The Fire are deeper this winter than they were last season at this time. There's not much doubt about that. Frank Yallop is making sure the team isn't caught flat footed like they were after Arne Friedrich's late camp injury in 2013. The loss of the German center back was probably the most glaring cause for last year's painfully slow start (well that an the inability to score). By the time he was replaced in the line-up by Bakary Soumare, almost half the season had ticked away and by then it was reshuffle and catch up time.
Of course Mike Magee almost regained the lost ground with an MVP campaign but the Fire look to be better structured and shouldn't have to rely solely on Magee this season. While they've failed to add big name acquisitions, Yallop and the new technical staff have added depth and competition at just about every spot on the pitch.
Soumare, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Austin Berry, and Patrick Ianni will all battle for minutes at center back (as spotlighted in the excellent Preseason All Access video linked above) and the new crop of young players brought in this season will ramp up competition in midfield and up top. Harry Shipp and Benji Joya have impressed through the first two phases of training camp and it appears that it's just a matter of time before those two find their way into regular, if not starting minutes at some point.
Yallop's first choice line up so far through camp has featured little surprises with the Soumare/Hurtado pairing probably raising the most eyebrows. Magee hasn't had a chance to play in a meaningful game with the rest of the starters so we haven't seen the starting eleven at full strength yet. If we're to assume that he'll play with a hold-up forward in the fashion of a true #9, it would seem that Juan Luis Anangono is the best option on the roster right now. The only other spot open for debate is the attacking midfield position where Alex continues to maintain a starting spot at the moment. That's not to say the outside midfield and full back spots won't be contested because those are being at least challenged in camp as well.
Here's a look at the depth chart as it stands today:
Goalkeeper - Sean Johnson, Kyle Reynish, Alec Kann
Johnson probably isn't going to miss considerable time with the USMNT since it appears Nick Rimando will be the third 'keeper in Brazil. The Fire will keep three goalies but this one is easy.
Left back - Gonzalo Segares, Hunter Jumper, Patrick Walsh
Segares is the incumbent and a lock to start the season. The player on the bubble here may be Jumper who is facing a challenge from Walsh for the back-up role. The two new center backs have moved ahead of Jumper in the pecking order.
Center back - Bakary Soumare, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Austin Berry, Patrick Ianni
Yallop's top pairing appears to be Soumare/Hurtado with those two seeing all of the first team minutes so far. The fact that Kinney and Jumper can both play center back could help their cases. There is some quality here and depth here finally.
Right back - Lovel Palmer, Marco Franco, Steven Kinney
Palmer should be the starter based on experience and Franco hasn't cemented a spot just yet despite being the team's first round draft choice. Franco should stick which makes Kinney's situation tenuous.
Holding midfielder - Jeff Larentowicz, Logan Pause, Chris Ritter
It will be an important spot in what looks to be Yallop's preferred 4-1-4-1 formation so far this preseason. Larentowicz is the starter here with Pause as acting as a coach/coordinator on the field for the second team. Ritter is more of a project but he'll make the squad.
Attacking midfielder - Alex, Benji Joya
Alex will face strong competition to hold onto a starting spot if Joya continues to show the form he has so far. Shipp can also challenge for time here but his future may be as more of an underneath striker than a true two-way midfielder. Joya fits the bill and I expect he will be a starter before long.
Outside midfielders - Patrick Nyarko, Dilly Duka, Victor Pineda, Grant Ward, Yazid Atouba, Brendan King
Nyarko and Duka will be the starters on the right and left sides with Pineda looking poised to finally see some MLS minutes this season. Rolfe can also play out wide and he'll probably see more time here than he will at forward. Tottenham's Grant Ward has impressed and has played in numerous spots in midfield. He can also play left/right back which may help him. Yazid Atouba may find himself on the outside looking in and Brendan King looks to be hard pressed to find a spot.
Second forward - Mike Magee, Chris Rolfe, Harry Shipp
Magee will fill the underneath/playmaker role and Rolfe will probably fill in as a second half substitution if Yallop decides to go smaller/quicker up top but Shipp is the wildcard. If he handles first team competition like he has the B squads so far the Fire will need to find a place for him. Shipp's game was compared to Magee's when he was signed and now we see why. Hopefully Shipp will get a first team run some time in the next two weeks.
Target forward - Juan Luis Anangono, Quincy Amarikwa, Giuseppe Gentile, Orr Barouch, Kellen Gulley
Anangono is the closest thing to a true #9 on the squad although Gentile has looked okay and Barouch is in that mold although he's not as quick and he's still not fully fit after recovering from a broken foot. Amarikwa has played as the "one" up top with the second team but he's better suited as a second half impact change than he is a starter. Gulley's days are likely numbered.
That totals 32 players vying for what probably will be 29 or possibly 30 spots. There may be another guest player/trialist or two invited into camp but these appear to be the main combatants going into the final phase of preseason in Tucson.
The Fire will face Colorado on Wednesday afternoon followed by a match against FC Tucson on Saturday. There wasn't anyone named Bradley, Dempsey, or Defoe added to the team this winter but there is enough competition and depth to make it interesting.
Fire Confidential fantasy league
Want to kill valuable time at work and/or have some fun this summer?
Join the Fire Confidential fantasy soccer league over at mlssoccer.com.
The key to enter is 7157-1365.
Maybe we can scrounge something up out of the prize bin for the winner.