, I'd be full of information and opinions on the Fire's latest foe - but I have to admit that, unlike the usual game-week, I have no clear idea how Stabæk intend to play. They're in preseason, too, and are likely to experiment somewhat.
They are, of course, coached by Bob Bradley. Bradley is a legend in Chicago for his incredible success out of the gate with the expansion Fire - that ‘98 side still stands as the exemplar for hitting the ground running in MLS - and for taking the USA to the knockout stages of the World Cup. He's since managed Egypt during a revolution and been inducted into the USA Soccer Hall of Fame. Y'know, THAT Bob Bradley. At Stabæk, Bradley has been a revelation, improving the professionalism of a club whose history has largely taken place below the first flight.
That said, it's important to avoid the parochial American outlook about foreign leagues outside the mammoth ‘Big 4' - to that end, here's a highlight video of Bradley's Stabæk on the road against Brann. Take especial note of Frank Boli, No. 11, who is the point of the spear for Stabæk's 4-3-3. He's 21! The football world is wide, and the talent pool is vast. Stabæk finished 9th in the 16-team Tippeligæn, while Brann finished 14th and lost a relegation playoff to slip into the OBOS-ligæn, the Norwegian second division.
Yeah. So, point is - in football, talent is everywhere. The Fire are better than they were, most likely, but expecting this game to be a casual warm-up without significant challenges is a fool's bet. Especially with our old friend Skeletor on the opposing sideline.
As this is our first chance to see the Fire play with this roster, everything is potentially of interest. Ordinarily, this section will point out the most likely areas of opportunity for each side; today's list is rather more general, since, y'know, we've not seen either team play.
Fire's pace in transition vs. Stabæk's gelling defense: Preseason games usually feature plenty of unforced errors - lapses in timing and unfamiliarity with the patterns of teammates can make keeping the ball a difficult task. This iteration of the Men in Red, full to bursting with speed in the attacking positions, seem particularly well-suited to taking advantage of those lapses, especially with Maloney and Shipp around to play cunning balls into space.
Stabæk's attacking verve vs. Fire's gelling defense: Of course, as above, Chicago also are early in preseason, and are working on an entirely different defensive group than last year. How will the Adaílton/Larentowicz pairing handle Boli, et al?
What I'll be watching for
Can the Fire keep the ball? Is the central midfield clean and mobile enough to maintain possession, or are we looking likely to play counter-attacking football off the back foot?
How high do the Men in Red press? Yallop has talked about playing a 4-3-3 since January, which generally signals a more proactive approach without the ball (or else the shape plays out as, and is generally discussed as, a 4-5-1). Where is the line of confrontation?
How are we going to control the opposition's Zone 14? The usual kind of 4-3-3 is a highly-developed beast, and part of that development is a tactical reliance on a destroyer at the back of midfield. The Makélélé role is a demanding one, and the termination of Alou Diarra's trial again leaves the Fire without an obvious player to plug into that role. One option: Maintain last year's double pivot of Watson and Cocis, with an attacking player (Maloney? Shipp?) playing in front of them.
How do the depth players look? With two weeks until the (hoped-for) opener, and three games in the Simple Invitational this week, it's unlikely we will see many 90-minute performances today. One of the fascinating aspects of this offseason's makeover is the hope that the roster's depth will be improved significantly.
The bottom line
The preseason is a time to practice seeing the game like a scout. The result doesn't mean anything, so watch the play for itself and try to see the patterns:
- How is the team moving? Are they making shapes to keep possession and talking about marking and space out of it? Are they thinking together to solve problems?
- Have they found successful patterns for transition? Are they able to connect passes and move into threatening positions?
- Do they make good decisions with the ball? How directly are they attempting to play?
- What do the players seem to consider important? Watch touches and patterns, but also body language and the tenor of discussions. Who is a leader? Who is respected?