The Fire trained for the final time in Tucson Friday morning under perfect skies and 80 degree temperatures, a far cry from the weather bound to meet them at the home opener just over 3 short weeks away.
After training, Fire manager Frank Yallop granted Fire Confidential an exclusive interview, covering a variety of topics. He addressed the introduction of Mike Magee back to preseason training after a two week absence, as well as discussion of the salary cap, the Austin Berry trade, and the release of Federico Puppo. Here's a blow-by-blow from the Fire gaffer:
FC: Talk about having Mike Magee back in camp for the close of preseason. How important is it to have him back for morale and his leadership?
FY: It's huge. The success Chicago had once Mike came on board last year was a big part of why they had a great run. I'm really looking forward to working with Mike to get him game sharp since he's had a few weeks off, but he looked pretty good this morning.
FC: With what you've seen offensively up to this point of the preseason, what is that going to do to your plans offensively, and how do you think his game will change if any?
FY: I think what I've liked about our group thusfar is we've had a ton of movement, and it's not just been static and guys stuck in their spots. Mike's one of the best in the league at finding space and drifting to spots and he's a good soccer player, and he's a very good finisher. We've got to make sure he lands on the ball in the box. Having said all that, the way we set up is good defensively. I think we've got to make sure we are nice and compact, and that will help guys like Mike to get his chances close to goal. Hopefully we're not dropping off, but we're squeezing the play in their half and winning the ball back in good spots.
FC: There's been a lot of speculation about Mike's absence from camp. Contractually, is he coming in under the same contract he ended 2013 with for the Fire?
FY: He is, yes. It was all personal reasons anyway, so everything's above board. We've said it all along, that whenever people are not in camp, everyone gets the wrong idea of that. There's never been an issue between the club, the league, and Mike, so it's been dealt with, he's back here, and everything's fine.
FC: Is Magee going to be match fit in time for the season opener against Chivas USA?
FY: We'll see. It's going to be tough, but he'll be involved. We'll have to see how he gets on over the next few days, but this team's been working pretty hard and pretty good for a little while. Obviously it's never a punishment for any player, but Mike needs to get himself game sharp and game ready, but knowing him he'll be pretty close.
FC: Earlier this week you sent Austin Berry to Philadelphia for allocation money. Your first priority when coming in to Chicago was to shore up the backline. Can you give some of the team's reasoning and rationale for trading away a former Rookie of the Year, as well as someone who played every minute of the 2013 season?
FY: We were still over the cap. For us to get allocation money and move some salary, people were interested in Austin. He was the only one we could really move, to be honest. I like him, but when you're over the cap, something's got to give. We have certain players we can move. I've tried to move a number of players, but it's not because I want to move them, it's because I had to move them. Austin was the one that made sense, because we did pick up Ianni and Hurtado, so it was the only spot I felt we could probably get away with it. Having said all that, I like the kid but something had to give.
FC: This week you also moved Federico Puppo off the books. Was that another move where Chicago was able to free up some cap space, or did the club take a hit with terminating his contract?
FY: We still have no cap space, so I think what gets out there is a bit of a myth, as if all the sudden now we've got room. These moves just get us cap compliant. With everything we've done so far, we're still over the cap a little bit. All the things we're doing are moves to get ready for March 1st. I think we've done a nice job with that, and now we're getting right down to the wire, but I think with what we have we won't be over the cap, and we've got to start again once that's done. We start to look at what we have and work through this season. Hopefully we have a great year, and we'll have a bit of flexibility in next year's end of the season. I'm not making excuses, but it's just the way it is. I never make excuses, but I'm excited about working with this group.
FC: You talked last week about hoping to bring in Grant Ward after he returned to Tottenham Hotspur. He's obviously someone you want to bring back over via a loan. Is there any updates on Ward's status?
FY: Yeah, we're trying to do something with Tottenham at the moment. Nothing's secured, the talks are still going on. I can't really say if they're positive or negative, we've got to work a lot of things out, but I think we saw enough in Grant that I'd love to have him back, we're just hoping Tottenham see it the same way. He's their player, they get to loan him to us, so we've got to make sure they're happy with everything, but we're hoping to have an answer pretty soon.
FC: Is part of that working under the cap and limitations?
FY: A little bit, yeah. He won't be on a big salary, I'll put it that way. Stuff like that, it's just working with teams and our relationship. With Tottenham, they've been really good to me and things we've done together, with Simon Dawkins mainly, so hopefully it gets ironed out and whether it's yes or no, we'll make an announcement real soon.
Weekly conference call notes
Frank Yallop and Brian Bliss addressed the media via conference call this afternoon and things got a bit testy when asked why Mike Magee wasn't made available as originally planned. When a suggestion was made that Magee himself should clear up public concerns about his situation and his absence Yallop seemed to take a bit of exception. "What's there to clear? He's practicing. You'll get to speak to him," he responded. "Like I said before it's a personal matter and that's what it is. There's no holding out nor is he getting shopped around. Mike's had certain thing he had to care of and since then he's back in town, he looks sharp and he's ready to go. He needs to catch up in his fitness."
Bliss added, "We don't believe it's a necessity to have Mike answer questions about his personal issues just like we're not delving into it either. He's going to be made available at some point."
Bliss said he has been in touch with (Magee's agent) Richard Motzkin "over the last week and half about 3 or 4 times" but there has been no discussion about contracts. "We were just checking in to see where Mike was at and how he was doing. Frank has had a little more contact with Mike himself while he was out and I had contact with the agent. It all hinged around that and not anything about a new deal," added the Fire's Technical Director.
Magee was involved in a second training session specifically for him while the conference call was taking place. Yallop expressed some concern about Magee's recovery from a hamstring injury and rushing him back into action sooner than he is ready to. "He's trained two days now. He's a fit kid but needs to catch up to speed missing two and half weeks, with a hamstring injury by the way, he's just getting over that. He looked pretty good today, we'll see how he gets on in the next week. There's no rush to get Mike back as soon as we can. I just want to make sure we don't push him too quickly and he re-injures anything."
While they weren't sure to what extent Magee would be available for the final game of preseason they also didn't want to commit to a starting spot for the season opener on March 9. "I would think he'll be available," said Yallop. "Whether or not he's in the right shape to start, we'll see. If Mike's fitness is good he'll be considered but I'm not saying definitely yet that he's going to play because that's not known at the moment." They will decide later in the coming week how much he plays against Chivas USA.
Budget work to do
- The technical staff is still working on getting budget compliant and getting Ward's loan deal complete. "The trade we made earlier in the week with Austin Berry, that pretty much gets us in a position to be cap compliant," said Bliss. They reiterated that getting a deal done for Grant Ward is something they're looking to do. "Grant is a player that we're working on. We'd love to have him. He went back to Tottenham and he's been training there while we continue to work on the paperwork and the final things to get it buttoned up. To say that Grant Ward would be there for the Chivas game on the 9th would probably be a stretch because we've still got some work to do to finalize that," said Bliss. He also added, "We're closer with Grant Ward."
- Yallop admitted that Chris Rolfe "didn't have one of his better years last year" but they felt that he was a good enough player and thought he would bounce back this year.
- Yallop praised Bakary Soumare's work so far saying he "has been really good in camp and he's got a little bit of a mean streak and that's always good for a defender." Soumare and Hurtado are likely to start at centerback come March 9. Yallop said he doesn't mind Soumare testing teams with occasional long balls over the top.
- On Thomas Piermayr. "He's done very well but again the cap is a big jig saw puzzle and we're trying to see where each player fits in. We're looking at the possibility of trading with other teams. We're forever on the lookout."
- On undisclosed allocation amounts. "It doesn't always have to come out in the public and I think that's not a bad thing. All around the world there's always undisclosed fees and complicated situations with those (types of) deals."
- Bliss and Yallop are pretty happy with the Academy development but haven't enough time to assess everything from top to bottom like catering academy players to the first team's style of play. Bliss explained that the Fire have a couple of kids in the national team youth picture (maybe not as many as NY or LA) but the system is comparable to those of Columbus, Real Salt Lake, and Kansas City as far as having players in the national team pool. Overall it ranks near the top in resources available for the academy in their opinions.