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Between The Lines: Ready to Start

19 March 10:47 am

Between The Lines: Ready to Start

By Ben Schuman-Stoler

One took over the defending continental champions. Despite his 15 trophies as a manager, there were questions about how much better he could make them. Two-thirds through the season, he’s taken the champions to a new level of excellence.

Another replaced a legend in taking over the league champs. His experience and consistency made him a safe choice, but how would he lead the club into a new generation? Today the team sits seven places out of first.

The third assumed leadership of a historically successful club dealing with a few tough years. Fans wondered what would come next as contracts turned over and a new crop of youngsters presented themselves. With five coaching trophies, he’s highly knowledgeable with regards to the competition and what works in the league, but fans eagerly wait to see how he’ll plot the path forwards.

Which of the above new coaches came to the Fire? If you separated Frank Yallop from Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and David Moyes at Manchester United, good for you.

Coaching changes are so commonplace that they’re not in and of themselves particularly remarkable. In the Barclay’s Premier League so far in the 2013-2014 season, already five managers have been fired; that’s on top of the six managers who left clubs before the season already started. That means more than half the teams changed managers this year.

And in general with sports, personnel changeover is as much a part of the grind as winning and losing. It’s as much if not more common in the current adolescent stage of MLS, where parity dominates, new teams are forthcoming, and personnel rules and financial regulation necessitate almost constant player movement.

But what do the changes mean for the Fire?

This year is a new beginning. Even though the ownership and front office maintain a steadfast commitment to the club’s history and traditions, the technical staff was overhauled leading into the 2014 season. MLS legend Frank Yallop replaced Fire legend Frank Klopas. He brought C.J. Brown, another Fire legend, along with, and added assistant coach Clint Mathis on top.

And the change touched the players as well. Some consistent starters from seasons past, like Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba, are gone. Led by Harry Shipp and Benji Joya, a new crop of youngsters are fighting veterans for their places. Meanwhile, except for Sean Johnson in goal, Jeff Larentowicz in the middle, and the reigning MVP Mike Magee (whenever he’s back fit) up top, every place in the side is up for grabs.

Things change, okay, but this is now a totally different Fire team than the one we’ve seen the past few years. New players and new management means a new culture, new approaches both on and off the field. A 4-1-4-1 formation is in the works. But the gutsy 10-man point in Portland and loss at Chivas showed that old habits take time to correct.
 
Even though the Fire were frustrated to miss the playoffs a few times in recent years, they have the league MVP and enough player talent on paper to threaten the top teams in MLS. Yet by overhauling the technical staff, the Fire signaled a loftier statement: Being mediocre is not good enough, no matter how much successful history the club has.

Without going into huge detail about the strategic plans, the Fire players have said that this preseason felt different, that Yallop was fostering a different environment than Klopas’s. 

It’s important because whether we like it or not, this season will be defined by the changes the Fire made this offseason. Change is here.

The questions though: How much do you change, and how much do you keep? What is actually new? How exactly do you convey and impose a plan without sacrificing whatever was working before? What effect can a plan even have if there are many unpredictable and external issues?

It doesn’t look like Yallop is going to blow everyone away with some avant garde tactical system. Although the lineups have changed, in the first two games we saw tactical variations of familiar set ups, even if the advertised 4-1-4-1 was never totally deployed. We saw a cautious balance between MLS veterans and excited young guns.

In the media, we’ve seen a focus on working hard and coming together as a team - like the tactics and team selection, it’s a communications strategy that isn’t going to draw too much attention.

But don’t let the low key approach fool you. Yallop’s project with the Fire is massive. Whether he ends up tearing through the league like Guardiola, or taking a few steps back, like Moyes, certainly Yallop’s plan must be taken seriously for the long term. Change might be part of the game, but plans in this game only work when they’re given time to come to.