Tell yourself: There’s still time. There’s still time. Whisper it like an invocation. Mutter it under your breath as you move through your day. There’s still time. There’s still time. Believe it. It’s vitally important that you believe it.
YOU SIMPLY MUST BELIEVE IT because we are perilously close to it absolutely not being true - this whole there’s-more-time thing, that is. The Chicago Fire are 18 days away from kicking off MLS play and they don’t have a healthy gameday 18 under contract at the moment. Even an eyelash’s measure of doubt can send us plunging into the abyss, surely. There’s still time, maybe, if you believe it hard enough, maybe.
Maybe this is Nelson Rodriguez’s thing, this desperate last-minute deal-spinning. Maybe he’s one of world football’s foremost boardroom gunslingers, just coolly tonguing his toothpick over to the corner of his mouth, a bird-of-prey screaming in the background somewhere, as Bastian Schweinsteiger spends the entirety of preseason rubbing his shin. It’s almost noon but he’s just mordantly amused by everyone’s tension. Matt Polster comes up gimpy, and both wingers who’ve played with the star striker before suddenly need sicknotes, and he’s just rolling that toothpick back and forth, looking for all the world like this was the plan all along. He’s talking, but to whom? If you look carefully, you can see the gunmen lining Main Street, hired by a more methodical and prosaic outfit - likely Toronto. They’re signing another La Liga midfielder, a younger one, to go with the old one who sliced a pretty decent Fire side into little pieces last year.
Is the gunslinger mad? Frozen in indecision? Awaiting inspiration, or a golden moment, or help unlooked-for? We can’t say for certain - it’s not noon yet - but gotdamn it’s going to take a hell of a trick shot to walk out of this gunfight at all.
They’re doctors, not magicians
This roster is absolutely riven with injuries. Who will be fit to play against Kansas City in two-plus weeks? Anyone not fit enough to train now will struggle to be anything like game-fit on March 10 - meaning that season opener could see debuts for as many as three rookies, or a first start for Brandt Bronico, or a combination of these terrifying ideas. And that’s if Aleksandr Katai shows up ready to play.
Unless Rodriguez has a miraculous acquisition still in the works, this is a roster that is likely to struggle to score goals until some of Luis Solignac, Michael de Leeuw, Daniel Johnson and Djorde Mihalovic are fit to play. That’s a lot of B/B+ attacking talent watching from the side at once, which suggests that the way forward in the interim may be something like the amorphous slow-down possession football that the Fire played to such devastating effect last season. But that idea is hamstrung by the fact that Basti’s positional flexibility and Polster’s ability to break the lines were what made all that work …
Buck stops where?
Let’s not put too fine a point on it: Unless there are layers here we aren’t seeing, this preseason has been a massive step back for a franchise that seemed, at times, poised for a move back into the MLS elite in 2017. The sale of David Accam, on its own wouldn’t raise alarm bells. But:
-The sale of Accam to a conference rival for 1.2MM in MLS scrip, along with
-The sale of the most-heralded Homegrown prospect in club history for more of that trade scrip, combined with
-The protracted soap opera around Juan Manuel Quintero, said protraction reportedly caused by the Fire’s effort to shave down the transfer fee
-The vast and limitless silence around the Fire, broken only by the orgiastic celebrations reverberating across the water as other MLS teams pop bottles
… all paint a familiar picture to those of us who have been around the club for a while. In short: The money’s dried up, kids. That Accam fee? It’s paying down Basti, and paying Katai’s loan fees. Until de Leeuw gets well, it’s Niko and Katai and hone your alibi. Last year’s Fire fell short, too thin overall and too dependant on delicate parts to thrive, so we’ve gotten thinner and more dependant on delicate parts as an adjustment.
Cash is oxygen in professional football. This head-scratching lack of an identifiable approach is a common side-effect of an oxygen-starved front office. When you’re left looking at guys who are either out of contract or completely unwanted by their current clubs to make a difference for you, hallucinations and half-imagined plans rapidly abandoned are part of the deal.
Maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to be wrong. Maybe Nelson’s gonna humble himself to go shake that goddamned Argentinian No. 10 tree, and the money’s there, and this is all going to be fine. Or maybe this is all part of the plan, and this little burst of panic will only register as a brief flicker of a grin across the gunslinger’s face. It’s still early. It’s still early. Keep saying it, goddamnit.
Soon it won’t be true.