In the run-up to last night’s game against New York, Frank Yallop dismissed calls to "play the kids" given that the season is all but over. His rationale was that using the remaining games of the season to give younger players an opportunity to get minutes and nail down a regular first team place was tantamount to surrender.
We're not out of the playoff hunt yet so you've got to go with the strongest line-up that you think is going to win games. Mathematically we still have a chance. Obviously it's a big ask but we're going to try our best. You just can't give up and send a bunch of youngsters in which wouldn't be fair on them either. They need to come into a team that's playing well and buoyant and I don't think you play them all at the same time. [...] We'll see but as of right now we're still shooting and trying for the playoffs.
Technically he’s correct. The Fire are mathematically still in contention. Before the win against the Red Bulls, we had a 6% chance of qualifying for the playoffs, according to ESPN.
But we all know what's up. We're not making the playoffs. The best we can hope for is to not finish in last place— and that's looking increasingly optimistic.
Yallop’s premise- that playing the kids would be throwing in the towel, and that there’s no way we could stay in playoff contention for 2015 by sending the young’uns out- is flawed. As last night’s win- and other recent games in which the Fire didn’t play like abject failures- illustrated, playing the kids isn’t about winning next year. It’s about winning right now.
The proof in this particular pudding lies with the Fire’s young midfield trio— Harry Shipp, Michael Stephens, and Matt Polster. When they play together in the midfield, this team is at least an order of magnitude better. The problem is that rarely happens.
Stephens is an 8. Shipp is a 10. In Chicago's best lineup - which we've rarely seen - both start w/ Polster in MF. https://t.co/No3cpvSO2K— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) August 27, 2015
Michael Stephens, who’s spent too much time this season on the bench, played a critical role in the Fire’s performance last night.
Here's visual confirmation of Michael Stephens being a boss — check out the ambitious completions in New York's half: pic.twitter.com/eiXyMHLA2B— Thomas Floyd (@thomasfloyd10) August 27, 2015
Matt Polster- whom Yallop seems committed to pretending is a Right Back- decided to drift out of his assigned position to something closer to his natural fit. The result?
As for Shipp? We’ve seen what he can do when played at or near his natural advanced midfield spot. Yet for most of the season he’s been forced out wide in a flat midfield four, limiting the space he has to work and effectively forcing him to wear kid gloves. This has been blamed on newly-departed Shaun Maloney’s presence, but we’ve seen Shipp played out wide even when Maloney wasn’t in the lineup. Yallop just sort of insists on remaking Shipp into a winger, and it’s not working out for anyone.
Nice win by Chicago, but I look at all these young, creative players & think "We really need a 33-year-old Scot to bring the room together."— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) August 27, 2015
Yallop may not be willing to admit the truth in public- and maybe not even to his players- but the season is over. Insomuch as this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season has a bright spot, it’s that the Fire have in their locker what could end up being the most lethal midfield in the league.
Anyway, if the Fire take this roster into next season, move Polster back to #6 and get a top right back, they're a legit threat in the East.— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) August 27, 2015
The path forward for the Men In Red is clear— a midfield three of Shipp/Stephens/Polster, Nyarko and Accam as wide forwards, and a target man up top (either Igbo or Gilberto, depending on form and fitness). Committing to this midfield setup now, right now, will not only help us win some games before the end of the season and salvage some dignity, but we’ll also have the pieces in place to build on in 2016. In theory, the Fire will only need to fill in some specific blanks next season- Right Back, a natural Center Back, a Center Forward the team can hang its hat on- in order to get the best out of this midfield trio.
The future is already here. Forget effective DPs— the Fire have the tools they need to start winning right now. They just need Yallop to see what he’s got and use them appropriately.
Play the kids, Frank. They’ll help you win next year, yes, but they’ll help you win now.