Chicago’s Unintended Unorthodoxy?

Chicago Fire 2013Chicago Fire head coach Frank Klopas is bucking more than just his usual dressy garb for a polo shirt and casual pants on the sideline recently. He seems to be bucking many traditional tactics usually seen on MLS pitches as well, namely the formation being used. But before I get into that main point, I must digress into some supporting evidence. Bear with me.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how Klopas has gone from seemingly awful personnel decisions over the last year (the signing of Sherjill MacDonald; the trading of Dominic Oduro to Columbus for midfielder Dilly Duka; the acquisition of the rights to Robbie Rogers) to having made arguably the best trade of 2013 (Rogers’ rights to LA for Mike Magee). The talk is probably warranted. Magee was one of the hottest attacking players in MLS thus far in 2013, and he’s continued to be prolific for Chicago. MacDonald? Not so much. Shedding perennial disappointment Oduro in the process of the renovation was just an added benefit.

The inclusion of Magee is being presented as proof of the present upturn in performance. Scoring in all but two of his MLS games with Chicago, and registering an assist in one of those non-scoring games, Magee is certainly aiding his brethren in the attacking department. Yet I feel the need to curb some of this enthusiasm.

A bit more digression.

Dilly Duka’s play is admittedly better than many predicted of him (including myself) considering his lack of form in Columbus the last season or so. Getting Larentowicz from Colorado in 2012 has also gone a long way towards stabilizing the midfield defensively, especially with the loss of Pavel Pardo at the end of the same season. Alex, another 2012 acquisition, adds creativity to the midfield, and, when paired alongside Larentowicz, he’s contributed to anchoring the defensive midfield in addition.

Duka’s work rate is on par with the likes of Will Johnson, Ned Grabavoy, or Kei Kamara these past few weeks. He has enough creativity to force the opposition to keep him in check while on the attack, but also poses threats to opposing ball carrier’s as well. Work ethic seems to be Duka’s strong suit, and it’s just what Chicago needed in the middle of the park.

Looking at Chicago’s roster, you would think their stable of strikers would be rather full, counting a total of eight players with an ‘F’ next to their name. This is highly misleading, however, as Magee, Chris Rolfe, Patrick Nyarko, and Michael Videira (a reservist that’s not seen first team minutes) are not your quintessential strikers. Sure, they’re all attacking options. Sure, they’ve all played the goal-scorer in many games throughout their careers. But they’ve all found themselves, more often than not, saddled into a midfield position throughout most of their time with current and/or previous clubs.

Chicago has played Rolfe as a reserved striker over the years, providing service and support for the likes of Brian McBride and Calen Carr. Notice that both of these examples are closer to the ideal striker than Rolfe; McBride made his living as a true #9 with his lethal aerial presence; Carr is the speedy, crafty goal-scorer as evidenced by his 2012 MLS Cup Final goal for Houston against LA. Rolfe’s play style lends itself to picking out either of these options and magnifying their abilities while also providing the option of long-range blasts or free kicks of his own. The lack of quality in Chicago’s other forward options has limited Rolfe’s effectiveness since returning to Chicago in 2012. Sherjill MacDonald can be chalked up to a Designated Player flop, and the case can be made that Rolfe and MacDonald never really clicked to begin with. A distant departure from the relationship Rolfe and McBride had in the past.

Nyarko is also not the type of striker in the vein of Carr, McBride, or other Fire notables like Collins John, Orr Barouch, or Dominic Oduro. The speed and craft of both Nyarko and Oduro were supposed to be a key partnership in the last two seasons. This did not materialize as was expected, and not at the fault of Nyarko. What Nyarko brings to the table is attacking possession. He’s able to move the ball up field, dribbling through defenders and outletting passes to his attacking teammates. His work rate is almost on par with Duka’s, and he can be called upon in times of defensive need as well. These are not defining attributes of a striker, despite what Klopas or MLS would like to suggest with their positional assignments. Nyarko is arguably closer to midfield maestro than an out-and-out goalscorer.

This brings me back to the supposed saviour of Chicago soccer:  Mike Magee. MLS fans know he’s made his name in the midfield for Bruce Arena over the years, holding down the left side. He routinely plays two ways, getting forward with the attack and finding himself in the box often, yet playing a defensive game that rivals many defensive midfielders in the league. Magee is a mule and a utility man that happens to know how to score goals. Finding a player like this is akin to a diamond in the rough, and this is where my praise of Magee’s inclusion to the team is the strongest. Unfortunately, it’s also where it ends.

Magee is only one in a large crop of Chicago attacking midfielders currently on the roster. I believe it can be easily argued that Klopas has the biggest glut of attacking mids in the league, totalling (from my count) no less than seven. Seven. Attacking. Midfielders.

Looking at the recent starting lineups for Chicago since Magee has become a starter, you’ll notice that every single one has the same flavor. That is, a Magee/Rolfe tandem up top. This is sans a true striker, mind you. No Maicon Santos. No Quincy Amarikwa. And, thank God, no Sherjill MacDonald. This forward line is backed up by a combination of other attacking options:  Nyarko, Duka, Lindpere, Paladini, and Alex. And it’s always stabilized in defensive mid with Larentowicz, usually with a conventional partner like Logan Pause, or a not-so-conventional partner like Alex (fulfilling the deep-lying playmaker role of regista).

Finally, here is the crux of this article:  Frank Klopas may be the first and only MLS manager that has played or is playing a 4-6-0 formation in the league. Ever.

Now, my memory may be a little fuzzy in those early years seeing as how I was just a zit-faced teenager for much of them, but over the last decade I can’t remember a single team that even experimented with six midfielders and no strikers on the field at once. There have been flirtations with it when Dallas ran a 4-5-1 under Schellas Hyndman with David Ferreira at the point, but even then players like Atiba Harris, Jeff Cunningham, Brek Shea, and Milton Rodriguez were all revolving in and out of the striker position, and were obviously more suited for the role than the likes of players on Chicago’s current roster.

Further proof of this formation being used (if not theoretically, then in practice) is how it functions on the field. The one advantage of a 4-6-0 is quite obviously the overloading of the midfield, which is designed to force turnovers and clog passing channels. Watching any Fire games as of late will tell you that this is exactly what’s happening, having most of the scoring chances and goals being created in the midfield with free midfielders on the weak side being left open in space to drift free and find spots to get shots.

In fact, Magee’s debut goal for the Fire against DC developed just like this. Nyarko’s work rate on the right side and his ability to dribble through opposing players progresses to a through ball into the central area where Magee was able to drift into from a deeper position while the play was developing on the right.

Again, in the June 8th draw against Portland, Magee’s goal was the result of determined pressure in an overwhelmed midfield, producing another through ball in a dangerous area of the box, and causing confusion between ‘keeper Milos Kocic and defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste. Magee’s workmanship is evident in his cleanup.

Another, this time the 3-2 win over San Jose on July 3rd, exhibits the attacking runs deep out of midfield. Magee dribbles into the attacking third from half field. Watching the replay, Rolfe is found even deeper than where Magee’s ball-carrying started from, yet finds the space to sprint up the right flank and receive the threaded pass from Magee to put Chicago ahead in the 84th minute. Notice, also, that two players are ahead of both Magee and Rolfe:  Lindpere and Paladini, neither of which can be considered a forward.

Lastly, we have Magee’s consolation goal from the 2-1 loss to Kansas City on July 7th. A long goal kick finds Magee on his preferred left flank in the attacking half. He attempts to receive the ball, but Sporting defender Aurelien Collin heads the ball back into the center of midfield, being collected by Larentowicz. A looping pass towards Rolfe sees a slight flick on towards the diagonal run of Magee. Finding himself with a virtual 1-on-1 with the keeper, Magee slots it home with calm confidence.

Far be it from me to suggest “Magic” Mike Magee is America’s Francesco Totti, or something of the like. He’s not. But he is resourceful and savvy enough to make himself available at the right times and places to afford his team a boost over any other option off their bench. Remember that Klopas could just as easily have Magee fill that left flank of midfield while giving starts to Amarikwa, Santos, or MacDonald. That’s not the case, however.

It’s not just Magee that’s attributable to Chicago’s run of form, however. The basis of my argument here is that Chicago’s current formation is just enough in this league that opponents need to do a virtual double take on how it’s operating on the field. Coming from Klopas’s seemingly default 4-5-1 formation used last season, this (like his change from sport jacket to polo) is just enough of a departure from tradition to mix up the other team. It spreads opposing defenses and causes their shape to be exploited by deep runs from the midfield. Without a designated striker spearheading the charge and being constantly mixed up in their opponent’s back line, that defense is more often left with a choice to make — either moving up towards the midfield to close down the gap, thus exposing large amounts of ground behind them for a penetrating run from the flanks; or sit back and allow a gap to form between their line and the rest of their team, thus allowing for potential long strikes, advancing 1-on-1 attacks, or failing to link up and support their own midfield.

While the operation of this new midfield/attacking formation may account for their increased solidarity in the middle of the field and the upsurge of scoring, it does not address the larger conundrum for the Fire. They are continuing to be plagued by what I think is the weakest part of the squad:  the back line.

The loss to injury (and subsequent retirement) of 34 year old veteran German center back Arne Friedrich cost Chicago the crucial cog that defined their run in 2012 — experienced leadership in defense. The average age of the back four went from 28 (with Gonzalo Segares and Friedrich) to 25 (with Bakary Soumare and Shaun Francis, the new standard). The reduction in age could be written off easily if not for the experience that was lost with it. Most pundits are in agreement that what Friedrich brought to the squad was stability, organization, and leadership; and some (like myself) saw this as a potential bane during the preseason. The realization of this problem was seen in the first several weeks of this season as Chicago continually hemorrhaged goals, racking up 4-0 and 4-1 defeats to the Galaxy and Chivas USA, respectively, in the first four weeks of the season. They would go on to suffer six more losses whilst conceding two or more goals per game. Add to that the fact that they’ve only had three shutouts thus far (0-0 draw to SKC on March 16th; 1-0 win over Columbus on April 20th; and a 2-0 win over DC on June 2nd), and you can start so see how some of these problems are being manifested.

Compare this to 2012’s numbers during their late season run of form (an equal 18 game stretch):  still only three shutouts, but only four games suffering two or more goals conceded. To me, the porousness of defense can largely be chalked up to Friedrich’s absence, and, surprisingly, that Klopas & Company have not been clearly active in pursuing another veteran defender to replace the German.

Defense is still an issue under the new formation. Goals are still being coughed up early and often, and something’s needs to change for Chicago to be considered serious playoff contenders in my book. Goalkeepers Sean Johnson and Paolo Tornaghi are not the ones to provide the needed leadership and organizational abilities the team need; they are not Faryd Mondragon.

Provided the rumors of MacDonald leaving in the coming weeks are true, Klopas would best serve his club by seeking out and securing that veteran defensive player; someone to pair with Soumare or Berry in central defense would be ideal. Shedding the DP price tag of MacDonald would definitely allow them to acquire someone of the required caliber. Even still, if Chicago are keen on repeating the lineup of essentially six midfielders, it’s not a leap to say they’ll at least compete for a final playoff spot with the likes of Columbus, Houston, New England, and Philadelphia come October. Whether or not they do so is remained to be seen. Without that defensive reinforcement, however, the Fire may just need to reconcile themselves to the fact of a high “goals allowed” column, regardless of how many goals Magee can procure.

In the end, broadcasters and analysts may be pinning Chicago’s formation as a 4-4-2, but the functionality of the Fire’s tactics is certainly more akin to a 4-6-0 than any other. Whether this is intended on the part of Klopas, or if it’s on any level realized by his players, I don’t think it’s much of a reach to assert that Chicago are playing one of the most diverse forms of soccer in the league, and with positive results to boot. I, for one, welcome it and look forward to the advancement of it in MLS.

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