By MIKE MCCALL
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Following his team’s 3-2 win over Houston to open the Carolina Challenge Cup on Saturday, Chicago midfielder Jeff Larentowicz offered his assessment of how the Fire’s revamped midfield is coming together.
“We’re getting it slowly,” he said.
If this is what “slowly” looks like, then watch out.
In their first two matches together, the newly acquired midfield trio of Larentowicz, Dilly Duka and Joel Lindpere has led the team to two wins, with at least one of them playing a part in each of the team’s four goals.
Head coach Frank Klopas isn’t the type to start raving after two preseason games — it is, after all, the preseason — but to himself, removed from cameras and reporters, he must be grinning. The result of Chicago’s midfield experiment will go a long way toward determining how its season plays out, and the early indications are very good.
Of the six midfielders who saw the most playing time for the Fire last season, only one, winger Patrick Nyarko, will be there when the season begins March 3 at the LA Galaxy. Logan Pause is battling for a starting spot at right back, Pavel Pardo retired, Marco Pappa left for Dutch Club SC Heerenveen, Sebastian Grazzini was loaned out after taking a leave of absence during the season, and Alvaro Fernandez went out on loan in January.
That’s 12 goals and 15 assists gone from the midfield — a blow for a squad that got more goals from midfielders (20) than from forwards (18) a year ago.
To fill that void alongside Nyarko, the team traded for Lindpere (Jan. 4), Larentowicz (Jan. 16) and Duka (Feb. 4), and getting the new crew to come together is a major goal of the preseason.
“That’s three out of four players who are new in one section of the field, so it’s going to take some time,” Larentowicz said. “But I think that we’ve started to jell and understand each other. I think that’s the main thing, because when you’re new to a team, you’re not sure about other players’ tendencies.”
Evidently, they’ve figured out some of those tendencies.
Their first time playing together brought a 1-0 win over San Jose via a Larentowicz penalty kick, with one of the game’s best chances coming via a Lindpere-Nyarko give-and-go.
Against the Dynamo, they really lit it up.
Duka was a menace down the left side, and he sparked the first goal with a lobbed through pass to forward Sherjill MacDonald. The second goal came when Nyarko crossed to Duka, and Larentowicz delivered the winner off a Lindpere corner kick — a performance that flashed the kind of midfield partnership they hope to see all season.
“We’re pretty confident that once our chemistry is there and we get better leading into the season, we’re going to be a pretty dangerous team,” Duka said. “We need to work on the small things like communication, defending as a unit and things like that, but offensively, we looked pretty good (against Houston).”
It helps that the roles are clearly defined. Nyarko jets up and down the right side, sending in crosses and sparking breakaways. The 23-year-old Duka has a similar role on the left, looking to take on defenders and find space to run in behind them.
Lindpere (31) and Larentowicz (29) are older but proven, with both starting every match of the 2011 season with New York and Colorado, respectively. Both patrol the center of the field, with Lindpere looking to attack while Larentowicz marshals the defense.
Together, they strike a nice balance of speed, vision and sound defending.
“If we’re all flowing and meshing, we can be a dangerous attacking team,” Duka said.
The trick is how quickly they can hit full stride.
Larentowicz said his biggest adjustment is communicating with the midfield to keep things organized in front of the back four, while Duka and Lindpere focus on building chemistry with the other attacking players.
That’s still coming along, but the brightest spot of the Dynamo match was the effortless combinations between Duka and MacDonald.
And as Lindpere is quick to point out, the goal isn’t to peak on March 3. It’s about developing over time for a deep run in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“You need to be strong at the end of the season,” he said. “It comes through hard work and with preparedness and mentality. … We need to look at the whole season, and if the start is not as good as expected, we know it is a very long season and we have the whole year to work with our new system. I’m excited.”
With the way Chicago’s midfield has looked so far, it’s hard not to be.