The situation: Green shoots amidst the wrack and ruin
Clearly this was not the opening stanza the Fire were hoping to sing - three games, three losses; five goals surrendered, only one scored - and that when already down 2-0. The Men in Red have yet to hold a lead in 2015, and are roundly acclaimed as the new worst team in MLS; every major 'power ranking' has them at the foot. The results speak loudly, and their language is not family-friendly.
And yet there are signs that the team is actually knitting itself into a different kind of football team. Sure, the bad old tendencies we've all described at length are still there - the aimless hoofing when under pressure, the half-of-this and half-of-that attempts at pressuring the ball, the slack, confused marking on set pieces - but in shorter stretches. Peer more closely into the numbers, and we find a Chicago Fire squad that is struggling to transform itself into a patient, ball-possession soccer team. Last season, la Maquina Roja were the worst passing team in the league, both overall and in the final third; this season, they're in the top third and rising.
This is no small change. For years, the Fire have talked about keeping the ball, resting with the ball, making the ball do the work - then the kickoff would happen, and the Men in Red would settle into a familiar pattern, the defense setting deep and banging long clearances to the forward line, the midfield (bypassed, again) scrambling to mark someone in frustration. These patterns leave their marks on a team, repeated as they are, like a groove folded over and over into a piece of paper.
This style requires new or atrophied skills from several positions. The defenders must be able to step around pressure and make a simple connecting pass rather than the old panic-n-hoof; midfielders need to shift their foci freely between the opposite poles of finding someone to mark and finding some space away from a mark. Its demands are almost entirely orthogonal to the old way; some time in transition is to be expected.
The lynchpin of the possession style is Harry Shipp, of course. The second-year enganche is simply better than his rookie incarnation - cannier and hardier, his marvelous first touch a shade subtler. Shipp's ability to find space in a crowded midfield multiplies the work done around him, offering an out-ball where previously none existed. His partners in midfield - Michael Stephens, Shaun Maloney and Matt Polster - have taken these openings well. The Fire have completed at least 78 percent of their passes each game this season. Compare that to the beginning of 2014; in Shipp's first two starts, the Fire barely completed 65% of their passes as the group settled into the comfort of the old lump-and-chase.
That said, sports are a results business, and CF97 isn't a developmental squad. This is the top level of professional football; results are God, and this God is harsh and vengeful toward those groups that don't propitiate Her with wins. All this growth will be laid to waste should results not follow.
The XI against Philadelphia will likely be defined more by those missing than those present. Shaun Maloney left, as expected, to play a bright 45 minutes in a tepid scoreless draw for Scotland. David Accam's 45 minutes of health was sufficient progress to fly him to Africa and back twice in a week - a fantastic environment for our still-recovering wing forward, doubtless. Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko are still weeks if not months away. New signing Víctor Pérez is in town;
The absences severely limit the team's options out wide. Expect to see Joevin Jones played on the left wing again, as the only other true wide player on the roster is newly-signed draftee Kingsley Bryce. The right side could be manned by either Quincy Amarikwa or Kennedy Igboananike, with the other playing up top; the most likely alignment sees a sort of combination of both approaches, with Michael Stephens tasked with balancing the side from the midfield. Shipp should start in his natural position, just behind the striker, the connective tissue between midfield and attack.
In defense, the last two times Jones started on the wing, Frank Yallop deployed Eric Gehrig at right back and Lovel Palmer at left back. The results haven't been phenomenal; Gehrig stood on the edge of the great confidence-canyon Posterized for his entire stretch there against Vancouver. The centerback pairing of Jeff Larentowicz and Adaílton seems a settled thing.
It's hard to imagine, but there is some possibility that Sean Johnson's status as No. 1 for the Fire is under threat. Johnson's failure to improve his distribution is increasingly an issue with a team that's trying to keep the ball, and last week's clown show has led to calls for the very reliable Jon Busch to get the nod. Will Yallop risk courting a goalkeeper controversy and possibly destroy Johnson's transfer value by starting Busch?
What could change
The weight of three losses does make it slightly more probable that Frank Yallop will break his patterns in some flagrant way. One possibility is a move for Larentowicz to defensive midfield, with Gehrig stepping into the back line; another, harsher possibility is the benching of the captain in favor of Gehrig at centerback and Polster as midfield destroyer. In midfield, there's always the chance that Yallop forsakes one of the midfield possession group (Jones, Polster, Stephens, Shipp) in favor of someone like Matt Watson or Alex, hard grinders whose lack of offensive polish dictates more of a countering stance.
In the second part of this week's game preview, I'll look at the Philadelphia Union, likely flashpoints, and make ridiculous predictions.