What Are They All About? USF
Welcome back! After a mostly quiet offseason we are happy to be returning with our first match preview of 2018. Having completed the first phase of preseason at the Toyota Park dome, the Chicago Fire find themselves in sunny Tampa on the USF campus for a tune-up against the college side at 4:00 CT on Saturday. The live stream will be available here. Although we will certainly shed some light on their collegiate opponents, these February fixtures are more about fitness, adaptation to style, and a gauge of where the team needs to improve in terms of acquisitions. With Chicago’s failure to secure their main targets thus far in the winter window (exacerbated by the departure of David Accam), questionable fitness levels heading into camp (Bastian Schweinsteiger celebrated his contract extension by showing up to camp overweight), and just twenty-six first team players on the preseason roster—not all of whom are contracted—the Fire certainly have their work cut out for them on and off the pitch.
Although Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic have plenty of time to remedy the aforementioned issues, there are some lasting questions no matter who ends up signing for Chicago before the roster freeze deadline. Perhaps the most jarring question heading into this season’s first match is the acquisition methods exhibited by Chicago. Another brilliant show of maneuvering by Nelson Rodriguez on draft day saw the Fire land two picks in the top ten (Jon Bakero and Mo Adams), followed by the accrual of a record amount of league allocation money from Philadelphia in exchange for David Accam—$1.2 million in GAM and TAM, however, the ability to pay significant transfer fees remains seemingly nonexistent. The use of league mechanisms makes for a shrewd GM, but with the likes of Seattle, Atlanta, the LA sides, Portland, and Toronto spending real money on high impact targets, Chicago fans are wondering when their major market will start competing. This issue came to the forefront explicitly in the Fire’s failed pursuit of Juan Quintero, a player they could have had in early January had they matched Porto’s valuation rather than attempt to avoid a transfer fee all together.
While some may argue that there are multiple ways to build a successful roster, the winners of the last four MLS Cups indicate otherwise. However, if we were to entertain the idea that championship winning sides can be built without spending, the Fire stumbled significantly in the low cost low risk department as well. The offseason saw them decline options on three homegrown players, Joey Calistri, Patrick Doody, and Collin Fernandez despite their solid performances on loan at Tulsa, and secure the signing of just one Homegrown target, Grant Lillard. While everything about Lillard indicates he’ll be ready to make the jump to MLS, his signature was overshadowed by Chicago’s failure to sign Homegrown prospect Cam Lindley who told the Fire that he had no intention of playing for them. Rodriguez quickly flipped Lindley’s Homegrown rights to Orlando for Rafael Ramos, but the sting of being turned down by one of the best collegiate players in the country was certainly felt within the organization.
While we are not privy to Lindley’s reasoning for denying Chicago’s advances and losing out on one prospect is not devastating, there are signs that this could be a trend. Long time Fire academy player Mauricio Pineda, brother to former Fire player, Victor Pineda, has not joined Chicago’s pre-season camp for the first time in three years despite Chicago’s invitation to do so. Although he is in the midst of the academic calendar at UNC, his absence is still worth noting given his family’s previous fallout with the Fire.
Given the shortcomings above, it seems as if the Process continues to go undefined and Chicago may be left picking up the scraps left behind by the European transfer window. Ultimately, the Fire will find it hard to match last season’s third place finish with their current personnel and it could be a very long season. But first, preseason! Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
USF Form Guide: 6-6-4 across all 2017 season matches.
Previous Result: A 7-0 home loss against New York Red Bulls.
Strengths: We certainly won’t pretend to be experts on a collegiate side that we have only seen play against MLS sides in preseason, but there are certainly strengths we can pick up from their last few matches. Let’s see where USF might succeed on Saturday.
The Opportunity of a Lifetime: USF may have lost 7-0 against the Red Bulls last week but you wouldn’t have known that looking at their smiles as they shook hands with their opponents after the final whistle. Many of the USF youngsters will be hoping to one day have the opportunity to play professionally and the passion, excitement, and pure adrenaline of the moment certainly came through in their play. The Red Bulls had the luxury of switching their line up on three separate occasions while USF had just their regular contingent available for the friendly. However, the fitness levels of collegiate athletes hardly waned as the clock approached the ninetieth minute. Playing against the likes of Schweinsteiger, Nikolic, and McCarty will be a high-water mark in the lives of the USF players and their energy will surely test a Fire side still getting their legs loose after the offseason.
Past Prestige: While USF has been a gracious host in seasons past, it isn’t just the Tampa sun that has Chicago returning to their campus. They may not be the first name on the list of elite colleges, but USF has helped to produce the likes of Jeff Cunningham, Bernardo Anor, Jeff Attinella, and most recently Dom Dwyer. It is likely that one or two of the names on their team sheet from Saturday will end up in MLS in a year or two and this match can be a bit of a showcase of readiness as well as a nod to the vitality of the program at USF.
Das Boot: You may have seen the Fire repost a USF interview with Adrian Billhardt in which the freshman described his idolization of Bastian Schweinsteiger. Billhardt came up through the Union Berlin academy and has fond memories of watching him play for the German National team. The joy in his face was evident as he was asked about lining up against his childhood hero. The interview may have warmed hearts but Billhardt is more than just a cute PR piece. The 5’ 9” forward finished as USF’s leading goal scorer, tallying five goals and adding an impressive six assists. He is versatile in the fact that USF can play the ball into his feet where he holds up play before dishing it off to a strike partner or they can play the ball into space for the German to chase down (Billhardt’s preferred option). Head coach Bob Butehorn credits his methodical work ethic, attention to detail, and technical ability as the traits that will likely land the youngster a professional contract in the future. With the Fire’s back line not necessarily set and questions about whether Sanchez is ready to be a starter in goal looming large, Billhardt may just surprise Chicago and his idol.
Weaknesses: Given the disparity in skill level between the college game and MLS, we will not spend extra time attempting to disparage the Fire’s gracious hosts. After all, it is USF’s offseason as well and they’ll have a few players transitioning out of the program along with their own lack of fitness.
Prediction: This match is not about the result, however, if you would like to predict how many goals Chicago will win by please feel free to do so in the comment section below. More important than the score line is whether or not Fire supporters will see answers to the inquiries introduced above as well as the following tactical questions. Will Bakero play alongside Nikolic or underneath him as a slightly advanced Enganche? Will Rafael Ramos be given time on the wing to see if he and Polster are the key to Chicago’s right side? Will a three-man back line be a tactical shift that Paunovic makes? We’re not sure we have any answers, but we hope to see some from the Fire’s technical staff.