All over the country, there's pockets of hardcore MLS nerddom waking up today with an information hangover, blearily checking Twitter reflexively despite the end of the league's negotiation standoff last evening. Yes, MLS' 20th season will kick off on time, and this year, the Fire will be part of the opening-night festivities when they take the field against the Galaxy. Kickoff is slated for shortly after 9 p.m. CST, and the game will be broadcast on UniMas.
Of course, it's possible to feel the Men in Red are 'part of the festivities' the same way a roasted pig is 'part of a luau;' the Fire's selection as the homecoming opponent for both the reigning champs and San Jose's new palace says everything about their falling stature within the league. It's there that we begin this 2015 season, hopeful of recovery from last year's nadir, but increasingly bleak when being realistic about the club's prospects.
All of that will matter not a bit once the ball is blown into play, however. There's a new narrative waiting just a few wins down the road - that this group is the one that proves Yallop's not past it, that combines experience and room for growth in cunning balance. Winning on Friday evening against the defending champions on their field would go a long way to bringing the shape of that narrative into view.
If there's one conundrum Chicago need to figure out, it's how the infusion of attacking talent is going to combine to create goal-scoring chances. Shaun Maloney has looked sturdier than expected playing in the center of midfield, but from the run of play has offered little. Kennedy Igboananike has looked lively, but hasn't finished his chances, which admittedly haven't been thick on the ground. At least they've been healthy - David Accam arrived late after the African Cup of Nations, then pulled up lame with a groin problem after 60 minutes in a friendly.
It's not like the DPs will be going it alone. New left back Joevin Jones has been a revelation, combining fine defensive fundamentals with rapier offensive thrusts up the left wing. Harry Shipp has shown steady growth in his game. Quincy Amarikwa is the same rolling-thunder ball of effort he's always been. Just off-camera, there's a gently healing Mike Magee waiting to join the party.
The problem is that all this talent managed two goals from the run of play in 450 minutes of preseason. Not that goals in preseason games matter much, in and of themselves; but they signal that the attacking unit hasn't quite worked out how they go from 'we have the ball in the attacking zone' to 'someone with a bit of space is putting a shot on goal.' The combination of Maloney and Shipp has produced some nice touches and some lovely turns, and they've kept the ball in tighter spaces than we're used to seeing, but to no great effect in creating scoring chances. Which means that they're still searching for some patterns that work for them; once they find them, it all could unlock in spectacular fashion.
Defensively, the Fire have looked calm and competent throughout preseason. Jones' emergence has made Lovel Palmer's runs forward rarer but more effective; the Jamaican remains a reliable, responsible presence on the right. Captain Jeff Larentowicz is playing an aggressive ball-playing defender role, using his good passing range to some effect. Newcomers Adailton and Eric Gehrig have traded time at the other centerback slot, with the Brazilian's experience and anticipation slightly preferred to Gehrig's mobility and passion.
It's unlikely the Men in Red have faced anything like the mental challenge posed by Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes, and the rest of the LA attack, though. This is like showing up for your first day of class and having the professor hand you the final. Chicago's defense will either prove it's ready, or get an unsparing assessment of how far they have yet to go.
A final thought: Fatigue because of the CBA negotiations could be an issue for a couple of players. Shipp and LA's Dan Gargan flew back to LA in the early afternoon, while board members Larentowicz and Todd Dunivant stayed through the announcement. Neither of the Galaxy's representatives were expected to start, while both of the Fire's are. Word is the players essentially pulled an all-nighter on Tuesday to prepare a counter-offer; how will Big Red and Shipp bear up?
Expect a starting XI that looks something like this: Sean Johnson; Joevin Jones, Eric Gehrig, Jeff Larentowicz, Lovel Palmer; Shaun Maloney, Matt Watson, Michael Stephens; Harry Shipp, Kennedy Igboananike, Quincy Amarikwa.
CoachTony ably discussed both LA's likely shape and their starters. If there's a good time to play a Bruce Arena team, it's early in the season. Arena's squads are built on dynamic, flexible two-man 'teams' within the larger team, and several of these two-man groupings have been disrupted in the offseason. Landon Donovan's retirement breaks up the Rogers/Donovan pairing that dominated the LA left wing down the stretch, while the trade of Marcelo Sarvas sunders the two-man midfield whose cleverness and intuition played right through many MLS three-man groups. The Galaxy have lost both their most-reliable countering route and their assured dominance of possession.
What is worrying is the groupings that remain - glaringly, Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes. Keane's genius seems to radiate outward into his strike partners; our own MVP Magee learned an economical incisiveness at the Irishman's knee. Zardes is now in his third year in Keane's School of Purposeful and Cunning Movement, and it shows. The challenge to concentrate fiercely, moment by moment, for extended periods is not inconsiderable. Keane's gift is sensing that moment of half-thought and exploiting it. And he's fashioned in Zardes an ideal foil - mobile, leggy, whip-smart.
The Galaxy's defensive group is established - Rogers on the left, a swashbuckling wingback; Gonzalez and Leonardo (Meyers, Dunivant) in the middle, erasing everything in the air; and DeLaGarza on the right, a converted centerback and stay-at-home contrast to Rogers. The centerbacks can be bamboozled with quick combinations, but the difficulty is getting into a situation where a combination is possible. LA will work hard as a team to win the ball back, but they generally don't press very high as a group.
Bradford Jamieson vs Lovel Palmer: CoachTony wrote in his scouting report that Jamieson's emergence has allowed the Galaxy to stay in their familiar 4-4-2. This is the kid's big-league debut, though; how will he react? Can Palmer get on top of him and make the 18-year-old hesitant? Or will he create some chances early that leave the Fire defense stretched and unsettled throughout?
Jeff Larentowicz vs Robbie Keane AND fatigue: If Larentowicz starts, here's to hoping he gets into one of those concentration trances very tired people sometimes manage. Three days of endless negotiations followed by a cross-country flight is not ideal game-day prep, certainly. If he can play well against Keane under these conditions, it certainly bodes well for his future at centerback.
What I'll be watching for
How deep is Maloney playing? Is he getting touches in the attack? The Scot showed a willingness to pitch in as the third man in a three-man midfield throughout preseason, but has struggled getting touches in more dangerous positions on the pitch. If Maloney's coming deep to find the ball or win it back, is he able to work forward from there? Or do the Fire lose the ball too quickly for him to migrate forward, it's a problem.
Can Shipp impose his ideas? The kid from the north side will probably start from the left wing, meaning he'll be working in the space between DeLaGarza and Gonzalez in his typical movements. Can he cause them difficulty with the ball, force them to switch marks or turn and face the goal? If he can, everything opens up - Igboananike at the near post, Amarika at the far, Maloney running onto a ball from deeper.
Are the Fire calm in possession? For years, the Men in Red have looked nervous whenever a defender is forced to move the ball along under pressure. This group has seemingly improved, playing calmly from the back more often, but aimless long balls under duress still crop up. Can Chicago simply pass and move against Los Angeles' inconsistent press?
The bottom line
Betbrain.com has the probabilities as follows: Galaxy 59 percent to win, with a 24 percent chance of a draw and long odds for a Fire win - 17%. Sigh.
Prediction: That's what will make the Fire's 2-1 victory so satisfying.