It’s been three weeks since the Chicago Fire sold Djordje Mihailovic to the Montreal Impact for some MLS funny money. The move was surprising, but not shocking— there were rumors and innuendo of he and head coach Raphael Wicky not being on the same page (he didn’t see many game minutes in the MLS is Back tournament). And after they were able to sort it out, he never really had a defined role on the squad. Sometimes he was slotted into the #10 role to be the main playmaker on the field, and other times he was placed out wide to act as an inverted winger. For Djordje, the move allows him a fresh start for some positional clarity and an opportunity to show what he can do in a year where the U.S. Men’s National team needs to put together something like 4 rosters for all the competitions. For the Fire, this allows them to get their guys into the most important on-field positions to attempt to improve upon the lowly 5 wins they achieved in 2020.
The question then becomes, what do the Fire want out of their midfield, and who are they going to play there to get it? Aside from Gastón Giménez and Álvaro Medrán, who compose one of the best central midfield duos in the league, the other spots in the starting XI are wide open. And as the Fire seem to be buying pieces for the future during this transfer window and not necessarily trying to bring in immediate help, the solutions are going to have to come from inside the current roster.
The Fire have two options to go about solving the problem, and the first is the most radical and the one I think could pay the biggest dividends if done correctly. The Fire could, and should, play a 4-4-2. Pushing the attacking midfielder role higher up the pitch to support Robert Beric, who likes to drop in and find the ball, would let the Fire still be dynamic in the attack while solving the problem of not having someone in the middle to actually score when Beric goes off on an adventure.
The fly in the ointment here, though, is who would exactly play alongside Beric? On Fire’s official website, the only forwards on the roster aside from Beric are new signing Jhon Jáder Durán who won’t be here until 2022, and Chinonso Offor, their brand new 20-year-old Nigerian with tremendous upside, but it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be ready to start day one. The best option on the current roster is Fabian Herbers. He was the second-leading scorer on the roster with 4 goals last season, and he shined most while supporting Beric in a shadow striker role. When all he has to do in a game is play in that role, it could lead to very good results for the Fire.
Their other option is to hold pat with the 5 player midfield they played with all season, but the problem here is that filling the Mihailovic hole would conceivably open up holes elsewhere on the pitch, which I’m not convinced they want to do. The crux of this is wherever they decide to stick super rookie Mauricio Pineda. Pineda did a good job plugging the hole as the second center-back, but throughout his youth career and during training camp, he played a 6/8 hybrid where he was primarily the first line of defense and occasionally would push forward to score a 45-yard screamer. This being the case, you could push Medrán forward to the CAM role and place Mo in the CDM spot with Gimenez in a true box to box role. However, this would lead to uncertainty in the backline that’s already hanging on to competence by a thread. Aside from Johan Kappelhof hopefully being healthy enough to play, Wyatt Omsberg and Carlos Terán haven’t shown enough to be convincing enough to say they’d improve the quality.
The other variable we need to consider here is the status of Luka Stojanović. When he was brought in, he was supposed to complete the triangle between the CAM and the double pivot, but just 45 minutes into his debut against San Jose, Luka tore a muscle and was out for the rest of the season, and (presumably) the opening months of this one unless he’s secretly John Cena and can recover in 6 months. If the Fire do change formation, how hard will it be to change back in the middle of the season once Luka is ready? What will that do to the defense? And if the Fire manages to play well on his return, is it even feasible to insert him into the lineup at all?
The midfield is going to be one of the more fascinating things to watch going into training camp. There are so many permutations to solve this problem that whatever the brain trust decides to do, we’re all just going to have to go along for the ride and hope it works out. And if it doesn’t, they have enough flexibility on the roster to keep working until they get it right.