In this short-run series, I look at the possible alignments for Chicago's midfield in 2015. Part I is here.
Football tactics aren't analagous to maps, despite our tendency to use map-like documents to describe them. Tactics are closer in density and situation-dependency to a really thorough set of driving instructions - and I mean really thorough, closer to the instruction-set of a self-driving Google car than a scribbled list of necessary turns to the destination ("WHEN pressure-on-ball is >STERN AND quadrant=DEFENSIVE AND simple-outlets=NONE THEN hoof-ball-long-sequence," etc.). Everything is, or should be, conditioned on what the players can actually do. So, let's start there - what can the various (prospective) members of the Fire midfield actually do?
Shaun Maloney (#10): The wee Scot could be a purpose-built MLS No. 10 - he has the touch, ideas and craft to fashion chances, without the expectation of defensive deference that sometimes undoes newcomers to the league. He can turn under withering pressure and can pull off astonishing technical feats with either foot, but still puts in a full shift without the ball. That said, like most creative players, he is not comfortable marking space and keeping a shape minute after minute - that free space calls to him, says, "Just leeeeeeak forward into this little pocket here, and when they turn it over ..." Because of that, he's terrifically unsuited to any role save the most creative.
Michael Stephens (#8): Stephens combines a decent sense of spacing and defensive responsibility with enough passing nous to help a team keep the ball. He's not going to break any legs, but he can win the ball and doesn't shy away from compact spaces in the middle. His background playing on the wings of a 4-4-2 means he's decent help in those situations. The question is, can he thrive as a box-to-box guy after spending most of his career as the more-defensive second choice on the outside?
Harry Shipp (#8, #10): Harry has more than a bit of Maloney's tendency to lean toward open space, which is understandable - he's got the first touch, the service and the ideas of a true No. 10. There were times last season, though, when he showed he could damp his creative instincts slightly in favor of serving as a possession-pivot for a team playing less directly - re-watch him against Houston late last season, and you'll see a very young player playing the Xavi role well, always moving to offer, keeping the ball rolling while connecting everyone's runs. Defensively, he's clever and nimble, but like many creatives, he values his touch too greatly to be happy with getting stepped on.
Matt Watson (#6, #8): Let's get this out of the way immediately: Watson does have one incredible superpower when one considers the difficulties associated with developing a team that keeps its defensive shape and is hard to break down - namely, the dude can run all day. The history of MLS is replete with three-lungers whose tireless ground-covering turned a pedestrian tactic lethal - think Josh Gros with those Moreno/Gomez DC United teams, for instance. Matt Watson covers an insane amount of turf, and when he's not overly adventurous, makes pressing patterns more effective by essentially covering two or three zones on his own. That said, he's not disciplined enough to function as a destroyer, and his short passing is more wayward than one would like from a possession-oriented midfielder.
Razvan Cocis (#8): Cocis' absence the last couple of preseason games has opened the door for another candidate for the box-to-box role. The Hungarian's intelligent positioning and clean, accurate passing allowed the 2014 Fire - one of the worst possession teams in MLS - to begin to keep the ball, and there's no reason to believe he's lost his way since then. If the Fire plan to keep the ball rather than counter-attack, Cocis could be unexpectedly crucial. With the ball, he's a model of concision, keeping the touches simple even when the thinking behind them is not.
Chris Ritter (#6): Our mammoth man from Winnetka, Ritter has shown promise as a pure destroyer. His size means he can simply steer smaller players off the ball, and his long passing is accurate enough that he can trigger counter-attacks with raking feeds to the wings. However, he's not the quickest player in the world, which means his anticipation must be sharpened, lest he be constantly a half-step behind; as a solo defensive midfielder, there are questions about his ability to cover enough ground.
Alex (#8): Alex has played most of his Fire career in two situations - either he's been on the left, because being left-footed is a rare and mystical condition too few Men in Red have shared, or he's been in the role Watson seemingly won around the midpoint last year, that of the box-to-box roamer who's the second man to join either attack or defense. I've described him as responsible but lacking in magic; as a player off the bench, he's wonderful. Unfortunately, Alex isn't dynamic enough to create offense, and his passing touch can come and go, so as a starter he's basically a box-to-box guy whose focus is the wrong box.
Matt Polster (#6): Polster's looked the most like a classic No. 6 in his limited minutes in preseason - he's cautious, commanding, and keeps the game very simple with the ball. He seems to have slightly better defensive range than Ritter. All of this is based upon very limited minutes, though, so it's possible we've just seen an aggressive player taking advantage of tiring opposition.
Mostly on the wings
Mike Magee (#10, #7): The 2013 MVP has played a great deal of his career as a wing forward; he's not hugely impactful defensively, but his intelligence and competitiveness allow him to impact games no matter where he's playing. As a central mid, though, he's simply too far from his comfort zone - he can occasionally combine to keep the ball, and his runs forward are sublime, but he's defensively a liability in the rough-and-tumble of a packed midfield. Some would claim Magic Mike is a No. 10; I'd counter that he's an intelligent, committed second striker.
Collin Fernandez (#10, #7): He's a kid we haven't seen play. He looks like a technically-advanced midfielder with a non-stop motor and a sense of how to fashion good scoring chances; whether these characteristics will transfer to playing for real money against full-grown men is, always, the million-dollar question.
David Accam (#7): Accam is a classic wing forward, a guy who goes straight at goal from his starting position very high on the left wing. In a very defensive formation, or when late in a game protecting a lead, he might be asked to man the barricades on the left more than is usual. He is extremely fast and has the kind of ball-winning ideas that speak of a childhood spent playing without supervision - when Accam retrieves la pelota, it's often a humiliating spectacle for the opponent, which can serve to begin the process of unraveling the mentality of, say, a victimized right back.
Kingsley Bryce (#7): Bryce's conversion to right wingback continues well, seemingly, and it's not hard to imagine him getting some minutes as a defensively-minded sub on the right side of midfield. The lanky winger's change to defense hasn't robbed him of his comfort on the ball. As a midfielder, he'd use his hard work in practice on positional discipline without the high-wire act of being part of the last line of defense.
Greg Cochrane (#7?): Similar to Bryce, Cochrane's time in midfield will likely be limited to defensive lock-down duty on the wing of a five-man bus-parking expedition. His showing as a starter on the left side of a bog-standard four-man midfield in the Simple Invitational was disappointing - Cochrane looked a bit timid and physically overmatched, unable to make much happen with the ball. As a de facto second left back late in the game, though, he'd add something different, never offering space behind because he prefers to swing crosses in from deeper positions.
Patrick Nyarko (#7): Nyarko, like Accam, is something of a wing forward - albeit one from an earlier age, the ‘pure winger,' a guy whose speed and trickery pulllls at the defense like warm taffy. It will be interesting to see how this very serious injury and recovery have affected the Ghanaian's explosiveness and stamina. Nyarko combines well, but his primary and distinguishing ability is his rambling, half-controlled dribbling style. Producing a final ball worthy of the shredding he's just given the defense is a gift that has often eluded him, although that's improved over the years.
So, given this set of players, how should the Fire line up? That's the subject of Part III: The shape.