Photo by Brad Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
A season-finale result away from reaching the playoffs, the Chicago Fire have had quite the makeover this offseason.
Gone is head coach Frank Klopas and in his place is Frank Yallop, the seasoned manager who led the Earthquakes to two MLS Cup last decade. Yallop is in charge with trying to fine-tune the Fire into a legit contender in the Eastern Conference, an extremely tough task given how much teams like Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union have improved.
Yallop has already begun to leave his stamp on the team, trading away back line regulars Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry. Yallop looks set to turn to more experience in the defense, with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni and Lovel Palmer among the additions made by the club this offseason.
On the offensive side, 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee will once again be the focal point of the squad. He will need help, however, and it is up to Yallop to find the right balance in his attack, one that includes the talented likes of Patrick Nyarko, Dilly Duka and Chris Rolfe.
The pieces are in place for the overlooked Fire to return to the postseason and make a statement this year, but how quickly the team jels and understands Yallop’s system will go a long way in determining just how successful the first season of a new era really is.
Here is a closer look at the 2014 Chicago Fire:
CHICAGO FIRE SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 14-13-7, 49 points (Sixth in Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Benji Joya, Lovel Palmer, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni, Matt Watson, Orr Barouch, Marco Franco, Harrison Shipp
KEY LOSSES: Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba, Arevalo Rios, Joel Lindpere, Daniel Paladini, Maicon Santos, Shaun Francis
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Benji Joya. The talented youngster has shown flashes of brilliance in preseason, and the Fire sure could use more of that once the games actually count for something. Joya is capable of adding another dimension to Chicago’s attack, something that will be needed to keep opposing defenses from zeroing in on Mike Magee.
PRESSURE IS ON: Mike Magee. A dream season saw Magee light up scoreboards with the LA Galaxy before being traded to his hometown of Chicago, where he continued his tear en route to claiming the 2013 MLS MVP award. Magee had a combined 21 goals (15 with the Fire) and four assists in 2013, and it will be expected of him to replicate those kind of numbers this season as Chicago attempts to make its way back to the postseason.
It might be the beginning of a new era in Chicago, but the Fire are fully expecting to build on last season’s successes and return to the postseason. Magee will be with the club for the full year this time, and the prospects of what he could do for it are promising.
Yallop will need to figure out which players best complement Magee, no simple task given the amount of talent the Fire have. Yallop has several skillful players, including newcomer Joya and the always-dangerous Patrick Nyarko, but not all of them will be in the starting lineup consistently as the Fire need their midfield to help shore up a defense that conceded an Eastern Conference second-worst 52 goals last season.
To do that, Yallop has brought in several veteran defenders. Hurtado and Palmer are among them, and they will need to find consistency quick with fellow projected back line members Bakary Soumare and Gonzalo Segares and goalkeeper Sean Johnson if Chicago is to avoid repeating the type of slow start it got off to in 2013.
Preseason showed some good signs and progress being made, as the defense conceded just twice in eight matches. Now, it’s about translating those kinds of performances over into the regular season.
“It’s the whole team’s defending,” said Yallop. “The first thing I wanted to make sure is we’ve got to be difficult to beat. You’re not always going to have that and get that, but if you have the mindset that you are going to be that then you have a chance for winning games, especially in this league.
“A big thing for us was making sure we’re tight, working hard together, which we did. It is preseason, it doesn’t matter yet. Sunday (vs. Chivas USA) matters, so hopefully we can take what we’ve done in the preseason into that first game and moving forward.”
Equally as important as the defense’s outings is how quickly the team comes together under Yallop. Playing under a new head coach and system is never as easy as snapping your fingers, so Chicago will need to stay focused even in the likelihood of some hardships if it wishes to advance to the postseason.
“I think the whole attitude of the squad has been,” said Yallop. “I’ve really been pleased with the senior guys. To pick one, Jeff Larentowicz has been very good in the games he’s played and he was a leader, but I’m not picking out anybody. I think everybody has bought into what we’re doing and moving forward I’m quite excited about the squad.”
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
How the heck is Benji Joya the newcomer to watch when everyone (including Ives) is picking Harrison Shipp to be rookie of the year for the whole LEAGUE???
Both Joya and Shipp looked terrific in the pre-season. Personally, I thought Joya had a slight edge. Both have great potential. It’s going to be interesting how Yallop gets them substantial playing time. They’re definitely putting pressure on the starters to perform. Let’s see how they develop and jell with the starting 11.