The first day of training camp proved to be chock full of news with the introduction of new Designated Player Shaun Maloney, the surprise return of goalkeeper Jon Busch, and the announcement of a new TV rights deal with Comcast Sportsnet Chicago. The flurry of activity and news has started the 2015 season with a flourish and has helped fuel newly found optimism if social media reaction is any indicator. Maloney's signing will grab most of the headlines but it's the return of the popular Busch that created much of the buzz among supporters this morning.
Here's a rundown of all the goings-on in day one of training camp:
Scottish midfielder Shaun Maloney arrived in Chicago on Saturday, signed his MLS contract over the weekend, and began training with his new teammates this morning at the Bridgeview Sports Dome. Maloney cited his conversations with Frank Yallop about the move as the main reason for choosing Chicago over other offers in the UK. "I think it's an opportunity of a life time really," said Maloney. "I spoke with the manager in early January and on personal level got on very well with him. He discussed the vision of the club and I bought in straight away."
A different challenge, in a different country, in a different league were all motivating factors in the decision according to the 5'-7" playmaker but after meeting with Yallop he gave his word on a decision despite his former club, Wigan continuing to search for the best possible deal before the transfer window closed. Maloney was thankful to Wigan for helping facilitate the move but nothing could be finalized until a transfer fee was agreed to with the Fire. Yallop called the transfer negotiation a matter of getting to "a figure that Wigan were happy with" considering that Maloney had chosen his destination and could leave in July on a free transfer.
Maloney responded to questions about injury/fitness concerns by saying that he's at 100 percent now and ready to go. Hip surgery in 2013 was postponed from the previous season in order to help the club's standing and the surgery has allowed him to improve his form with the national team resulting in the interest from Premier League clubs. Yallop described him as a two-way player with a big work rate who "buzzes" all over the field. His playmaking ability is the main reason Yallop pursued him so vigorously however. "Someone like Shaun makes the team tick," said Yallop. "The one piece that we needed, and the most important piece was getting Shaun."
Maloney deferred to the coaches when asked what position he prefers to play but does envision himself as an attacker who will help in all aspects of the game. "I know I play in a creative position on the field but I think part of that is you have to do your job defensively. I certainly won't shirk that responsibility," he said. Yallop has said he plans to use Maloney as a central playmaker underneath two strikers in what could be a 4-3-3 formation and his abilities seem to be well suited to that position.
The Fire can now work on refining that system with close to a full squad from the beginning of camp. David Accam, Sean Johnson, and Lovel Palmer were the only players missing today. Accam is participating in AFCON with Ghana, Johnson is with the USMNT for two friendlies, and Palmer will arrive shortly. Maloney knows there is work to do but likes the changes that have been made since last season ended. "I've seen the results from last season and I spoke with the manager as I said previously and I think the team is very different this year. There's been a lot of new signings and I'm very hopeful that I can play a big part in bringing success to the club," he said.
Unlike many previous Fire DP signings, he'll have that chance from day one.
The club is close to finalizing a move for goalkeeper Jon Busch. The formality of signing a contract is all that remains in bringing the popular 'keeper back to Chicago. He was released just days before the beginning of the 2010 season and he landed in San Jose where he earned the starting role in short time. Yallop was the coach in San Jose at the time and played a big part in bringing him to Chicago now. "I'm very excited, both myself and my wife are very excited to be back here. I never thought it would be a possibility but to be quite honest when Frank brought it up to me we were all for it," said Busch. The move was agreed to a few days ago with the trade of Kyle Reynish to New York last week opening up a spot for another 'keeper. Busch did brush off questions about his departure as something that's "part of the business."
He'll serve as the back up to Sean Johnson and should see some playing time if Johnson is selected to this summer's Gold Cup squad. He'll also provide some insurance should the Fire and Johnson find a suitor willing to make an offer on a move overseas. "Sean and I are actually real good friends. We talk all the time. We have a great relationship and I'm excited to be back to train with him. He's the number one no doubt about it. I'm going to come in and do what I always do. Just work hard and train every day and try to get better as a goalkeeper. At the end of the day, if and when Frank needs me to play, I'll play. When he doesn't, I've got Sean's back and I'll help him in any way that I can," said Busch. "There's another level that Sean can get to and I want to help him be a part of that."
He also recalled that supporters had provided him with a signed photograph upon his initial return to Toyota Park in 2010 as a member of the San Jose Earthquakes. Playing in front of those fans again is something Busch is looking forward to. "It's giving me goose bumps just thinking about it. In my first game back here when I played for San Jose, they gave me a signed picture and it's crazy how things work. As soon as we moved to San Jose we hung it up on one of the walls in our apartment and we still have it up there to this day."
In the latest episode of the Fire Confidential Live podcast, Yallop indicated that Harry Shipp could start on the season on the bench with Maloney moving into the main playmaker's role but the second year player would be given plenty of opportunity to get on the field. Shipp welcomed the challenge citing that new players and higher quality players raise the level of practice every day. He hasn't specifically had conversations with coaching staff yet on where he fits in at the moment. "I honestly at this point don't know," said Shipp regarding what his role might be. "For me I'm focused on playing as well in practice every day as possible. If I play my best and play well, I'll find a role for myself on the field somewhere."
Discussion turned to negotiations related to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement since Shipp, Chris Ritter, and Jeff Larentowicz have all been involved in meetings to date. Free agency, or some form of will continue to be a major sticking point. "I've heard a lot about how it was five years ago and I think this year the players are so united in what they believe. I know you see on twitter and you see people interviewed about it but it's honestly true. Everyone stands behind what we believe in and in order for us to take a stand like that it's going to be real important for the league going forward," said Shipp.
Jeff Larentowicz, an executive member of the MLSPU said that the sides are far apart but talks are ongoing. Both Shipp and Larentowicz were optimistic that issues could be resolved before the season starts in approximately six weeks.
Fire back on CSN
The Fire will be more visible in the Chicago sports landscape this summer, and for the next three years by virtue of a new television broadcast agreement. The club announced a return to Comcast SportsNet Chicago for television broadcasts. The new three year deal will include 21 games this season. Dan Kelly and Kevin Egan will return as the play by play team and CSN will feature a 30 minute pre game show along with expanded coverage on the station.
The deal includes shared digital content between the Fire's official site and CSN. The team will also have more of a presence in nightly recap programming. The good news comes at a price however since the Fire are still paying for air time to broadcast matches although a successful stint featuring a team that wins and draws viewers could very well change that dynamic three years from now.
- Yallop said Mike Magee is advancing well in his rehab and is starting some light jogging. Magee will travel to England with the team. His return to training could be anywhere from 4-10 weeks away depending on how he progresses. The Fire will be more cautious with Patrick Nyarko who is recovering from an ACL tear. Yallop previously had him on a June return.
- Yallop has yet to name a head assistant to replace the departed CJ Brown. Head of Scouting Trevor James has been considered for the spot and was on the field with the team this morning although Yallop may have another option. "I was down the line with a couple of candidates but it didn't quite work out," said Yallop. An announcement on the permanent replacement for Brown is expected soon.