The Chicago Fire’s newest acquisition is defensive midfielder Micheal Azira, brought in on August 7th. The trade with the Montreal Impact is absolutely peak MLS, involving an allocation order pick swap, potential GAM and TAM, and a Superdraft pick. The important part is the players exchanged in the deal–the Fire essentially gave up Jorge Corrales to bring in Azira. He has hit the ground running, playing in three of the four games he’s been available and starting in two of them. Head Coach Veljko Paunovic seems to trust him, so it’s possible that he’s here to stay.
It was assumed that he was a pure defensive midfielder, and while his strengths are defensive based, he is far more rangy than expected. I have been very surprised by how many different places he has been popping up on the field. In his first three appearances he has made frequent forward runs off the ball, and in that regard he operates like a box-to-box midfielder. Those kind of runs can be really useful for pulling the opposition out of place.
Unfortunately he struggles on the ball, so those runs can be useful but are limited by his skillset from the get-go. From what we’ve seen, Azira’s skillset is lends itself to games where the Fire are not expecting to control the game. He doesn’t have a sense of how to make himself open when the Fire have possession. He roams so much that, like a typical box-to-box midfielder, his set place on the field is always changing. The best box-to-box players have great instincts on how to find open space to receive the ball, but so far Azira hasn’t shown the ability to do that.
Azira’s best skill by far is his ability to read the game defensively. He has a really good eye for reading passing lanes and closing them down quickly. If the Fire are going on the road or just playing a superior team, Azira’s ability to close opponents or passing lanes will be very useful. He and Dax McCarty together can cover a ton of ground defensively, which lightens the load on others around them. Azira has shown that he can play multiple defensive roles, which is where his ability to cover ground is very useful. He has been the highest man in certain pressing situations, he’ll also go and sit right in front of the centerbacks alongside McCarty, and then he’ll be somewhere in between.
In the first few weeks we’ve already seen a glimpse of what Micheal Azira’s role on this team will be. Due to his attacking limitations it looks like he is going to be a situational option. This was probably what the front office and coaching staff were expecting when they traded for him. He’s a bit of a boring pickup, but that’s okay as long as he’s filling the role they acquired him for.