MLS Season Preview: Chicago Fire


The 2014 MLS MVP is back, their coach is not.

While Mike Magee and his strike partner return for a full season to pump in the goals, there is much change behind them.

Missing out on the playoffs by a tiebreaker last season hurt for sure, but the Fire had plenty of chances to grab that postseason spot, and they just couldn’t come up with the final answers.

One thing that hurt the Fire last season was their horrendous start, with just seven points through their first 10 games.  Over that span, they were shut out six times and conceded 16 goals. But of course, they didn’t have Mike Magee.

With a reshaped defense and a few key pieces gone, new coach Frank Yallop has plenty of work to do right off the bat to get the club off to a better start.

Players in: Patrick Ianni (trade from Seattle), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (trade from Seattle), Lovel Palmer (trade from Seattle), Kyle Reynish (transfer, NY Cosmos), Harrison Shipp (homegrown, Notre Dame), Chris Ritter (homegrown, Northwestern), Giuseppe Gentile (waiver draft, UNC Charlotte), Benji Joya (weighted lottery – loan, Santos Laguna).

Players out: Jalil Anibaba (traded to Seattle), Austin Berry (traded to Philadelphia), Daniel Paladini (traded to Columbus), Paolo Tornaghi (waived), Brendan King (waived), Kellen Gulley (waived), Shaun Francis (released), Wells Thompson (released), Arevalo Rios (option declined), Michael Videira (option declined), Maicon (option declined), Corben Bone (option declined).


Key Player: Mike Magee

Shocker! The reigning MVP is your key player! While it’s clear that Magee is by far the most valuable and important single player on the team, the success of this club depends on much more than just their main man up front.

source: AP
The ability of Mike Magee to repeat his MVP form is going to be crucial to the Fire’s success in 2014.

Magee will be again supported by Patrick Nyarko at the front, with relief coming from Juan Anangono and Chris Rolfe. The Fire also picked up Guiseppe Gentile and Benji Joya in the offseason, and the two will add to the strike options for Chicago.  While it’s not the most star-studded attack outside of Magee, it’s a deep one, and that should help offset any possible issues at the back.

Speaking of at the back, there’s a saga developing at the back in the recent weeks. With the departure of Jalil Anibaba in the trade to Seattle, the defense has been completely shaken up, and Magee will have to offset the learning curve that comes with a crowded new back line.  The team also sent Austin Berry away to Philadelphia for allocation money, seeing a total of 6,109 minutes from last season out the door.

With Anibaba and Berry gone, coming in the other direction is Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, a pair of center-backs who will battle for playing time alongside Bacary Soumare.

For what it’s worth, the Fire conceded just a single goal in their five preseason games, and the partnership of Soumare and Hurtado picked up the starts in their two most recent matches and played 106 minutes together.

Another important name we can’t leave off the list is Jeff Larentowicz, who will man the space just in front of the new center-back pairing, whatever it happens to be.  Often last season the 30-year-old Pasadena product played alongside a DM partner, but with Daniel Paladini gone and the midfield thin, he could be roaming the defensive middle by himself behind Benji Joya and Dilly Duka.

Manager: Frank Yallop is Chicago’s man. Coming over from San Jose, the Watford-born 49-year-old has seven prior years in Major League Soccer, and as far as league experience and accolades go, he’s got it all.

source: AP
Despite inheriting a formidable squad, Frank Yallop still has to cope with chemistry issues and get his team off to a better star than last year’s opening debacle.

Unfortunately, arguably the biggest knock on Yallop’s resume is the 2007 season with the Galaxy, failing to make the playoffs due to a squad with plenty of turnover.

That will be the challenge Yallop faces this season.  Thankfully for him, the front of his formation remains mostly intact, and he takes over a squad that boasts the reigning league MVP.  The defense has plenty of question marks, but it’s still experienced and has had a very promising preseason.

Yallop’s credentials are without question, and as far as head coaching openings go the Fire one was very attractive, but there remains work to be done, and with a pretty solid squad to boast, much of it rests on the coach to make sure everyone plays at their optimal level.

Outlook: This team could surprise. If they can recreate last year’s attacking form around Mike Magee, the top of the table squads are in for a surprise when the match up against the Fire.

The biggest questions will be with the turnover in defense.  With so many minutes from last season lost, it remains to be seen how the back line will gel (Yallop said it could get “a little disjointed”).  If the preseason is any indication, and the selected starters don’t need much – if any – time to find their form, the Fire could find themselves near the top.  However, there is much to prove and they begin the season as favorites in a battle for the final playoff spots.

The start to the season is crucial for Frank Yallop. They play three of their first four fixtures on the road, and take on a spectrum of opponents.  If the Fire can get through games against Portland and New York unscathed and take advantage of last year’s basement dwellers Chivas and DC United, the Fire can set themselves up for a strong season.

MLS Cup Playoffs: NY Red Bulls 1-0 (1-2 agg.) Columbus Crew SC

Tony Tchani, Michael Parkhurst

The game in 100 words (or less): Columbus Crew SC are headed to their second MLS Cup in club history (champions – 2008) after defeating the New York Red Bulls, 2-0 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (0-0 draw in an extremely chippy second leg on Sunday). Justin Meram and Kei Kamara scored the two-leg tie’s only goals — eight seconds and 85 minutes into the first leg, respectively — and Crew SC confidently managed the second leg by defending with numbers and wisely picking their spots to break out on the counter. RBNY held nearly 60 percent of possession in the second leg, but could muster just six shots on target over the 90 minutes. Crew SC will host the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2015 next Sunday (4 p.m. ET) at MAPFRE Stadium.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

38′ — Robles at full stretch to deny Kamara — What’s better: the first touch, second touch, turn and shot by Kei Kamara; or, the sprawled-out save by Luis Robles to swat away a ball clearly headed for the bottom corner? Quality on quality.

90+3′ — Abang heads home to make it nervy late — Anatole Abange rose above the crowd and headed home a recycled ball inside the penalty area after a Sal Zizzo cross was headed high into the air late into stoppage time.

90+5′ — Madness in the penalty area, RBNY hit the post — It was absolute scenes inside the Crew SC penalty area. Ball after ball pumped into the box, headed high into the air and briefly cleared. The final chance of the game fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who headed the ball toward the far post with Steve Clark rushing out quickly, only to see his slow dribbler bounce off the front side of the post and back into the field of play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Abang (90+3′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: FC Dallas 2-2 (3-5 agg.) Portland Timbers

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers are headed to their first MLS Cup in club history after defeating FC Dallas, 5-3 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (2-2 draw in the second leg). Fanendo Adi scored in Sunday’s second leg, giving Caleb Porter’s side a 4-1 aggregate lead before Ryan Hollingshead and Blas Perez scored inside the last 25 minutes to give Oscar Pareja’s bunch a late lifeline, but Lucas Melano’s spectacular tap-in sealed the Timbers’ trip to MLS Cup. The third seed heading into the playoffs, Portland bounced Sporting Kansas City in an epic penalty shootout in the knockout round and outlasted the Vancouver Whitecaps in the conference semifinals before knocking off the West’s top seed over two legs to advance to MLS Cup 2015. No matter who advances from the East finals later on Sunday, Portland will play away in MLS Cup, to either the New York Red Bulls or Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

54′ — Adi fires past Gonzalez to make if 4-1 — Oscar Pareja elected to go with Walker Zimmerman at center back on Sunday, dropping regular starter Zach Loyd to the bench. On the game’s opening goal, it was Zimmerman who wound up on the ground as Adi received the ball, turned and fired a massive away goal past Jesse Gonzalez.

68′ — Diaz’s magical ball curled home by Hollingshead — Mauro Diaz is a wonderful magician capable of playing the kill through ball from anywhere on the field — this we’ve known for quite some time. His chipped through ball to set up Hollingshead’s goal was extraordinarily brilliant, even for him.

73′ — Perez heads home the free kick to pull within one — Would you be surprised to hear that it was Diaz who set up FCD’s second goal? His free kick was Perez-finding missile and found the head of the Panamanian striker at the top of the six-yard box, where 34-year-old headed home with ease.

90+5′ — Melano rounds Gonzalez, seals MLS Cup berth — Poor Jesse Gonzalez. Absolutely schooled and posterized by Lucas Melano. What a way to sew up a place in the championship final.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Mauro Diaz

Goalscorers: Adi (54′), Hollingshead (68′), Perez (73′), Melano (90+5′)

La Liga & Serie A: Real Madrid bounce back; Juventus on the charge

Gareth Bale, Real Madrid CF
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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

Eibar 0-2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid bounced back from back-to-back La Liga defeats with a 2-0 victory away to Eibar on Sunday. Gareth Bale (below video) and Cristiano Ronaldo (penalty kick) provided the goals to keep Rafa Benitez‘s bunch (27 points) third in the league, two points behind Atletico Madrid and six behind leaders Barcelona.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 2-0 Villarreal
Rayo Vallecano 0-3 Athletic Bilbao
Sevilla 1-0 Valencia

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup ]

Roma 0-2 Atalanta

Losing at home to sides currently in a relegation battle — rarely a good idea, especially if you fancy yourselves title challengers, but that didn’t stop Roma from doing just that on Sunday. Alejandro Gomez and German Denis scored the goals to knock off a 10-man Roma side (Maicon – 81st minute) and keep Rudi Garcia’s bunch (27 points) from gaining ground on any of the three teams currently ahead of them — Inter Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina — all of whom play on Monday.

AC Milan 4-1 Sampdoria

M’Baye Niang scored twice, while Giacomo Bonaventura and Luiz Adriano (below video) added single tallies for AC Milan (23 points) to keep pace with the top-five pack in Serie A. After 14 rounds of games, the Rossoneri sit sixth, a point outside fifth (UEFA Europa League) and five points out of third (UEFA Champions League).

Palermo 0-3 Juventus

Don’t look now, but here come Juventus. Sunday’s 3-0 triumph over Palermo makes it four straight wins in the league for Massimiliano Allegri’s side — a run that pushes them all the way up to fifth in the league (24 points), just six points off the pace of leaders Inter, who play on Monday. Mario Mandzukic (below video), Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza scored the goals for the world’s most frightening fifth-place team.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Torino 2-0 Bologna
Chievo 2-3 Udinese
Frosinone 3-2 Hellas Verona
Genoa 1-2 Carpi
Empoli 1-0 Lazio

Monday’s Serie A schedule

Sassuolo vs. Fiorentina (1 p.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Inter Milan (3 p.m. ET)

Arsenal’s injury crisis — add Sanchez, Cazorla, Koscielny to the list

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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From title challengers to just hoping to hold on to a top-four place while Arsene Wenger is forced to play reserves and academy players because half of his star players are currently out injured — the annual story of Arsenal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Oct. 27, when Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both went down with injuries in the same game, marked the unofficial start of Arsenal’s 2015-16 injury crisis, but things didn’t really get going full bore until the last seven days, when five more players — four of them full-time starters — picked up injuries that will keep them out of action for anywhere between three weeks and three months.

Added to the list last weekend: Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks)

Added to the list on Sunday: Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – MORE DETAILS), Santi Cazorla (knee), Laurent Koscielny (hip)

Following Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich City, Wenger said Koscielny “could not walk” due to the hip spasm that forced him out of the game after just 11 minutes. He also divulged that Cazorla, who could not be subbed off because Wenger had already used all three subs late on, played the second half “on one leg.” Sanchez came into Sunday injured after picking up a hamstring injury in Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL roundup — Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs all draw ]

Arsenal fans were up in arms during the summer transfer window — let’s be honest, the following is true of every transfer window the last five years — crying out, “We must buy, we must buy.” Have a look at Arsenal’s complete injury list at the moment, and try to say, “They didn’t need to buy in the summer.”

In chronological order: Danny Welbeck (knee – early 2016 return), Tomas Rosicky (knee – Christmas time return), Jack Wilshere (leg – Christmas time return), Theo Walcott (calf – December return), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks), Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Laurent Koscielny (hip – to be assessed), Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – to be assessed), Santi Cazorla (knee – to be assessed)