Though the final 28-man roster hasn’t been officially announced, today’s unveiling of Davis Paul as the newest member of the club means the team has 26 players eligible ahead of Saturday’s 2011 kickoff match at FC Dallas.
As such, I’ll take a look at the positional aspects of the roster, providing what I see as the current depth chart at each position, under the 3-5-2 head coach Carlos de los Cobos has initiated during the 2011 preseason.
Today I look at the goalkeepers and defenders in the 2011 squad.
This is probably the easiest of all positions. Sean Johnson, 21, returns to the Fire as the club’s undisputed starter in goal. Coming off a year in which he won the starting job from Andrew Dykstra midseason, the Lilburn, GA native was one of the bright spots for the Fire in 2010, winning numerous Save of the Week awards and keeping the club in multiple matches during his rookie campaign. As a result, the youngest starting goalkeeper in Fire history did enough over just 13 MLS matches to impress U.S. head coach Bob Bradley, going on to become the youngest goalkeeper in the last 10 years to make an appearance for the national team, when he debuted in January’s 1-1 draw with Chile.
Behind Johnson is a solid veteran backup in Jon Conway. The only current member of the Fire roster to have won MLS Cup (winning as the understudy to Pat Onstad in San Jose in 2001 and 2003), Conway has played the same role last season in Toronto, backing up another young goalkeeper in Stefan Frei and is here to push Johnson in his second season.
Having trained with the Fire at the end of 2010 and serving as an emergency backup when Sean Johnson picked up an injury, Alec Dufty signed with the club earlier in preseason after playing his first full professional season last year with AC St. Louis. The Binghamton, NY native will provide cover and competition for Johnson and Conway in 2011.
Looking at depth in the back line gets a bit complicated when you switch from a 4-4-2 to 3-5-2. Generally in a 4-4-2 you have two center backs and two outside backs but with three all-out defenders, the trend is to have three center backs in the equation.
The trio featuring veteran defenders Cory Gibbs (left), Josip Mikulic (center) and rookie Jalil Anibaba (right) has been de los Cobos’ preference throughout preseason and will likely be the starting three in the back for Saturday’s match at Dallas. In this setup, Mikulic has been the general in the middle barking out orders to the group and the three have done well gelling with each other over the past seven weeks.
Adding depth behind those three, the Fire currently have five more players under contract that are capable of playing center back. Veteran Dasan Robinson and Kwame Watson-Siriboe return as cover in the middle.
Though not their first positions, Costa Rican left back Gonzalo Segares and new signing Michael Videira, who normally plays in central midfield and though out till May, Steven Kinney (achilles) can also fill into the middle.
The interesting aspect of the way de los Cobos has deployed the 3-5-2 is the ability it allows for the team to morph into a 4-4-2 or even a more defensive 5-3-2, depending on the state of the game. In this situation, Anibaba can move out to right back and Segares, who has played mostly as a left wing midfielder can push back, allowing him to shift into his more usual left back role if the situation calls for it.
More important here is the versatility available through this squad’s defensive corps and in the capability of some midfielders to slot into defensive positions if the injury bug hits.
The 2011 MLS Combine MVP, Anibaba looks to be the real deal and in the aforementioned switch to a 4-4-2, will feature as the team’s right back. Both Robinson and Kinney spent time on the right last season and will likely feature there at times again this year, while midfielders Logan Pause and Ristic are capable of slotting in as outside backs as well.
It may look at times as if the player on the left side of midfield in de los Cobos’ 3-5-2 is playing as a left back. Both Segares and midfielder Davis Paul have featured in this role during preseason, but again depth is the theme on the side of the back line with Cory Gibbs having logged many minutes over his prestigious international and club career at left back and midfielders Ristic and Mike Banner (currently injured) able to slot in as left backs as well.
Stay tuned for part two of the Positional Breakdown tomorrow morning when I look at the club’s depth in the middle of the park and up top.
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.