The Fire arrived in the United Kingdom this morning after a seven hour delay due to weather. The team spent the first week of preseason training locally at the Bridgeview Sports Dome and the Private Bank Fire Pitch. They'll practice at Norwich City's Colney Training Centre from February 2-10 with a match against their hosts sandwiched in on the 5th. They'll then head to London for training at the Queens Park Rangers Training Centre from the 11th through the 13th. They'll face QPR on February 12 before returning to Chicago the following day.
The match against Norwich City is a closed door scrimmage and streams won't be made available for the first two preseason games so we'll have to wait until the 2015 Simple Invitational Tournament begins in Portland on the 22nd to get a live, competitive look at what Frank Yallop is planning tactically this season. Yallop has indicated that he's looking to institute some form of a 4-3-3 alignment which could morph into a more conservative look incorporating two holding midfielders for road games and/or against certain opponents.
The acquisition of Shaun Maloney was the key piece in making his vision work. The 5'-7" attacking midfielder will serve as the playmaker or catalyst while operating from a central position just behind two front runners. Maloney made sure to mention that he also wanted to contribute defensively whenever he could last week and the Fire will certainly need to improve on last year's defensive effort to truly challenge in an improved Eastern Conference. David Accam is the other key piece in the new attack Yallop is looking to test MLS defenders with but he's still with the Ghanaian National Team until at least February 7. Ghana has advanced into the semi-finals of AFCON and Accam won't be available until some time next week at the earliest, after the final weekend of play in the tournament.
Sean Johnson won't join the team until they return from the UK. He is with the US Men's National Team and they compete in a friendly against Panama in California on February 8. If he's selected to the Gold Cup squad this summer he'll likely miss more time away than he has in previous seasons.
The general feeling among fans and media is that the new attack will yield some exciting moments at Toyota Park but there is still a lingering concern about the back line. That concern stems from a lack of recognition, or solid public information for that matter, for the two new presumed starters on the back line this year. Adailton and Joevin Jones are lesser known quantities but do have some background that may indicate a better fit for Yallop's new system than the options that were in place last season. Yallop wanted the squad to get quicker and the fullbacks will need pace and mobility in the proposed 4-3-3. Jones is a young player that the technical staff is very high on, who has made 37 appearances with the Trinidad and Tobago National Team. He's had previous trial stints at the MLS level, in 2011 with Colorado and Toronto FC and again with TFC in 2103. He has had success as an attacking midfielder with W Connection and he does possess enough skill to have earned a look with Udinese in Serie A. He may be younger and more mobile than displaced veteran Gonzalo Segares but there isn't enough of a body of work as a defender available to determine whether or not there should be a concern at left back. Segares has yet to land with another MLS club but does have options available with NASL and the Fire will make a position with the club available if he chooses to begin his post-playing career now.
Adailton is essentially a replacement for Bakary Soumare, who did have some spectacular outings last season but his down days and lapses mainly outweighed his positive contributions. Eight clubs since 20o2 and only four appearances with Brazilian club Bahia last season lead to valid skepticism about him but Yallop also appears to be content with the signing of former Crew defender Eric Gehrig and draftee Matt Polster for now.
Without video it will be difficult to really grasp how well the revamped side will perform early on during the trip to the UK but we should be able to get a preview of how Yallop plans to deploy his new weapons this week, even without Accam present. If the 4-3-3 is indeed the system he implements and stays with throughout the course of preseason and into March it's not difficult to see who the front runners will be. The DP trio of Maloney, Accam, and Kennedy Igboananike are likely to be first choice to lead up front but the support in midfield is a bit of a puzzle at the moment. It doesn't seem that Yallop can afford to go into full-on attack mode through midfield if the DP's are all on the pitch. The midfielders will need to play both ways and the lack of a true holding midfielder will necessitate that the "three" in the middle can provide cover for the back line.
This may leave Harry Shipp on the bench as the first attacker available and as an understudy to Maloney as Yallop indicated in the last Fire Confidential Podcast. Shipp will get plenty of opportunities to play this season even if he is not starting right away however. Maloney is likely to miss several games this season while Scotland attempts to qualify for Euro 2016. If Shipp isn't one of the starters in midfield and Patrick Nyarko and Mike Magee aren't ready until sometime this summer the choices are narrowed down for the "three" in the middle of the park. Michael Stephens, Razvan Cocis, and Matt Watson would seem the be the most reasonable selections if there is to be some effort made to protect the back line as much as possible. Cocis is somewhat limited in that he's truly not a "number 6" and isn't exactly suited to cover the ground they'll need out of that position. He does have experience playing on the right however. Playing Watson in combination with Cocis would allow Yallop the flexibility to play two "holding" midfielders if necessary although neither is optimally suited to cover that ground alone if the formation takes more of a diamond appearance. Yallop does like the versatility Alex can provide and Chris Ritter may eventually be a centerback and neither should be counted on to perform as needed over extended periods in a 4-3-3. The options are fairly limited in midfield at the moment and finding the right combination in those positions may be more reason for worry than the performance from the back line.
The Fire may line up in a version of a 4-3-3 that places Maloney underneath the strikers/wide players with Igboananike assuming more of a center forward's position closer to goal. Guly do Prado can fill that role as well and he's also played wide right over the course of his career. Yallop has some options up top with different looks and he still has last year's leading scorer Quincy Amarikwa on the bench.
The current roster lends itself to competition for a few positions but it appears that the senior spots are close to set if the new CBA reduces roster sizes as expected. Brian Bliss indicated that the Fire will send somewhere between 3-5 players to Saint Louis FC so that finds a place for some of the younger players that wouldn't necessarily get much time this season.
The roster as it stands now with number of signed players in parentheses:
Goalkeepers (3): Johnson, Kann, Busch, Pais*
Defenders (8): Palmer, Adailton, Larentowicz, Jones, Cochrane, Doody, Gehrig, Polster, Gaul*, De Wilde*
Midfielders (9): Cocis, Fernandez, Nyarko, Ritter, Shipp, Stephens, Watson, Alex, Maloney, Shinsky**
Forwards (5): Accam, Amarikwa, do Prado, Magee, Igboananike, Bryce**
**Unsigned draft choice
One thing is evident from perusing the current roster and considering the offensive talent acquired this winter. The Fire will be a much more entertaining side to watch in 2015. There may be some struggles to adapt to a new system but six of the projected starters in the potential line up above weren't with the club to end last season so there was always going to be adjustment to be made regardless of how the team lines up. Yallop's insistence that the team have as many players as possible in camp to start the season was very important along those terms and he's now had an opportunity to bring in his own selections.
The Fire will be entertaining this year. Whether or not Yallop can find an adequate fit in central midfield to mesh with the system and style that he's looking to play may determine if that entertainment will result in challenging for something other than just a playoff spot.
- The Fire have yet to officially announce who will assume CJ Brown's vacated lead assistant role but it seems that is close to being finalized. Millwall assistant manager Marc Bircham appears to be on his way to Chicago to fill that void. Millwall confirmed his departure on their website this weekend. The former Canada international played at Millwall and QPR where he also served as an assistant for both clubs. The move would allow Trevor James to remain in his position as Head of Scouting. James had been acting as a coach this past week in camp and was considered for the permanent job as lead assistant.
- The planned ceremonial opening of the north side soccer center now named the Private Bank Fire Pitch this past Saturday was postponed due to concerns about the incoming weather. The event will be rescheduled for a later date, which means the unveiling of the new secondary kit will have to wait just a little bit longer.
- USL Pro has released their 2015 schedule. Saint Louis FC opens on March 28 against Louisville City FC. Former Fire forward Matt Fondy recently signed with Louisville.
- Another former Fire player from last season also found a new home this weekend. Florent Sinama-Pongolle signed with FC Lausanne-Sport in the Swiss second division.