Preseason is over, which means the Chicago Fire are getting ready to step into the spotlight as they have been pegged to open the season against L.A. Galaxy on Friday (or sometime in April). There will be no other games. The Fire will be at the center of the MLS universe.
Normally I would rank the performance of the players from Saturday's match against Vancouver, but anyone who watched the game could clearly tell it involved two teams more focused on staying healthy and getting ready for the big show. So instead, I am going to give my optimal starting XI based on the performances in the three televised preseason games.
Without a doubt, Lovel Palmer and Joevin Jones cemented their places as starting right back and left back, respectively. Palmer was my personal preseason MVP after another sterling outing Saturday that saw him feed an assist to Winchester for the game-tying goal in the waning minutes of the match against Vancouver. Palmer was solid defensively last year and looks to be the same this year. with perhaps even more confidence going forward. His crosses aren't always accurate, but the sins of aggression are far more preferred than the sins of indifference.
Meanwhile, Jones has lived up to the early expectations many fans had for him. Greg Cochrane was a serviceable left back in 2014 when he played, but Jones possesses the speed and potential service skills to be a dangerous left back. He was solid in every game I watched and I am anxious to see how he does straight away in an extremely difficult assignment against the Galaxy on the road.
The center backs
Jeff Larentowicz had his best game Saturday against Vancouver and Eric Gehrig tried to make his case. While Big Red is a shoo-in for a start, Gehrig did not show enough to unseat Adailton, who should take the starting role once healthy.
We didn't see much of Adailton; when we did, he didn't necessarily set the world on fire. He has experience and that counts for now. I still think the Fire's defense will be an issue at times and I wouldn't be surprised if Polster or someone else became a starter in this role by mid-season ... but for now, Adailton has the responsibility. He is smart and strong, but his speed and agility seems limited.
The holding midfielders
The most contested and most vulnerable position on the Fire roster is that of the holding midfielder. Who has the work rate and discipline to play such an unheralded role? It appears the team may not have the answer on the roster, but they must make the most of the players available.
I must say I think Matt Watson has a strange knack for creating offense from time to time and I think Chris Ritter could blossom in this role, but neither are optimal starters. Based off what I saw in three preseason games, I'd select Razvan Cocis and Michael Stephens.
Cocis has some serious offensive ability when he has the chance. He had an absolutely glorious moment against Stabæk when he flicked on a ball toward the box in mid-air, showing he has some touch. He also became physical when needed, though it did lead to poor fouls.
When it comes to the role of the "destroyer", as our beloved editor Sean Spence would say, that belongs to Stephens. He possesses a toughness and willingness to defend that is needed for the role and he has the experience to adjust on the fly when needed. I thought he looked solid in each game and I am confident he would be better suited to take the pitch in the hostile StubHub Center compared to young Chris Ritter.
As the season progresses, Ritter and Watson will get plenty of playing time I am sure, but Cocis and Stephens should be first choice for now.
Shaun Maloney is in and he is the key to everything for better or worse. I personally was underwhelmed with his preseason performance outside of his set piece delivery, which was exquisite. I know adjusting to the MLS takes time and I have all the confidence in the world he will. He'll probably have a rough go of it for the first five games or so but I believe he could be team MVP by the time the season ends. He has shown enough flashes to make me a believer.
Quincy Amarikwa quite simply needs to be on the field. I know most envision him as a striker in a 4-4-2, but I believe he can serve as a flank player in a 4-3-3 at least until Patrick Nyarko returns. The fact is Amarikwa buzzes all around the field as needed and can and will strike from anywhere. The "technical" position in a formation is not all that important when it comes to Amarikwa. He will float around the field either way. His unpredictability, physicality and finishing ability is needed.
None of us saw much of David Accam but I am fine taking the approach of "you're the starter until proven otherwise" with him. He is a big time Designated Player, and as such, needs to take responsibility. He could miss the first game or two, which would mean Harry Shipp starts in his place. But when Accam is healthy he should be inserted. He showed some impressive speed in the Stabæk game and I want to see what he can do.
Kennedy Igboananike. Quite frankly, he missed chances during the preseason that he needs to convert. There is an alternative lineup that would place Amarikwa in this role and Shipp on the wing in a 4-3-3 that I would be fine with if Frank Yallop so chooses. But I am going to assume that will not be the case and that is OK. Igboananike showed a lot of promise in the preseason and because it is the preseason, that's all that matters. That promise, however, will need to turn into production if he hopes to hold on to this spot.
With Amarikwa, Mike Magee and Guly do Prado all capable of scoring goals, Igboananike will have plenty of incentive to produce.
Two words: Sean Johnson