This is the time of year where every MLS team shares notional space with Schrödinger’s cat, more thought than being - which is my elaborate explanation for why every bit of my speculation about the tactical intentions of the 2018 Chicago Fire could be disproven dramatically in that first moment after the lid is lifted. I am the blind man asked to describe an elephant after 10 seconds touching its trunk.
Delightfully, there’s no reason for me to do this alone. You can play along! Just take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the Chicago Fire’s training camp roster, take a further moment to account for the players’ preferred positions and roles, and then announce Given These Dudes, Here’s How the Fire Should Play down in the comments. Haven’t you always wanted to be smirked at by Velko? Let’s get it poppin’.
The training camp roster
Nelson Rodriguez may have talked a whooole lotta talk during his first MLS draft at the Fire table (when he declared “We just shook up the soccer world!” and the world remained un-shook), but boy howdy did he walk the walk this time ‘round.
In a draft without topline wingers (the obvious need in the wake of David Accam’s blockbuster trade), N-Rod got Jon Bakero - the best attacking mind in the NCAA - and an Armas-style fireplug of a destroyer in Mo Adams. Day two proceeded without much drama (as conference calls don’t lend themselves to trades unfolding in real-time), but the Fire’s picks were still sharp and addressed needs - Diego Campos is a guy who finishes well and has an unpredictability that breaks the pattern, while Elliot Collier is a lanky attacking mid from New Zealand who’s well-regarded in the area after a strong career for Loyola.
Josh Gatt is the name that jumps out at an Old Soccer Nerd (which I am). Gatt was something of a phenom in the late-aughts USA soccer circles, a guy who lit up some Euro youth sides at a tourney in Switzerland, got offered a couple trials and signed with an Austrian side at 18. Blazing up and down the right wing, Gatt grew almost immediately into a starting role for Altach. We would share videos of his goals - it’s happening, this kid from Michigan just turned 19 and lookit that - and the sky seemed the limit. Ah, 2010.
He kept tearing up that wing all the way to a better deal with Molde, who were coached by Man United legend Ole Gunnar Solsjkær. He scored some golazo screamers, skinned some dudes, looked the part, slowed only occasionally by the typical twitchy hamstrings that go along with blazing speed. And then his knee blew out. Something wasn’t right with the first surgery - they had to go back in. 21 months grueling months later, he finally made his return to competitive play, and something still wasn’t right - 4 minutes in, he was out. He needed another surgery, now the third on the same knee.
All of which is just to illustrate the absolute knife-edge that these men’s sometimes-extravagant lifestyles rest upon. Today’s Gatt is 26 and was felt surplus to requirements at noted attacking powerhouses Minnesota United and Colorado in 2017.
The internet tubes tell me Maxi Moreira is a Uruguayan left back who has played most of his career in the second division of that nation.
Now describe the elephant
The first thing that leaps out to me from that training camp roster is that there’s not a lot of experience on the wings. Or depth. Daniel Johnson is the one natural wide player in the attacking zone, outside of a Hollywood turn from Gatt. The 4-3-3 favored last year - where Michael De Leeuw and Luis Solignac took turns as the right inside forward with Accam’s threat from the left balancing things - will probably be unworkable without that threat. Without a truly menacing figure on the attacking band, the complementary pieces (which include Nemanja Nikolic and his finishing) won’t get a chance to function. It’ll be that stagnant stretch from last year all over again, everyone marked up, the pattern grown gelid, the defense getting countered on.
The above is me trying to imagine how they might adapt while keeping the basic shape from 2017 intact - Schweinsteiger playing just left of center, Dax deep, Kappelhof at right center back. Rafael Ramos will have a chance to make an impression before Matt Polster returns from January USA camp; if he impresses, could he move Polster back infield? Or will Mo Adams make that space his own? Or does Paunovic want more creativity there - could that be a spot where Collier or Johnson make an impression?
There’s so many possible permutations at this point - it’s almost giddy to really start imagining all the potential arrangements and permutations, even with a roster this tiny. For example, 2017 established that the Fire have as good a pair of young fullbacks as exist in MLS - what if the idea was that we don’t really need terrifying wingers because we were going to go to a 5-3-2 featuring Poster and Brandon Vincent as wingbacks? That would explain the desire for Ramos (a pure attacking wingback).
This could metamorphose into a high-pressing 523/343 variant rather easily, moving Dax and Basti into a flat two and putting a more-attacking player in to allow pressure deep in the opponent’s zone.
I really think this elephant thing is very much like a snake. Yes, that’s it. A snake. Maybe we’ll feel it again in a few days to make sure, but I’m almost certain elephant is a word for a very odd kind of snake.