The Fire are, for perhaps the first time in their 18-year history, generally acclaimed as the worst team in Major League Soccer. Go ahead - google 'MLS power rankings.' Click one. Scroll down. No, I mean waaaay down. Maybe just navigate to the end of the page and scroll up? There we are: Dead last. Et tu, MLSsoccer.com? Et tu?
But this is less betrayal and more a simple acknowledgement what is plain, a bare 180 minutes into what will in any case be a long, grinding season - Chicago seem to have shlumped into the seat formerly occupied by dead-franchise-walking Chivas USA. There are dark mutterings on the business side: an announced crowd of 15k looked optimistic by perhaps 30 percent; even that small crowd treated to long concession lines; one of the season-ticket gates didn't open on time, seemingly because no one was assigned to staff it - the kind of mistakes most common in organizations squeezed for payroll, too little employee butter spread over too much customer bread. Perhaps there are other explanations. The point is, the mood around the team contains an increasing sense of despair about the fortunes of the club.
But it's still early, and the football can still save it. A winning soccer team would paper over a whole host of ills, or at least buy the operations folks time to right the ship.
If the Fire are to get up off the mat, this week seems as good a time as any. They'll be playing into the shrieking maw of a geeked-up opening-night crowd at Avaya Stadium, and San Jose will probably come out of the locker room full of gusto - but there's nothing like that moment of silence after the road goal, the beginnings of the howls of disbelief. A single road goal can change a season. Break the hearts of their Ultras; salt the ground with their lamentations; write into history "WE ARE POOR GUESTS." It's the kind of moment around which a better future can pivot. And, frankly, the Men in Red need it.
Last week, Harry Shipp and Shaun Maloney showed they could co-exist in the central midfield; at its best, their touch and movement pulled Vancouver apart through the middle. But the lineup asked a great deal of Maloney without the ball; will there be a change to alleviate that?
CoachTony suggested the Fire start all three DPs in a very attacking 4-3-3, maintaining the Shipp-Maloney-Polster triangle in midfield. If David Accam cannot go - and Frank Yallop was very cautious on that subject earlier in the week - then expect either a repeat of last week's 4-1-4-1, or a simple 4-4-2 that throws Quincy Amarikwa and Kennedy Igboananike together up top and crosses its fingers.
San Jose are playing simple, efficient football early in the season. It appears that Dom Kinnear has defined understandable roles within the starting XI, and the team has bought into the shape and Kinnear's unstinting demands for work without the ball.
Chris Wondolowski is the point of the spear, and is as clinical a pure finisher as the USA has yet produced. Wondo's game is a more-specific version of Mike Magee's - each is cunning as a burglar at finding a little pocket of space that's just out of their marker's field of vision, and each finds a way to finish. Marking Wondolowski in a modern zonal system requires constant communication and unwavering concentration.
The attacking line features three distinct roles. Sanna Nyassi is a familiar face to the Men in Red, and the least of the trio; on the right, he offers speed and effort if not a tremendous amount of polish. On the left, Innocent Emeghara is another matter - quick and tricky, yes, but capable of finishing moves with some aplomb. David Accam, if you're out there, this is very much the kind of thing we'd like to see from you, sir - your MLS Week 2 Goal of the Week:
As flashy and exciting as Emeghara can be, it's Argentine attacking mid Matias Perez Garcia who makes this bog-standard shape work as well as it does. A tireless runner, Garcia manages to be both the third member of the midfield triangle without the ball and in the early stages of possession, while also pulling the strings in the attack in a no-nonsense manner. Garcia's combination of grit and dynamism seems a perfect fit for our scratchy, sometimes-brutish league.
The putative double pivot (the '2' in the 4-2-3-1) is really more of single destroyer backing a connecting midfielder in the Quakes' scheme. Against Seattle, rookie Fatai Alashe played the destroyer role, and looked the part - physical, commanding, but clean enough with the ball to step around pressure and begin possession. Second-year man JJ Koval played the connecting role last week reasonably well, and his inclusion means another large body marking up in the midfield for this typically-physical Kinnear side.
It's the defense where San Jose has some difficulty. Victor Bernardez' red card against Seattle means he's out today, and centerback partner Paulo Renato limped off with a leg injury - meaning both centerbacks must switch today. Mind-blowingly, the Quakes have fringe USAMNT defender Clay Goodson on the bench, so he'll start, possibly along with Ty Harden - meaning the home side's backline won't be the group that's gotten the most work together in preseason. The attacking movements which gave Vancouver's large defenders fits should work well again today; cunning movement will test the defensive group's cohesion and anticipation, which cannot be at peak levels.
On the defensive wings, it's a mixed bag. Marvell Wynne has never developed an elite sense of positioning, but he's never needed to - even at 30, he can still out-run his mistakes and out-muscle most wingers once he arrives. On the left, Shaun Francis is fleet and can combine going forward, but relies on finesse more than is advisable in a league built from the ground up on the rough and tumble.
Off the bench, San Jose has several players who can make a mark. Wunderkind Tommy Thompson is a human highlight reel who hasn't quite figured out how to harness his trickery in the team game; that said, every touch the kid gets is a chance for everyone to see something they've never seen before. Adam Jahn is a classic target man, the body of a bouncer with pillows for feet. Steven Lenhart continues to exist.
Running the channels vs. Earthquakes back line: San Jose's backup center backs will be tough in the air, but - like against Vancouver - can be had with the ball on the deck. One thing we didn't see last week was Quincy Amarikwa running onto longer balls served into the channels. Could that approach yield good results against a home side that will likely try to press very high in the early stages of the game?
Palmer vs. Emeghara: Emeghara's goal against Seattle was very ehhhr maahh gherrrd, amirite? The Fire faced a similar threat last week against Vancouver, and tried to simply ignore it, running Eric Gehrig up the sideline to help with possession. The result was Kekuta Manneh behind the defense again and again. Emeghara's finishing suggests a similar roll of the dice this week will result in 'Innocent Emeghara, your MLS Player of the Week.' Stay at home, Lovel.
Pass-and-move redux: The hopes of everyone in red revolve around expanding upon that lovely patch of possession football from last week. Can the Fire keep the ball and fashion chances for the full 90 minutes, rather than merely half that?
What I'll be watching for
What shape do the Fire employ? My best guess is that David Accam will start this on the bench. Does that mean a return to last week's 4-1-4-1, and an effort to play the ball on the deck? Or is there another card to be played here? This is still very early in the season to be expecting much continuity, especially for a squad which is clearly still looking for answers.
Do Frank's subs make the team better? From minutes 15 to 60 last week, the Fire played possession football with some elan; then the subs came on. Whether it was the personnel changes, or the complete change of shape, or some other factor is difficult to say, but what was clear was that the Men in Red limped about like a marionette with one string cut for the remainder of the game. Here's to hoping today's changes are more successful.
The bottom line
Betbrain.com's aggregation of worldwide betting lines for this game shows the Fire as a fairly solid road underdog in this game - 47% chance of a home win, yes, but a full 25% chance of a road win, which are better odds than I would've guessed, frankly.
Prediction: Fire succumb almost entirely in a deafening introduction for Avaya Stadium - 2-0, Quakes, in a game that's not as close as the score. The gloom around Chicago deepens. (Hopefully, I'm entirely wrong.)