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Roundtable: ‘Are the Fire good?’ and other questions

In which Jack Kelly says, “I didn’t preview that video and was unaware a donkey would appear”

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

James Bridget Gordon: Happy [Tuesday]! We're undefeated in our first two games, we won our home opener, and our midfield is already looking like one of the best in the league. We... we actually look kind of... good??

We're going to pick apart the 2-0 win over RSL in detail but I want to start with the elephant in the room. The referee decision on the first goal -- that Nikolic received a backpass from an RSL player and was thus onside despite being waaaaaay behind the last defender -- has garnered international attention. But more to the point, it was a referee decision that... actually went in our favor.

Are we all actually dead? Is this the afterlife?

Sean Spence: If so, I vote we stay dead.

Jack Kelly: Harrington actually looked decent again. Made some important tackles/interceptions and only had one moment where I was thinking: "what the f*ck are you doing?!" I think that's encouraging.

Other things: we need to be more clinical in the final third. The Fire easily could have scored 5 or 6 times in this match. Instead, they didn't put chances away and RSL hung around for a bit and pressed at the end of the match.

Overall, I'm really gassed up that we've gone two consecutive matches without losing. I'm not used to this.

Mike Tooley: I’ll second Jack's point on Harrington. This was probably his best game for the Fire that I can recall. I am not really sure what to make of Niko's goal and that call. It's clear after two games he will live and die on the shoulder of the last defender. He is going to get called off side a bunch but if you are persistent in trying to get behind there is always a chance of a missed call.

But I think they got the call right somehow. Right?

Jack: Nemanja's goal was similar to that chance [Gonzalo] Higuain bottled in the 2014 WC final.

Ruben Tisch: You're both wrong on Harrington. Having Dax and Juninho in the midfield covered up a lot of holes when he wandered out of position, and we're able to keep possession sometimes after some truly horrific passing.

Joseph Martinez is going to eat him alive this weekend.

Jack: #hottake - Nemanja took notes from Gonzalo:

Except he didn't miss!

P.S. - I didn't preview that video and was unaware a donkey would appear.

James Bridget: ... that's a hell of a sentence even with context, Jack.

Jack: I try my best to provide candid insight, JBG.

Sean: Back to Harrington ...

Mike: I don't doubt Martinez and many others will tear him up this year. And certainly having two CMs as good as we do now will cover up some of his issues. But I thought he was better than usual.

Jack: I'm backing Harrington until he has actually been exposed. (cc: his wife whose Twitter handle I have forgotten).

Ruben: Better than usual in this case means just means not-a-disaster. He's going to cost the Fire games, and the sooner he's replaced, the better.

Mike: "Better than usual in this case means just means not-a-disaster." Correct!

Jack: Lack of disaster is a victory in my mind.

James Bridget: I feel like Michael Harrington's wife has become a silent, looming specter over these discussions. Like something out of Poe.

Jack: Hard to say that a disaster is imminent when there are no proven signs of it thus far.

Mike: We should be thankful Plata did not play for RSL. Or that might have happened.

Jack: All I'm saying, y'all, is that we should be praising good performances not anticipating bad ones.

James Bridget: We're Fire fans. That's never going to happen.

Ruben: All I'm saying is that until he proves he can close out a defender and prevent a cross consistently, he shouldn't be starting. He's a good dude by all accounts, but he's a back up, at best. If we're talking playoffs, (and we are, apparently) Michael Harrington is not a starting right back on a playoff team in 2017.

Sean: Since Ryan Taylor and Chad Barson were sent packing without contract offers, he’s our right back for the foreseeable future.

Mike: I am still assuming he will not be the starting right back by season’s end. But maybe I shouldn't assume that.

Anyways. It will be good to see our guys play Atlanta who is just flat out better than either Columbus and RSL have been. RSL has not scored yet and Columbus kind of looked like they forgot how to play the game in Houston this weekend.

How good is Atlanta, really?

Ruben: Next week is going to be a snap back to reality moment. I don't have a lot of confidence of getting points next week.

Brian Bottei: Why does everyone LOVE Atlanta?

James Bridget: A lot of it is marketing. Some of it is Barcelona rub-off thanks to Tata Martino.

Brian: They're fast. Ok. Fine. Whatever. They're still an expansion team.

James Bridget: Expansion teams tend to get a lot of activation energy.

Jack: Yeah, I don't rate Atlanta as much as a lot of people are. Blew a 1-0 lead at home late and then battered their fellow expansion side.

And, like, 6-1 is bad, but a preseason with Tata is very different than a preseason with Adrian Heath.

James Bridget: And when there isn't an expansion the league just kind of picks a team to be their sweethearts for the season. Remember back in 2013 when MLS was so desperate to make SKC the future of American soccer?

Jack: Also, think about all of the national TV love that NYCFC got when they came into the league. Orlando will forever seem like their little brothers in my mind.

Mike: I rate Atlanta regardless of expansion label or not. Almiron and Martinez are dangerous. It is a good early test on the road.

Brian: I understand that they're going to be overhyped by virtue of being expansion. That part I don't mind. More people are into MLS as a result. I'm just saying chill out about how good they are. They've played two games ever.

They have some good players... they're not WOW good.

James Bridget: Almiron is really good, not gonna lie

Sean: I’m gonna have to take exception with the ‘they’re not WOW good’ idea - because I think they really are. This current Fire team has created turnovers in dangerous areas and shown nothing like the ruthlessness and skill that we’ve seen from Almiron and Martinez. Folks are forgetting they could have easily been 3-0 up on Red Bulls in the first half.

Ruben: Actually, I think Harrington is that bad. I don't think it will be 6-1 bad. But I'm expecting a 2-1, 3-2 scoreline for Atlanta.

Mike: That wouldn't be a disaster if that is the final.

Jack: I expect the Fire to win. I always have high expectations - only way to get rid of the losing mentality of this club.

Mike: I am optimistic about the season overall but don't expect them to win or even draw every game. It is nice that they are relevant again. There are going to be ups and downs but it's good to see a positive start.

John Carollo III: I think that game against MNU shouldn't count. MNU was that bad that I think Atlanta looked better than they should. I'd take more from that NYRB game, which showed a lack of focus to keep their lead.3-2 Fire, with Atlanta scoring first.

Once again, Harrington has improved marginally. Instead of detrimental, he's been neutral. Still not good at all. Still lobbying for Kappelhof on the right and Meira/Campbell in the middle. Seriously, it's just a band-aid until we sign a new right back. Play your best players.

Going back to the game, I thought we did just fine for what we needed. Unfortunately that may not be enough going forward. Niko is a player that needs direct service [to his feet], not route one. Accam can run onto a long ball, Niko needs a cross or a clean through ball. That's how he's going to score in real life.

On the defense, we still need to check up on the wings, but Vincent is really improving this season. Had a solid shot at the end of the game. Dax and Juninho are amazing together and I think that'll be tough to break up unless we recruit a player with more quality than either. While I want to see Campbell out there, I won't deny that Kap and Meira have really held their own. Alvarez seems poised for another quality season and De Leeuw just needs to keep doing him.

The point that breaks down is that we seem to refuse to play to those strengths. Playing Route One with Niko and holding back when trying to attack are things that we should try to avoid.

Brian: It should be noted that you're more inclined to counter a bit when your have a 2 goal lead at home to a team missing its best attacker. I would go back and really watch the first 15 minutes until niko scored

John: That's fine, I just don't think we should see that this Saturday.

James Bridget: Anyway, I don't think I'm as down on Harrington as some of y'all here but I will definitely feel better once we sign another RB.

Jack: Anyways, what have we thought of De Leeuw so far?

John: De Leeuw hasn't been as dominant as he was last season, but he doesn't need to be anymore. He played in some good balls and seems to be working fairly well in that role right behind Niko.

Jack: I like him a lot. I think that he is showing that he is a lot more creative than most people thought. He's doing well in that false-9 role.

Mike: If anything, he worked his socks off this weekend.

Jack: I agree, Mike. He's been doing really well tracking back and defending

James Bridget: I'm all about MDL. I really think he makes the whole forward line better. He gives Niko the service he needs, he relieves some pressure from Accam so he doesn't feel like he has to do everything himself, and he's nudging Alvarez to push himself more. (I've generally been pretty meh on Alvarez but he's been doing well and I think MDL is part of the reason why.)

John: Exactly, he's not the guy who dominates, he's the guy who facilitates. Not a 10 by all means, but he's certainly a solid substitute for one.

Jack: Yes! JBG is 100 percent correct on that. I think Alvarez has been so used to playing in the false-9 role in the past and when he was asked to play as a true winger he needed some encouragement.

Brian: In 190 mins so far, MDL has had 1 shot, and 1 key pass. His expected goal/assist contribution per 90 minutes has been .14 per 90. Need to see more of him but for early returns that is... not great.

Sean: I worry that we’ve got two guys making the runs and no one looking to feed those runs. If we don’t turn the opposition over in their own end, who will pull the strings? Accam is too head-down and direct, Alvarez’ service is too spotty, and Juni and Dax seem too defense-first. MDL is very good but he’s not a guy who drops into space to facilitate possession or feed other runners. We will have to find a way to break down static defenses we haven’t yet seen to be a playoff team.

Who’s your captain?

Jack: MDL has been wearing the arm band right?

John: I believe so.

Brian: Juninho wore the armband on Saturday.

Jack: I think that it should be MDL, personally.

John: He had it against C-Bus.

James Bridget: Oh hey - are we having another captaincy debate? (Literally the first piece I ever wrote for HT was about Who Should Wear The Armband.)

John: If we are, I vote for Dax.

Jack: MDL 2017! Where's my polling place?

James Bridget: I'm... actually inclined to go with Dax, too.

John: He’s shown a whole lot of heart since he got here and was the one guy every player has brought up in conversation when discussing leadership.

Jack: I'd be conflicted with Dax.

Mike: It has been interesting to see MDL and Juninho each get a turn with the armband. My instinct says I would vote for Dax too. Juninho was impressive Saturday though as well.

Jack: But don't think McCarty having it is unreasonable.

John: It’s not about quality of performances here. Captainship shouldn't be your best player, the captain is the heart of the team. Before Dax showed up, I would've said MDL before him Polster, and before that it was Shipp.

James Bridget: My rationale is that I think Dax is still sore about getting traded to Chicago and we need to get more buy-in to smooth things over. Giving him the armband could cement the relationship, get him fully onboard with the team instead of just biting his tongue and doing what's expected of him. The club needs to get him from "yeah fine whatever" to "Fire Til I Die," and the captaincy would give him a sense of ownership, in a manner of speaking.

Jack: That exact same reason is why I am having reservations over him, JBG. Then again, his transfer was under strange circumstances and he wasn't really consulted about it.

John: And that's completely understandable. He may be this fired up out of spite, he may be this fired up because of the club, he may just be fired up because he's a gosh darn competitor. If he's not completely bought into the club yet, he doesn't get the armband yet.

Jack: Jigs just set the stage for so many "fired up" puns - someone please take advantage of this!

Anyways, I do agree with him on this.

John: I try.

James Bridget: I totally get the skepticism. No one should have to be convinced to commit to this team. It's like with Sherjil MacDonald-- dude very obviously hated it here and the right solution was for him to GTFO. (And he did, and the villagers rejoiced.)

On the other hand, the Fire have a horrible reputation and getting good players (especially in MLS where people, you know, talk to each other about things) is always going to be a challenge. We can't offer them money. We can't offer them championships. We can't offer them a pleasant work environment. We can't even really offer them loyal fans. So when we do land people like Dax, by hook or by crook, we gotta give them something. I think Dax has the right mentality to be captain and I think that's the right carrot to dangle in front of him.

Jack: I'm really riding on Dax to get other people to want to come to the club.

John: Nelson specifically said that we were looking for a leader this offseason and said "we found him" when we got Dax.

Jack: And, in large part, I think that begins with winning. USOC 2017, please!

James Bridget: I mean basically when you give someone the armband you're telling them: "This is your team now." I think Dax would relish that opportunity.

Jack: I agree, JBG. I think he would relish that chance even more with the World Cup looming and Bruce Arena's eyes constantly watching.

James Bridget: ... of course that's all contingent on the USMNT qualifying. Which, lol

Jack: LOL - I mean, we'll know the answer to that question in two weeks. Still hurts me that we are in doubt.

James Bridget: I'm trying to emotionally prepare for not qualifying.

Jack: I've been of that mindset my whole life as an Arsenal fan.

John: The streets of Bro Nation shall riot!

James Bridget: I don't think it'll be the end of the world. England won the damn thing, went out in the QF in the next one, and then completely missed the next two.

Jack: That's peak England.

Does the early season matter?

James Bridget: So, ok. The Fire are unbeaten in their first two games, four points from six. Maybe this is a false dawn and they'll revert to the mean soon, but it's also possible they'll keep it up and do pretty well for themselves.

Which is great! The problem is that the regular season doesn't matter in MLS. Seattle was bottom of the Western Conference in July last season and then they won the MLS Cup. So there's a defensible argument that even if the Fire have a great start, it won't matter in the larger scheme of things.

Of course there are other reasons why a strong early part of the season matters beyond points on the board and playoff qualification. There's inarguable value in winning for its own sake. The players will believe in themselves, the fans will start to come around, and maybe -- just maybe -- this toxic gloom that's hung over Toyota Park for the past few years will start to lift.

Which is to say -- does what the Fire do right now matter? Why or why not?

Jack: It matters a lot. They need to beat out the "losing mentality" that Dax talked about when he first moved to the club. Winning early, and doing it as a team, will set them up will to face adversity in the later parts of the season.

John: Of course, everything matters. The flow from each game is something that every player takes with them. Their personal play that game might be something to work on, but if the team has a good day, they're more likely to improve with the rest of the team. Sure, it could set us up for disappointment in the end, but if we can keep things going for a month or so, I'd call this season at least an early success.

A loss next week isn't going to change anything, but a win will. Every player tries to forget losses, but no one forgets a win.

Mike: Every point matters when you haven't made the playoffs for so long. Sure, there are teams who will get hot toward the end of the season like Seattle did last year but we just don't have that luxury. Any point earned now is one less to worry about later on if we are in the playoff picture. It will give us and others who have seen poor results year after year something to be excited about.

Of course we’re wrong about everything - it’s up to you to set us straight in the comments! Get to it.