I started watching soccer - seriously watching soccer - in the summer of 2002. I was 12 years old, living in Florida and already nutty about playing the game. But I had never paid any attention to the actual professional product on the field. I had heard of Zidane, Ronaldo and some of the bigger American names but I couldn't begin to tell anyone what club team they played for, let alone the what traits they possessed on the field.
But with the summer of 2002 came a new edition of the World Cup. I found my interest peaking in the buildup to the tournament and decided to give watching soccer a chance, waking up at 6 a.m. one June morning to watch the U.S. play Portugal in the Americans' opening match of the tournament.
By 8 a.m. I was officially hooked.
The Americans stunned heavily favored Portugal 3-2 in that match and I fell head over heels for the game. All of a sudden I couldn't get enough. Brian McBride, John O'Brien, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Mathis and Brad Friedel became my heroes. I felt a connection to them. I would recreate their moves in my backyard. I would celebrate their goals in front of my TV, feel their pain when they lost, and share their pride when they won.
But the U.S.'s magical World Cup run had to eventually come to an end. They were controversially denied advancement to the semifinals by Germany (and a Torsten Frings hand ball) and my soccer-viewing world came crashing down around me. Miami didn't have a MLS team at the time and the game, which I had been incredibly exposed to for 4 short weeks, abruptly disappeared from my life. There would be no more watching on TV, no more recreating the flashiest moves in the backyard, no more lunch table chatter about the latest match.
But I wasn't ready to give up on watching soccer. So, after doing some research (that mainly consisted of scrolling through a copy of FIFA and choosing a good team to follow) I turned to England - where Arsenal was busy tantalizing the U.K. with their unique blend of world class defense and attractive attacking soccer.
I started following the North London club (mostly over the internet) soon after and was immediately intrigued by the way they attacked; a method combining quick 1-2 passing with incisive runs and shots from strikers Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.
I continued to follow Arsenal through the 2003-04 season, which (as many of you surely know) saw the so-called "Invincibles" go undefeated in league play. Watching that season play out, with its entertaining style of play and incredible results, I became fascinated by the idea of possession based attack. I didn't want to watch run and chase soccer. No long balls for me, please. Give me a team that plays with one or two touches, that knows where the next pass should go, and is always making off the ball runs and I'll be happy.
That's why watching the Fire last season was very frustrating at times for me. Granted, the Fire's more-direct style produced results, but their play seemingly always left me with a little more to be desired. Their endless onslaught of long passes from the backline to the forwards was a strategy that left them vulnerable, misused the team's superior talent, and - too often - left me unenthused.
And watching 2009 come to an end the way it did - with the Fire unable to muster a goal in 120 minutes of play against Real Salt Lake - was a microcosm of everything that went wrong with the attack in 2009. The team wasn't fluid. Too many long balls were unsuccessfully played. Too often the attack became a one-man dribbling exhibition. There wasn't enough off the ball movement.
That's why I want to see the Fire make a tactical transition this offseason. I want to see the Fire implement the Arsenal system - one with a free flowing, dynamic, possession driven attack - in the future; starting in 2010.
I'm not saying that introducing such a system would be easy. In fact, it would be quite the contrary. However, all of the players in the Fire's projected starting 11 for 2010 have the ability to play in that system. They all have the prerequisite technical ability and knowledge to be able to pull it off - it's just a matter of whether or not the Fire staff wants them to.
If the Fire decides to go in a more attacking direction this offseason (which, judging by his comments, Technical Director Frank Klopas seems to want) they'll need to switch a few things up in the attack.
1) Ditch the long ball
I get that Brian McBride is a fantastic target forward. However, he isn't nearly as dangerous challenging for a 50-50 at midfield as he is with the ball at his feet in the opponent's half. If the Fire started to play a more possession based style of attack, McBride would find himself with the ball on his foot (with the ability to shoot or lay a pass off to a cutting Patrick Nyarko or Marco Pappa) much more often. This simple change in strategy (finding midfielders out of the back instead of hoofing the ball 50 yards up the field) would decrease turnovers and the reliance on one player (McBride or Nyarko) to chase down the numerous balls that fly over their head.
2) More off the ball runs
One of the most disconcerting things I remember from the Fire's loss in this year's Eastern Conference Final was the lack of off the ball movement. One player would get the ball, look up, and have no one to pass to because none of his teammates would put themselves in a position to receive it. Why this was the case, I'm not sure anyone can say. However, it must improve if the Fire want to play with a more indirect buildup next year, as an absolute key to that style of play is having every player willing (and able) to put themselves in a position to get the ball and do something with it.
3) Bring in more one and two touch passing
A staple of every single Fire training session I attended last year was a quick drill that limited the touches of every player. Essentially a glorified session of keep-away, about eight Fire players would arrange themselves in a circle with two (or so) defenders in the middle. Each attacker would have a limited amount of touches (at most three) to get the ball off their foot and onto a teammate without the defender getting it. But during most games, that drill (and the lessons that go along with it) was left on the training field. Many players on the Fire (most notably Cuauhtemoc Blanco) would take their time with the ball on their feet - a tactic that slows the attack down and kills any chance of a possible counter. The Fire won't have Blanco to do that this year, so I expect to see a faster paced buildup regardless of any tactical changes, but the Fire would do well to decrease the amount of touches each player takes before sending a pass to a teammate.
4) Sign (or trade for) a central midfielder who can take the game by the horns
Don't get me wrong, I really like what John Thorrington and Logan Pause bring to the Fire. Each is fantastic at providing a great defensive presence in the center of the Fire's midfield. However, I feel like they play a little too alike to have in at the same time. They're both defensive minded and now that the team is without Blanco (who would occasionally drop back in between the center midfielders and McBride) they'll need a new center mid to be an attacking threat. Possible players the Fire could acquire that somewhat fit this mold include Guillermo Barros Schelotto (who is unhappy in contract talks with the Crew) and Amado Guevara (who had a very strained relationship with new Toronto FC coach Preki when both were at Chivas USA).
With all of 1300+ words of that said though, it's important that I note one more thing. It doesn't matter what style the Fire uses as long as they're winning. Give Chicago a MLS Cup title and I'm sure everyone could pretty much care less what it looked like on the field.
If there's any debate of which way to go though, I hope the Fire follow in the footsteps of what drew me into watching soccer way back in 2002; soccer played with heart, resiliency, and passion with a little bit of possession-driven attacking sprinkled in.