To get everyone ready for Atlanta United’s third match of the season against the Chicago Fire, we spoke with Hot Time in Old Town’s Sean Spence to get his take on their offseason, Dax McCarty, and the Fire’s solid start to the campaign.
DSS: The Fire seemed to be in complete disarray heading into the offseason, and then they signed quality players like Dax McCarty, Juninho and Nemanja Nikolic. Were these signings the front office's way of increasing morale around the club?
HTIOT: The signings this year wouldn't have made much of a difference without the signings last year, as this club was in a worse-than-expansion situation going into the 2016 season; the only players remaining from the Yallop years are David Accam and Matt Polster, who's been injured since February.
The remaking of this roster by Nelson Rodriguez - the shedding of old contracts and wheeling and dealing for allocation money - really started at the tail end of 2015, and the first fruits were the signings that now form important parts of the starting XI. The entire starting defense was signed in that period, with Johan Kappelhof and João Meira plucked from Europe, Michael Harrington picked up as a free agent, and Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell drafted in the first round of the 2016 SuperDraft. The Fire also added Arturo Alvarez in this period, an under-the-radar pickup of a returning MLSer who had a sneaky-great season last year.
With a rough sketch of the starting defense in place, Michael de Leeuw was brought in during the summer window. Then the guys you mentioned in this offseason - Nikolic, Juninho, and Jorge Bava, all lured with simple cash, and then the bombshell - a trade for Dax McCarty, tying the whole room together. There's a sense of increasing impact to the moves - the defense, a low-key creator, intelligent second forward; keeper, top-notch box-to-box guy, pure finisher, elite defensive midfielder. That sense is not undermined by the rumors that the Fire are about to announce Germany and Bayern Munich legend Bastian Schweinsteiger as the newest player for the Men in Red.
I don't think that these moves were motivated directly by the idea of increasing fan morale - in many ways, this front office has behaved as if it's slightly contemptuous of the opinions of the fanbase. These moves were an attempt to build a winning MLS roster in a very short time frame, without waiting for any of the usual supporting investments (training facilities, USL team, etc) to be in place. I think it'll work as long as everyone stays healthy. If an injury bug hits, though, this roster is paper thin, with a bench filled with draftees and Homegrowns with essentially zero experience.
DSS: How surprised were you by the McCarty move?
HTIOT: Like everyone else, I was completely flabbergasted by the McCarty move. It's a measure of the difference between MLS and the rest of the football world that something like this can even happen - a respected pro, one of the most respected players in the entire league, a leader of the best team in the league over the last two seasons suddenly air-dropped into the worst team in the league over that same span, entirely without say or recourse. I felt like I'd eaten some mushrooms and was running a counterclockwise circuit around the walls of my living room, flooded with unfamiliar but delightful feelings I understand are called 'hope' and 'delight.' Simultaneously, the part of me that believes in the necessity of legal bulwarks against malefactors of great power - employers, for example - wept and fasted, wept and prayed. (This is more familiar emotional territory for the Fire-afflicted nowadays.)
The Fire supporter in me exulted, the socialist in me despaired (as ever, as always).
DSS: What are your main takeaways from Chicago's start to the season?
HTIOT: The Fire are playing much better football than we're used to, but nothing like the football they're capable of playing. The starting XI are intelligent and adaptable, and have adjusted cannily to the changing phases of the game in the first two weeks - but they haven't found a consistent way they seek to dominate a game. The high press that they worked out in preseason has been used more as a control device than a chance-creation mechanism, breaking up opposition patterns rather than imposing their own. They spin through ball after through ball into space for lightning-bolt David Accam to run onto, but can't seem to get runs into place to take advantage, so the whole thing slows down.
I will say that there's about zero chance your water-bugs will have the kind of joy against the Fire they had against poor Minnesota. Simple entries just won't be there with Dax and Juninho cutting off service, and we'll have Johan Kappelhof where the Loons tried a converted Swedish d-mid.
I think the Fire are a playoff team if they stay healthy. If not, they could tumble into Triple Spoon territory.
Predicted Chicago Fire Lineup:
HTIOT: (a lopsided 4-4-2 with Accam very high on the left, Alvarez tucked in on the right, Harrington wide and high on the right to keep width, and Vincent playing more as a traditional fullback): Bava; Vincent, Meira, Kappelhof, Harrington; Accam, McCarty, Juninho, Alvarez; De Leeuw, Nikolic.