After the Fire's home opener a couple weeks ago at Toyota Park, I wandered over to the visitors’ locker room to chat with New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke. When asked about his (dis)satisfaction with his (still winless) squad’s performance through week three, Petke reminded me that Red Bulls didn’t win their first game in 2013 until their fifth try. Afterward, they went on to win the Supporters Shield — a trophy many MLS fans consider the mark of the true champion and the actual best team in the league.
Last year at this time, a similarly winless Chicago Fire had only earned one point through its first four games — its lone draw the result of an ugly, bus-packing performance at Sporting Kansas City. Moreover, the Fire had surrendered nine goals and scored one, and had lost two home games to New England Revolution and Chivas USA. Fire Nation was in utter meltdown. But that was then and this is now.
Now, through week four, here sit the Fire at 0-1-3 after playing three of its first four matches on the road, with key players having been injured and/or suspended during the short span. Now, Chicago has scored six and allowed seven. And now, new Manager and Director of Soccer Frank Yallop, a man charged with a rebuild, is tinkering with his starting XI and tactics. While some are grumbling its time to push the panic button, I disagree.
Certainly, we Fire fans should keep our expectations high, and this goes for those who toil for the club as well. That said - and given the circumstances - perhaps it’s a bit paranoid and short-sighted to assume the outcomes of Chicago’s first four outings of 2014 are the result of (or have somehow bred) some sort of insidious resignation to mediocrity. Are the results middling? Yes. Does this mean Yallop and company aren’t trying their damnedest to get three points? No. The effort is there, and frankly, given this club’s recent past, I’ll take that right now.
So this brings us to Saturday. Having dispatched with the overpaid, unproductive (and perhaps washed up) Chris Rolfe to DC United (not that it mattered for the starting XI), this Fire fan hopes Chicago's new gaffer continues to keep his eye on the future and, as he has so far, play the kids. The big question though is, where? And moreover, in what formation?
While MLS newcomers Harry Shipp and Benji Joya have indeed shown promise on the wings, these young men are better suited to play in the middle of the park.Shipp, the former collegiate wunderkind, is a natural #10, a player who has the touch, vision, and instincts to be a scoring playmaker. Shipp's set piece delivery is the best Chicago's seen in years and has already resulted in two assists in his three games played. Joya, the USMNT prospect on loan from Liga MX powerhouse Santos Laguna, is best suited as a #8. A box-to-box midfielder who can provide as well as destroy, Joya just hasn't looked comfortable at outside mid through four games.
With the return of "Money" Mike Magee, Frank Yallop seems to be drifting away from a 4-1-4-1 and toward his preferred 4-4-2, which poses a problem if the two aforementioned youngsters are to start. It's not a matter of 'if' but 'when' wingers Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko (who came off the bench to salvage a point last week at DC) return to the starting XI to provide needed width to the Fire attack. If 4-4-2, what happens to center mid Alex? Would Yallop dare bench his captain, holding mid Jeff Larentowicz? And what of the impressive, versatile Matt Watson? Will he remain at right back in Lovel Palmer's stead?
Clearly, there are more questions than answers in Bridgeview these days. One thing's for sure though: fingers may inch ever closer to that aforementioned panic button if the Fire can't manage a home win against the Philadelphia Union -- an Eastern Conference opponent that hasn't proved it's more than a middling side either.
Scott Fenwick is Editor of On The Fire, an independent digital fanzine dedicated to Chicago Fire, MLS, USMNT, and the Beautiful Game in North America. Follow Scott @OnTheFire97