Somewhere in central Florida there’s a soccer team being formed through a nearly round-the-clock soccer crucible. (Or maybe Magic: The Gathering. Euchre? Overwatch tournaments? Skinny dipping? They’re doing something, and it builds teams, we think.) Whatever the outcome, there’s some two-dozen gentlemen currently soccering away in the name of the Chicago Fire, hoping to fashion a team that can improve upon last year’s strong, third-place finish.
Let’s bright-side this thing here: The getting-to-know-you process the Chicago Fire are going through in Tampa right now should be a great deal easier this year than most in recent memory. If a team is built through its spine, then the Fire return theirs almost intact - captain Dax McCarty and German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle, three-quarters of last year’s game-in, game-out back four returning, and MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic up top ready to run relentlessly at goal.
This Saturday, the Fire play the first of five friendlies over the next three weeks, against the University of South Florida. The game will kick off at 4 p.m. CST, and will likely be streamed (details TBA) if you’re one of those masochists who likes to watch glorified kickarounds. The games should gradually get more intense as the team shifts its base of operations from Tampa to Bradenton on Feb. 11, and will end with a full dress rehearsal against Cameron Lindley’s new employers, Orlando City SC, on Feb. 24 in their purple futbol palace. It should go without saying - but apparently does not, he said, saying it - that Hot Time will be here for all your over-extrapolating-from-insufficient-data needs throughout the preseason.
I’m positive! I believe! (I feel like I’m smiling so hard my skull is showing!) Please tell me I don’t look terrified! Delighted, right?! Super happy! Over the moon! Not at all worried! Maybe a tiny bit worried! These are tears of happiness! Not worry! Why do you say that?!?!
26 total dudes, including two on long-term injury and two away with the USA meaning 22 total dudes to run drills with is Awesome! Ever ride a zipline?! You know that feeling when you start, that black certainty that wallops you from your central nervous system: “YOU HAVE CHOSEN POORLY TIME TO DIE”?!?! This is a roster designed to keep us in that Zipline Moment twenty-four/seven/365! (really 24/7/24! Since there’s only 24 more days of camp!)
Zero keepers with experience! Yussss! Let’s dooooo thisssssss!
No, really, don’t panic
Look, there’s time. If you’re embedded in the international calendar of football, it does feel like more should be done by now, largely because Jan. 31 is a closing date for transfers for England, Spain, Germany, Mexico and other large footballing nations. But those markets are by far the most overpriced in world football, absent some kind of favorable loan condition, while the best selling leagues in the world - Argentina, Brazil, Colombia - are still open for business for, variably, another week (Argentina) or a couple more months (Brazil). Nelson Rodriguez could pluck the next Polish Fire player up from the Ekstraklasa anytime in February. International transfer business is still possible after midnight tonight.
That’s not even counting the tens of thousands of professional footballers who become free agents every spring and summer. The transfer window only governs club-to-club interactions; out-of-contract players can sign wherever whenever, subject to local rules. This is how the Fire were able to sign Basti last March from Manchester United - at the prompting of both the player and the Fire, United cancelled Basti’s contract, making Schweinsteiger a free agent who then signed with the Fire.
Point is, this list of 26 names isn’t our Ride Or Die Fire Roster 2018; it’s mostly guys who we know are coming back, and a few guys hoping to make an impression. There will certainly be more folks coming through the door. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s all gonna be okay.
Ok, maybe a little panic is understandable
If we sort the 19 healthy non-keepers in camp with the Fire right now into groups based upon perceived MLS level, we get something that looks like this:
Known quantity, MLS starter level or better: Kappelhof, Schweinsteiger, McCarty, Solignac, Nikolic
Known quantity, MLS replacement level: Campbell, Dean, Ramos, Conner, Johnson
Unknown quantity at MLS level: Corrales, Lillard, Moreira, Adams, Bronico, Bakero, Campos, Collier, Gatt
Looked at this way, this roster clearly has a long way to go yet - and the assumption is, with the GarberBux harvested from dealing David Accam and Cam Lindley within the league, and a now-vacant Designated Player slot gathering dust, Rodriguez has the tools he needs to fill a gameday 18 with something other than hopes and dreams. But the rumor lines are terribly quiet since the Quintero debacle. The fear that they’re going to just shrug and say “We tried” is palpable.
So let’s be clear: Absent serious acquisitions of high level players - especially in light of MLS’ investor-liberating invention of Discretionary TAM - this is a roster built to take profit, not trophies. For the record, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. But if we find ourselves in late February, still trying to convince ourselves that the Fire found a way to pick up two nailed-on starters in one MLS draft in the Year of Our Lord 2018, panic will have been justified.