Back in the merry month of May, the Fire began an unbeaten streak stretching over a couple of months. In that time, the team began gaining traction within the city and within the league. Then came the Gold Cup break and suddenly we come back to what seems to be a very different team. Yes, there have been a couple of injuries, but the line-up seems to be pretty much the same. So what happened?
To be completely honest, I think we all knew the drop was coming. There were cracks in this team that no one really acknowledged because the team was doing so well, riding from high to high. Now that things look a bit more murky, we should step back and be honest with ourselves and admit this team has some unsolved problems. The thing to do right now is to take inventory of what our biggest issues are and try to solve them, either this season or before the next one.
So here’s five places of concern and my suggestions of how to fix them.
First Area of Concern: Bastian Schweinsteiger
The first thing and the one thing that actually did change from before the Gold Cup break to now was the positioning of Bastian Schweinsteiger on the pitch. Since the break, our attack hasn’t had the same bite as before. Some people are calling out Nemanja Nikolic for not scoring as much; but although he may be a key goalscorer, the offense isn’t meant to “go through” him. It’s supposed to “end” with him putting it in the back of the net. But where are his chances? The guy who has been involved in some way shape or form in almost all of our goals scored this season is playing sweeper.
Maybe Basti’s tired and trying to conserve energy by playing further from the ball, but we play much better when he’s further forward. Yes, we’d be a bit vulnerable in the back, but we’d also be keeping possession and putting pressure on the other team. He and Dax work best when as a team. Only having one out there has shown to be very ineffective. I don’t put blame on Basti for this. This is a tactical shift and tactics fall to head coach Veljko Paunovic to dish out. There’s benefits to having him play back there, but the benefits of him playing further forward are much greater.
Second Area of Concern: Goalkeeping
Last season, Pauno started a campaign to remove Sean Johnson from the club. Not exactly that sinister, but he gently pushed him out. In his place was new signing, career Columbus back-up Matt Lampson. Lampson had some good looking games in the preseason while Sean was at the USMNT camp and fans took to him pretty well. He’s a great guy who’s good for the community and does a lot of amazing charity work. But as a goalkeeper, he’s barely average for MLS. Knowing this somewhat, Pauno looked to Uruguay to find a new starter and came up with Jorge Bava, who promptly failed to impress and then got himself injured.
Yes, this is fairly blunt and seems extremely critical, but this is still a sore spot for a lot fans who did not like the treatment Sean got. And with the replacements we’ve been given it’s hard not to miss him. What we do have are two other goalkeepers. Stefan Cleveland, who landed a consistent spot on the bench for us and new signing Richard Sanchez. I think we need to see what these two are capable of; but then again, maybe we should be looking more towards experienced goalkeepers. I don’t know who’ll be available in the off season yet, but if American soccer is known for one thing, it’s our goalkeepers. This is a problem that we can solve without using up a international slot. Unless we’re getting Gianluigi Buffon, we should look domestically.
Third Area of Concern: Full Back Depth
One position that has taken major hits from fans this past off season was right back. The general consensus is: whoever plays there, it better not be Michael Harrington. And for good reason, too. But then who plays there? So far the answer has been either Matt Polster or when he’s injured, Drew Conner. These two are not real right backs. Or at least it’s not their natural position. In fact, our left back Brandon Vincent is actually a converted center back, explaining why he’s better defensively than offensively. And to be completely honest, I think Doddy might just be a great wide defensive midfielder in disguise as he attacks much better than he defends.
So what can we do right now? Nothing really. This is an issue to be solved in the offseason. Maybe drafting a full back or picking one up from out of town. All we really need is depth in those areas, we don’t quite need to replace anyone; but an upgrade would definitely be appreciated. My suggestion in the draft would be Tim Kubel out of Louisville (who is a senior this season so he’s actually going into the draft this time). Pauno may know someone internationally, maybe even Basti can help out. All that needs to be done is the expansion of our depth.
Fourth Area of Concern: The Right Wing
No, this isn’t some cheap joke about the GOP, the Fire have some problems at the right wing position. While we have one of the best wingers in North America on the left in David Accam, Luis Solignac is a band-aid on the right. He’s a striker who can play on the wing sometimes. We need a real winger on the right who can work in crosses much better. We all thought that would be Kuba Blasczsykowski, but the deal sort of dissipated in the middle of the transfer window. Now we’re stuck with this band-aid covering a massive hole in our offense.
Solignac is fine for the remainder of the season. Maybe even De Leeuw can pull it off out on the wing. But this off season needs to see another big name come our way. Hell, I wouldn’t mind not getting a big name. I just want to see a solid right winger who can whip in a good cross and possibly a backup striker. (We’ve run out of good ones).
Final Area of Concern: Killer Instinct
This is a bit harder to discern or describe, but we just look kind of flat since the break. We’ve lost our killer instinct. Our 4-1 rout of New England was just a twitch muscle reaction (they’re not that good) in the middle of a greater slump. As fellow writers constantly remind me, “Even the best teams go through slumps,” but slumps can also kill the vibe of a team that could be the best.
This is an emotional concern, so there’s really not any good advice that I can give. We need to be more mentally fortified on the road maybe? I can say things about needing to just stay focused on the next match, but those are empty words coming from someone who’s just a fan. There seems to be some sort of tension in the locker room and all us fans have to hope for is that it gets solved before the playoffs. In fact, if this gets solved, the other areas might just become meaningless because of that mentality. It’s the mentality that pushed us through all these problems from May to July. It can totally work from October to December.