The search for Mr. X
The Fire go into their seventh game with a fairly settled group of five in midfield: Harry Shipp, Shaun Maloney, David Accam, Matt Polster, and ... Mr. X.
Mr. X is not a mere man. He is five men, flash-welded into a tactical multi-tool by the Fire technical staff. Polster's deftness and power, combined with the whirling thresher that is the Accam/Shipp/Maloney attacking group, means a relatively large range of players can throw on the hallowed kit, grab a kid's hand, and start in the Mr. X role. All of this is dependent on a mystical formula involving form in practice, the fit of a player's natural game into the game plan, the wind direction at kickoff and the positions of earthworms after the morning sprinklers shut down.
The position has become the Fire's most intriguing question as kickoff approaches: Who is this week's Mr. X?
Mikey Stephens was the first stable casting; until his injury, it seemed he might be permanently given the Mr. X role. Stephens is a clever, flexible midfielder, and understands space well, which makes him dangerous going forward and surprisingly effective in defense. He and Shipp might be the most intelligent interior duo in MLS, and the fact that they are both Chicagoans makes every part of my CF97 heart just glow. He's a bit slight for a deep role. His addition to the midfield helped flip the switch from confused muddling to clean, simple possession football.
Stephens's preferred positioning, just right of center, also defines the default for this role. With Stephens, Polster emulates Kyle Beckerman, drifting around marking, recycling the ball quickly.
Chris Ritter is the most defensive of the pairings, the one guy who's more of a tackling thug than Polster (he said with the utmost respect). Ritter's another Chicago guy, a big, soft-footed dude who has occasionally shown signs of being a pretty decent passer. His every flinch is backward; he is not an attacker. The success of the pairing against Toronto (when Stephens suffered his ankle injury) was that Polster's robust but technical shuttling effort cleared room for Ritter to look upfield and find targets for his beautifully-lofted missiles.
Razvan Cocis' existence is largely theoretical, but the potential he flashed at the end of a dismal 2014 was tantalizing. His ability to jump-start possession by coming into surprising intermediate spaces gave credibility to an unexceptional midfield. But what he will bring here to this group is an open question; the rule of diminished returns surely applies to clever-but-not-crazy-athletic midfielders like everything else. It's possible he could kick the whole ‘quality possession midfield' thing into the stratosphere, or struggle to figure out a role, or develop lycanthropy and infect most of the team before disappearing into the Canadian wilderness on a road trip. Essentially, Cocis is an announced special guest star who has yet to appear.
Victor Perez is a dude we've seen precious little of - is he a long-term cast member, or a plot point? If he's a pure d-midfielder, a guy who tackles and then finds the closest guy, he's about to get run over by the Polster Fate Roadgrader, unfortunately. His Spanish pedigree promises a certain approach; he'll check the back shoulder, receive with the proper foot, and move instinctively that little bit to make the angle better; but at what price? The escalator clauses built into Perez' loan deal could make him an expensive luxury, especially if the Fire's forwards continue to be second-act extras.
When Matt Watson's name appeared on the cast list last Friday - in the main credits, no less - a cloud of puzzlement grew up around Fire nation. Why would Frank Yallop forsake all the above options in favor of Our English Cousin, the import who embodies the traditional strengths of the American player: Endurance, optimism, tirelessness, a swashbuckling spirit; did I mention a resistance to fatigue? 90 minutes later, the answer was clear: relieved of the responsibility of charging into pressing postures, Polster could connect more cleanly. Watson's doggedness led to Polster's fantastic 16 recoveries Friday night.
Miles to go yet
All of which is to say that Yallop has the Fire playing with an admirable blend of structure and flexibility in this stretch of good play, which extends back beyond the winning streak. A short tinkering period has yielded a basic structure that employs some simple constants - i.e., Accam is a Son of Zeus - to define space, and some complex expressions - i.e., Harrison Shipp folds spacetime on the rare occasion, but has the decency to act embarrassed afterwards. And he's leveraged the resulting logjam for that final position in the matrix into the kind of battle for time seldom seen in MLS. When was the last time you saw five potential starters kicking each other for a single spot in this league?
That said, this could all be a fever-dream brought on by feasting too grandly upon the league's least-favored. When was the last time any team played a man up for significant minutes in three straight games? Winning in those circumstances is more an expectation than a hope. And yet there's this feeling that somehow this is different - could it be so? Or is the result of playing awful sides in the best possible situations and profiting thereby?
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Please understand this conversation is and will be a work in progress. We here at Hot Time don't have any special access to the team; the front office doesn't invite us to their reindeer games, even when doing so costs nothing whatsoever. This is an effort to understand and explain the structure of the Fire midfield. Understanding the organic outcomes of all these inputs - the coach's instructions; the players' preparation, mentality and shared understanding; stress, pride, rage, boredom and everything else.
If there's something here you don't agree with, the comments section is just below. We might be wrong, but we'll not be bought.