The Chicago Fire have a problem at left back. This isn’t a secret.
It’s been a problem since the day Brandon Vincent retired. It was probably an issue before that too, when Vincent played centerback a handful of times last year. Jorge Corrales has shown himself to be a liability on the left side in his 19 appearances for the Fire dating back to 2018. Raheem Edwards is still MIA and there have been no reports of when he will return to the line-up.
The hole at left back needs to be filled, and there is a player that has the skills to fill it. His current position also happens to be the deepest on the roster.
First I want you to ask yourself what qualities are needed in a left back.
A left back should be capable defensively: needing to close down space quickly, win balls off of wingers, and track the runs of those wingers trying to get in behind. A left back should be good on the ball: able to hold onto the ball in tight spaces, move the ball quickly in possession, and find attackers when they see an opening.
There is a current Fire player that has all of these skills, has the veteran experience to be able to pick up a new role quickly, and throughout his 15-year MLS career has shown that he is willing to do what the team needs to make everyone better.
This player is Dax McCarty.
This is how it would line up this weekend.
We are unlikely to see Nico Gaitán against the Seattle Sounders this weekend, because it’s so soon after his signing.
The new midfield pair would be Djordje Mihailovic and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Mihailovic has a good understanding of how to find space and make himself open, so he should have no problem adjusting to playing a little bit deeper when the Fire are on the ball. His defensive role will have to change though. He will have more responsibility and need to be more diligent on that side of the ball.
CJ Sapong has already shown an ability to play on the wing and be effective against Orlando. Aleksandar Katai should also be able to adjust easily because even though he is a winger, he tends to drift inside often. He will be very comfortable operating in the middle behind Nikolic.
That’s all nice on paper, but here’s how I think it would play out on the field.
Currently what happens in possession is we push the fullbacks up and fill their space by either splitting the center backs wide or having Schweinsteiger or McCarty drop into the vacated space to be an open option. Here are some examples of McCarty doing exactly that in the first half against Orlando. (Video may not show up for readers on Apple News.)
If McCarty were to step into left back, he would likely sit deeper than Corrales and combine with Mihailovic, Schweinsteiger, and Sapong instead of constant overlapping. Pauno’s front six already play with fluidity, so Mihailovic or Schweinsteiger sliding over or pushing high when in possession would not be a drastic change.
Playing Dax in a stay-at-home left back role would also help alleviate the problem of defensive transitions. It would reduce the risk of having a fullback caught up field while an opposition winger streaks down the line into acres of open space. It would also have the best ball winner on the team involved in the defensive transition as opposed to sprinting back trying to catch up with it.
The Fire have dynamic attackers, so the downside of not playing an overlapping fullback would not have too much of an impact. Instead of overlapping, overloads would come from Mihailovic or Schweinsteiger pushing forward, and Sapong providing width.
When Nico Gaitán actually takes the field there would only be a slight change, putting him behind Nikolic and sliding Katai out to the left. Katai will be more comfortable on the wing. Gaitán seems to be the classic number ten we have been looking for, so I would expect him to get on the ball a lot. If this move for McCarty actually happens, expect to see Gaitán drifting out to the left very often with Mihailovic given the freedom to push forward from his central midfield position.
Potential issues with this move:
- It moves a good defensive midfielder and captain out of his best position, and may lead teams to attack up the middle more frequently.
- It could upset the morale of the current captain.
- It takes a vocal leader out of the spine of the team.
In my opinion, the issues are large enough at left back and the Fire are deep enough in central midfield that there is more to be gained than lost by trying this out.