This week, after a frustrating match in Columbus, it was revealed that the Fire are so decimated by injuries the assistant coaches had to fill in a practice scrimmage last week to make up numbers. Granted, even past their playing shape, the coaches C.J. Brown, Clint Mathis, and Brian McBride would win most 3v3 tourneys in this city today, but it shows just how handcuffed Frank Yallop’s roster can get when the injury bug hits.
Yallop said he won’t use injuries as an excuse, which is great, that’s what every coach says, but I don’t like it. I think that injury is a great excuse. It’s not an excuse for playing poorly, because every excuse for playing poorly sucks. Rather, injuries can be excuses for other things. For roster shake ups, for weird substitutions, for tactical changes, for second chances, and so on.
QUESTION: Would Rookie of the Year candidate Harry Shipp have gotten this much tick to prove himself if Alex and Dilly Duka weren’t hurt to start the season?
Injuries are totally natural and can be a blessing when they force a team to break from what's comfortable, but basically they’re unpredictable and infuriating. I mean, every team and player has them, but no team or player has them exactly the same. So it’s the way teams, coaches and players deal with their inevitability that makes injuries what they are as well as an interesting excuse.
Once they hit, do you go to the market to find replacements or call on young players? Do you stack the squad with depth at the beginning of the season, or hope to ride out the injuries when they come? What about the players with previous injury issues - do you monitor their minutes? Alter their training regimen?
So far, I’ve found Yallop’s approach to injuries fascinating and impressive. The work he did to improve the squad this year is a real strength. Remember that after the frustrating results vs. Philadelphia last season, we were talking about the Patrick Nyarko/Chris Rolfe striking partnership.
This Fire team’s depth should be able to deal with an injury bug and the kinds of personnel changes a full season requires. That’s why it was nice to see Dilly Duka get a run out on Saturday, even if he’s short of match fitness, and Grant Ward get a chance to show why his name caused so much excitement during preseason.
All year, Yallop has rewarded players for playing well, simple as that. So you know that any injury also means an opportunity for someone else. When preseason starters like Gonzalo Segares and Alex were hit by injuries, they were replaced by rookies Greg Cochrane and Shipp, who’ve proved themselves to varying degrees.
On Saturday the Fire were without Alex, Bakary Soumare, Patrick Nyarko, Mike Magee, and Lovel Palmer, for reasons as diverse as calf soreness to kidney stones. Good luck preparing for those scenarios in preseason video sessions.
The other interesting thing about injuries is that they’re a totally natural thing. Their existence is the proof that what we watch and turn over as pastime is actually an excruciating tug of war between physical performance and physical possibility. Somewhere in between there is the place where muscles and ligaments break down, where a body suffers. Injury bugs are a reminder that we’re watching athletes push themselves to their limits.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.