We now know what’s next. According to a report from Steven Goff in the Washington Post, Major League Soccer is considering a resumption of the regular season on the third week of August. With the relative success of the MLS is Back Tournament bubble (there have been zero positive tests for COVID-19 since Nashville and Dallas were removed from the tournament) the MLS brain trust will march on, despite the bubbleless leagues (Major League Baseball and the USL) having massive amounts of problems. I said it before and I will keep saying it until I am blue in the face, the United States is not ready to have sports with no restrictions. If we must have sports, the only reasonable way to do so is with a semi-sealed bubble, and even then, there’s not a 100% guarantee of infection-less play. There should be no soccer beyond the end of the tournament.
That being said, the resumption of the season is going to happen whether we want it to or not. So, where dies this leave the Fire? Their MLS is Back Tournament run was full of promise but in the crucial moment, they failed to deliver. I’m still finding it hard to write about what happened in the last 10 minutes against the Whitecaps. Never have I seen a team go from such promise to total collapse that fast. Still, there was enough to build on going forward. So what do the Fire need to do to improve?
Figure Out the Formation
The biggest problem tactically for the Fire through the three games at Disney was their defensive philosophy. Unlike the first two games of the year in March, where they ran with a traditional back four, starting with game one, they went to three central defenders during the tournament. It worked out well against Seattle. The Sounders don’t attack on the wings often, preferring to run their attack through Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro up the middle, while players like Jordan Morris run towards goal from the narrow wing, rather than try to create from outside the box by the end line. Creating less space for them to work the ball by stacking the central defense made sense.
However, against San Jose and Vancouver, this backfired. The three wing-backs (Bornstein, Navarro, and Frankowski) were ill equipped to handle the wide play of the Caps and Quakes and unlike in a traditional four person defensive setup, there was no help when they would inevitably get beat. This isn’t a knock on them, though. It’s MLS. players get beat on the wings all the time as attacking talent is just better then the fullbacks. What was a problem is that they didn’t have any safety net. This was less of an issue on the right, where Boris Sekulic is a natural right back, and knows how to position himself to defend both centrally, and float over to help when he needs to without giving up too much space. On the left however, Francisco Calvo, while able to play left back, was often forced into uncomfortable positions where he had to make a decision, and a fair amount of the time, he chose wrong.
Maybe the club gets better with more time, but with the personnel they have, a traditional back four setup is the more comfortable, safe option to try to win games. As of right now, the club is getting killed on the wings, and having the extra wide players should help mitigate the problems.
With that being said, that brings us to our next issue.
Who’s going to play Central Defense?
It’s clear that Francisco Calvo and Mauricio Pineda are a mismatched central defensive pairing. They’re both attack minded center backs who are quick to push forward with a high line and contribute to the offense. This, obviously, creates a billion and a half problems. It opens up the space in behind to be exploited in transition, and throws off the balance of the defensive shape, causing gaps in the line that can be used on what otherwise would be offside.
This, in part, explains why Wicky would think a back three would be more effective than leaving those two partnered together by themselves. But, as was already explained, that came with a different set of problems. In Orlando there wasn’t much of a solution to be had, but now that we’re out of the bubble, there is one obvious solution to the problem. The return of Johan Kappelhof.
Johan Kappelhof is by and large a no nonsense defender. While he does have the skill, technique, and smarts to get forward, he’s much more comfortable anchoring a defense, staying home to snuff out attacks and put out fires (sorry) that are started by the other aggressive defenders. What this means is that, if Wicky is truly married to the 5-3-2, the optimal defense would look like this:
This could solve a lot of the problems the Fire have defensively. Having Kappelhof back in the lineup band-aids over a lot of the problems. However, this still has the same problems on the wings. So the Fire should go to a back four.
The Mauricio Pineda Problem
The emergence of Mo Pineda in his first season as a homegrown superstar wasn’t something I expected. I knew he was good, but as with most homegrown talent, you don’t really expect them to cement themselves as an indispensable member of the starting XI from the first whistle. He’s done nothing but impress and while there have been a few rookie errors and growing pains, by and large, he’s been one of the best players on the pitch.
So, what do you do now that Johan Kappelhof is back and taking his position back in central defense? The answer seems obvious at first glance, but it may turn out to be not as simple as you would expect. With Luka Stojanović out with a potentially season ending injury, it seems natural to put Pineda in that spot. He played central midfield at the University of North Carolina, and him being successful there would make some of the more puzzling moves of the previous administration make a lot more sense. Why pay Drew Conner or Mo Adams when there’s a potential superstar at that position right there in your academy system? But this move would break up the carefully created balance of the central midfield that, by and large, was the most successful part of the MLS is Back tournament campaign.
One thing I agree with Wicky about is playing three in central midfield. With the way the modern game is played, winning the middle of the park is of the upmost importance, as we saw against the Sounders. Much like in chess, control of the center of the board gives you more options and angles of attack, as well an advantage defending your own territory.
The Fire have too many good options there. With Pineda now free to move there, it leaves five players to cover three spots, and I think we can all agree that Álvaro Medrán and Gastón Giménez are not going anywhere. So there’s three players for one spot in the midfield; Fabian Herbers, Djordje Mihailovic, and Pineda. Fabian Herbers is not good, so that leaves us with the homegrown stars. For this one, I don’t really have an answer. It all depends on how conservative or aggressive Wicky wants to get. If he wants to attack, he starts Djordje and if he wants to defend more he starts Pineda. If it changes on a game to game basis, so be it, but If the Fire want to have a shot at a potential MLS Cup, they’re going to have to figure this out.
Next week, I take a look at what consequences this defensive shuffling could have for the offense, and what a potential best starting XI could look like.