With first kick only 39 days away and teams gearing up by opening training camps it's not too early to start looking at who might be in Frank Yallop's starting eleven come March 9 in California. There may not be many surprises but there are at least two positions up for grabs between now and opening day against Chivas USA.
The back line was strengthened this offseason with the acquisitions of Lovel Palmer, Marco Franco, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Patrick Ianni. Palmer appears to be the logical choice at right back unless rookie Marco Franco or the revitalized Stephen Kinney can pull off small shockers and work their way into the first choice line up. Tim Ward is in camp vying for a spot but after spending more than a year off the pitch he's a long shot to make it past preseason.
At left back, Gonzalo Segares' only real competition appears to be Hunter Jumper. The third year player has spent a considerable amount of time at center back over the last twelve months and probably isn't a serious threat to take over at left back. Palmer is Yallop's likely back-up here if Segares and Jumper aren't on the pitch.
The battle for starting spots at center back may be the most intriguing positional contest of the preseason. It's not a given that Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry will both be in the starting line up coming March 9. Hurtado certainly has the credentials to earn a spot if he plays anywhere near his 2009 form. As a finalist for defender of the year honors and an MLS all-star in '09 he hasn't been quite that good since suffering an injury in 2010 but he's still a quality MLS center back. Ianni provides insurance and depth but probably isn't on the same level with the other three.
Of course one of these four could be gone altogether via trade if Yallop finds a suitable return from another club. Soumare and Hurtado are both on the higher end of salaries by MLS standards and teams may not be willing to take on a center back for roughly $200K of cap space right now. The club has an option to renew Soumare at the end of the season and that flexibility may make him attractive although his 2015 number certainly won't. Hurtado signed a new deal in December of 2012 with Seattle so he's seemingly locked in for another year after this one. Ianni's salary at $150K isn't particularly appealing for a back-up so unless someone is looking for him as a starter it's hard to see a move involving him that would land the Fire the type of return they're looking for.
That leaves 2012 rookie of the year Austin Berry as the Fire's most marketable commodity among the center backs. At roughly $78K and still working from his initial contract Berry would be attractive to other clubs since he's likely got another season or two remaining at bargain rates. He might yield the best return if Yallop is looking to move one of the four in order to upgrade at central midfield or forward. Berry is seven games away from the MLS record of consecutive complete games played by a field player (69). He wasn't as effective in 2013 as he was in his rookie year but at 25 years old he still has room to continue improving. All of these factors could also work in his favor for staying in Chicago as the Fire will surely look to clear additional cap space heading into 2015. Of course, they could also hold onto all four and wait until the demand for half backs arises as it always does during the season.
The midfield seems set with Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko on the outside. Chris Rolfe could see plenty of time out wide as well seeing that Yallop singled him out as a player he was excited about working with. Jeff Larentowicz is a lock in central midfield but who his partner may be questionable. The odds are on Alex to claim the "attacking" midfield role with Harrison Shipp probably fitting in as more of an underneath forward than a true central midfielder. Shipp will get a chance in preseason but it may take something outstanding for him to crack the eleven on opening day.
Mike Magee is a given in the play-making forward position with Juan Luis Anangono as the front runner. Anangono will need to prove he's worthy of the DP spot he's taking up and he did show some flashes toward the end of last season. He'll need to take those performances up another notch and with more consistency if he's going to claim the #9 spot. Yallop doesn't have many other options with target forwards however since Rolfe, Amarikwa, and Shipp are all better suited in the withdrawn position. This could create an opening for Orr Barouch as a back-up to Anangono. If Anangono doesn't show enough in camp to start on opening day it's possible Yallop could opt for a smaller combination in Magee/Rolfe. That would be a complete departure from the style of play he favored in San Jose.
Yallop has some flexibility here but there are obviously still questions to be answered.