The Chicago Fire's preseason slate has wrapped up, and yet this team still is a mystery on several levels.
Four straight preseason games with a red card -- the latter three resulting in 10 men remaining on the pitch -- did not help Chicago's evaluation process. Ultimately, we are left wondering where this club stands from a cohesive and tactical perspective. And the Fire's 2011 MLS opener is only days away as they travel to Texas to take on FC Dallas on Saturday, March 19, at Pizza Hut Park.
The Fire's first team posted a 1-2-3 preseason record, earning a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC on March 5 for its lone win. Chicago garnered draws against Florida Gulf Coast University, the New York Red Bulls and the Charleston Battery, and the Fire fell to Seattle Sounders FC and D.C. United.
Defense does its job: The Fire played shorthanded for a bulk of the first two games of the Carolina Challenge Cup, and during the 10-men stretches, Chicago did not surrender a goal. The defense might not have held up if Toronto had Dwayne De Rosario and Julian de Guzman on the pitch in the Fire's opening game of the tournament, but you cannot hold that against Chicago.
Josip Mikulic has looked comfortable in the center back role, rookie Jalil Anibaba is taking advantage of his immediate insertion into at right back with his marking and occasional combinations on the right flank to push into the offensive end. Left back Cory Gibbs' experience will be worthwhile, though he had some ups and downs in the preseason. On a couple of occasions he slipped up in the back, but in each case the Fire were not burned by their opponent on the scoreboard.
Other than a poor stretch at the start of the D.C. game, the defensive unit appears to have materialized quickly. That is reassuring for a completely revamped back line.
It remains to be seen how effective Chicago's three-man back line will work, and because the Fire were shorthanded during two games, it was impossible to implement that system for long stretches.
Where is the offense?: Midfielder Marco Pappa had three goals, but where was everyone else this preseason? The only other goal in first-team games came from defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe in the opener against Florida Gulf Coast, and he probably should have had two goals in that match.
Once again, you can go back to the red cards for the lack of offense in two games. But in the Carolina Challenge Cup finale, the Fire had a 10-on-9 advantage against a lower-tier Battery squad that has had a shorter preseason to date. Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos did go with a vastly different lineup to get some looks at other players, but plenty of chances were there for the taking offensively.
The Fire netted only one goal over their final four games. Including a scoreless effort against Seattle, it added up to a 390-minute stretch with one goal.
There rarely was a moment to see what type of mix the Fire can incorporate up front. Diego Chaves was red-carded against D.C. and did not dress against Charleston. And for much of the Carolina Challenge Cup, fellow Uruguayan forward Gaston Puerari was up top on his own. Puerari didn't net a goal, but he showed some good movement and an eagerness for the ball.
Until we see a flurry of attacking moments and possession within this front line, it is far too early -- even though the season is upon us -- to form a concrete opinion of this group. The early prognosis is that Fire midfielders Pappa and Patrick Nyarko will have to lead the way in creating and finishing on the offensive end. Pappa typically gets off to a fast start, and Nyarko found his creative niche last season and shows no signs of slowing down in that department.
Johnson posts mixed preseason: Fire second-year goalkeeper Sean Johnson will be relied upon to carry this club, especially if the Fire offense cannot find its rhythm in the early going. Johnson was not tested a whole lot during the preseason, but in the Charleston match he came up with seven saves for the clean sheet. On the flip side, Johnson appeared shaky on opposing teams' crosses, whether in the flow of play or on set pieces.
But Johnson's hesitancy or misjudgment on some of those sequences should not be cause for alarm. Johnson has had an active offseason with the Generation adidas team in December and trained with the U.S. National Team in January. His readiness for the regular season should be ahead of the curve.
Finalizing roster: The Fire plan on adding three more players to enter the 2011 season with 28 on the roster. Based on preseason performance, two of those spots should go to midfielder Davis Paul and forward Gabriel Ferrari. Paul especially had a strong preseason, showing fluidity and creativity in the midfield. The other slot could be up for grabs. Open tryout winner Pari Pantazopolous is in the mix for consideration, but it remains to be seen where the Fire technical staff is leaning.