There is an aching familiarity to the Fire’s roster situation as 2017 unfolds its sooty wings and emerges - sticky, preening and blinking baleful intent - from the horrifying chrysalis that was 2016. As usual, there’s just enough there that it’s possible to make an argument that maybe, just maybe this collection of footballers in CF97 livery are more promising than the last several assemblages - each of which were, in their time, maybe, just maybe better than their predecessors.
Every effort to really understand the roster situation is met by blandishments and obfuscation. “You couldn’t understand how the salary budget works,” a fanbase of chemists and lawyers and math geeks is told. The salary dump from the union is a useless tool, we’re told. We really are great at this, we’re told. Just trust us. Just trust us. Just. Trust. Us.
We are now in our fourth consecutive term of Just Trust Us, a succession which runs from Javier Leon to Saint Frank Klopas to The Other Frank, Yallop and now to the WonderTwin powers of Nelson Rodriguez and Velko Paunovic. Their tactics have varied:
- Leon: Loquacious off-the-record bullshit
- Saint Frank: Cautious constant optimism, being a generally great guy everyone loves
- The Other Frank: Exhausted shrugging
- WonderTwins: Thinly-veiled contempt
But the results, sadly, have not. Since Blanco left, the trajectory of the club has been straight down. These repeated failures have a long tail. Long-time Fire supporters are embittered by this repetition in a way that newer fans don’t understand; as a result, what fanbase is left the Men in Red has riven into tribes that co-exist in some tension with one another.
All of which is to underline the highly fraught tenor around discussions of the Fire’s roster for 2017. Until yesterday, there were so many potential variables - maybe they’re signing a bunch of Homegrowns! Maybe they’re about to announce Schweinsteiger! - that it seemed premature to panic. Rodriguez’ brief presser poured water on both of those ideas, though. So.
The bare facts: The Fire’s roster, as currently constituted, is 20 guys. A full roster is 28. The Fire have two draft picks in tomorrow’s draft. The Fire currently have eight International roster slots, and eight International players, so any more internationals will necessitate a trade with an MLS club who has one to spare. The Fire are known to have acquired a large amount of Targeted and General Allocation money.
Pressure’s on, Nelson. Time to produce, Velko. This appears a vanishingly small aperture you’re trying to thread, gentlemen, and good luck to you over the next month or so. You might just need to ‘shake up the f--ing soccer world’ to pull this off. Should you not, 2017 looks a hungry beast, and not at all the trusting type. Results, motherf--kers.
How it might just work
So let’s just imagine that the general pall of doom hanging around the Fire is just an artifact of some kind of seasonally affective disorder - an idea not that far-fetched, as we’ve just lived through 72 hours that featured a howling snow-storm morphing into a January thunderstom gradually edging into a delightful little 12 hours of icing rain. Let’s imagine all this worry is just the product of a sort of reverse pathetic fallacy.
By this reckoning, the front office’s seemingly blase attitude toward the January transfer window is due to their real confidence that a successful starting XI is already in the building, and they’re just embellishing around the corners of it now. If that’s the case, we’re probably looking at an Opening Day XI that looks something like this:
On the lineup sheet, this formation looks like a simple 4-4-2, with Arturo Alvarez and David Accam playing as traditional wingers, Matt Polster and Juninho paired in the engine room, and Michael de Leeuw and Nemanja Nikolic playing movement games up top.
In play, though, it’s a highly flexible, hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3, with each player’s role tuned to the individual’s apparent playing comfort zone:
- Jorge Bava is comfortable playing as a sweeper behind a high line, which opens up a host of pressing options for the rest of the team. If Jonathan Campbell and Joao Meira can get used to letting Bava handle balls over the top, that will have a ripple effect through the shape - everyone takes three steps forward, which converts any pressing effort from the front trio from ‘irritant’ to ‘obstacle.’
- Johan Kappelhof is the sacrificial lamb in this shape. He’s better in the middle, but the team is better with Campbell and Meira in the middle and Johan’s potent mind keeping the shape from the wing. He’ll play conservatively on the right, giving Alvarez a platform to move freely to find the play.
- João Meira’s leadership has been a talking point in the offseason from the WonderTwins; I’m more impressed with how well he tackled once he settled in beside Campbell late in the season. Neither he nor Campbell are very speedy, which meant that every attempt to play a high line caused panic attacks among the more tactically-inclined Fire supporters (okay, fine, maybe just me). As mentioned above, Bava should help with that.
- Brandon Vincent plays just a bit higher on the left, adjusting for the phase of play and game state. Accam generally vacates the left flank when attacking, so Vincent’s support of the attack becomes crucial in the final third. As he gets further experience, his positioning should continue to improve, which will mean fewer instances of opponents countering quickly down our left when Accam dribbles into trouble.
- Polster is the deepest midfielder, and plays tilted to the left in anticipation of the more-frequent necessity of covering Vincent on the left back’s forward runs. The connection between the third-year pro and new signing Juninho will be one of the most significant determinants of success or failure for the 2017 Fire, and is at the very least a promising prospect.
- Juninho is asked to just be Juninho. If you’re trying to play a two-man midfield in MLS, this is the absolute perfect guy to sign - his combination of awareness, touch and surprising bite when necessary are vastly underrated. He’ll play in the middle and be the mind that turns happenstance into patterns, just like he was for the LA Galaxy when he and Marcelo Sarvas would torch the living s--t out of us despite being outnumbered 3 v 2 in the midfield.
- Alvarez does just what he did for the 2016 Fire. Nominally a right wing, he’ll start narrower and deeper than Accam does on the left, and will be given license to switch between looking for space to make something happen and pinching in to help in the midfield scrum, likely changing emphasis based upon specific tactical adjustments. Alvarez is experienced enough to shape his game to fill different roles, and that ability will get used often.
- Accam is the X factor in this formation. He’s thunder and lightning. He’s the elemental force that shatters the stone. If the Fire are on the back foot, his pace over the top remains a potent weapon, and when they’re on top the fear of getting posterized seems to create a gravity-well around him, pulling defenses out of shape. The hope is that clever attackers like De Leeuw and Nikolic can exploit these distortions.
- De Leeuw gets to play in his favored second-striker role, scheming and prying and helping back when the mood strikes him. We’ve seen enough to know that the Dutchman’s movement and sense of the moment are very, very good. Now the hope is we’ve paired him with a pure hitman striker with similar tendencies, the Fire can be terrifying going forward for the first time in years.
- Finally, Nikolic is tasked with replicating his Ekstraklasa form as the point of the spear. The Serbo-Hungarian doesn’t have explosive pace, but he does have what the NFL guys would call a ‘good motor,’ a trait which is vastly important and almost always underrated for teams that intend to disrupt their opposition with high pressing. Of course, his primary job will be continuing to crush decent chances into the back of the net. Absent truly epic settling-in difficulties, it’s hard to imagine he’s forgotten how after a career that’s already seen 171 goals in 287 appearances in league play.
If we take these optimistic assessments as truth, then the rest of the roster is depth, like so (player / player he can sub in for):
- John Goossens / Accam, Alvarez
- Luis Solignac / Nikolic, de Leeuw
- David Arshakyan / Nikolic
- Drew Conner / Polster, Juninho
- Joey Calistri / Accam, Alvarez, Juninho
- Michael Harrington / Vincent, Kappelhof
- Patrick Doody / Vincent, Campbell
- Collin Fernandez / Accam, Alvarez, Juninho
- Matt Lampson / Bava
… with Kappelhof frequently moving to centerback to assist squad rotation.
Maybe, just maybe, this group is good enough. If not, woe betide 2017 for the WonderTwins - failure will not be met with patience.