The media’s man to run to during the first preseason workout each of the past two seasons in Chicago has undoubtedly been Brian McBride. At 38 years old this June, McBride is a gold mine for reporters looking for the obligatory state-of-the-union quote: a new coach, the collective bargaining agreement negotiations, a new custodian sweeping confetti at Toyota Park.
So when new Fire boss Carlos de los Cobos roamed the preseason grounds for the first time in the Chicago suburbs in early February, beat reporters knew where to turn. And there was McBride, suddenly tuned in again to his soccer life after an off-season hibernation where life’s questions came fast and furious from his three daughters instead of a slew of local reporters.
Nearly every question touched on the subject of “attractive soccer,” the catch phrase of the past two months in Chicago since Denis Hamlett had parted ways with the club in November. Attractive soccer: a magical ideal that somehow suddenly turns workaday MLS grinders into swift-footed gazelles on the flanks, that clumsy American first touch somehow replaced by grace and patience.
On this day, the reporters had a better chance asking McBride about repaving the parking lot.
“I’m not sure what people define as attractive soccer,” quipped McBride, taken aback and grasping for the one-line definition that would satisfy. “That’s a question for Carlos.”
The reporters retreated, but the message was clear. Whatever de los Cobos and technical director Frank Klopas had preached about somehow rebranding years of Chicago’s white-knuckled defensive mindset hadn’t resonated just yet, and even the club’s marquee player was wondering what actually came next.
Less than two weeks away from the Fire’ season opener on the road against the New York Red Bulls on March 27, Fire players are getting the idea. It’s been a crash course of sorts over the past six weeks for a Fire club that’s honing a new style on the fly and acclimating to new players for their freshly-minted boss, who sums it up soberly: “We have a long way to go.”
But this change is invariably what Klopas expected when he scoured the coaching ranks over the winter and zeroed in one someone who could reinvent the Fire’s identity. Blame it on Bob Bradley, Chris Armas or C.J. Brown, but the brand of Chicago’s MLS team has never strayed from the characteristics that define the city itself: brawny, blue-collar, headstrong. And while those virtues might play well on an NFL Sunday at Soldier Field or when the White Sox dig in for a pennant race in September, soccer is the beautiful game. Muscle isn’t mandatory.
Enter de los Cobos, the former Mexican pro who piloted El Salvador within shouting distance of the World Cup from the bench and – more importantly – spoke Klopas’ language. The safer choices were MLS regulars or even Fire brethren of old – Jesse Marsch and Tom Soehn – but it was de los Cobos who stepped to the podium in January, promising the attractive brand of soccer Fire fans never knew they were missing.
“I’m trying to change the style of the team, the way they played last season,” de los Cobos said this week. “The players in this league are very strong, very fast, and very tall. And the teams try to take advantage of these characteristics, and that’s the style is generally the way to play in this league. I’m coming from a different league, and a different style.”
That means a wealth of changes for the Fire, and de los Cobos starts from the back. He preaches both speed and patience in a style that will involve midfielders as much as ever, and rely less on plodding downfield or falling back on long balls from the back line predictably aimed at McBride’s hairline.
Each of the past three seasons the Fire has bullied its way into the Eastern Conference finals, partly on the might of Blanco but largely on a defense that was ruthless when it counted. Goalkeeper Jon Busch’s state line is a prime example – 20 shutouts over the past two seasons, more than any other keeper in the league.
But for all their brawn on the back line, the Fire’s offense had the punch – and the mindset – of an aging heavyweight. The team was less about a series of set-up jabs than it was about a haymaker to the jaw, hoping one opportune shot would connect to save the day.
“I don’t think you’ll find a player who loves that style of play, of lumping long balls together all the time,” Thorrington said. “Winning is obviously the most important thing, but there’s a hope that it’s done now in a way that’s pleasing to the eye.”
More touches in the midfield. Better distribution out of the back. More patience with the ball. Far more speed on the outside flanks and room to run for those willing to go. And they’re going to do it all without Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who made as many plays as anyone on the roster since 2007 but rarely trekked back past the midline and sometimes slowed the team’s forward surge to a crawl.
Said Busch: “It feels like we have all 11 players on the field now, not just 10 and a half.”
If the quintessential MLS style truly hinges on bulk and brawn the way de los Cobos sees it, he’s not about to tow the company line. Perhaps three of the club’s most integral players in its new system - midfielders John Thorrington, Marco Pappa and Julio Martinez – are mobile mighty-mites dependent on speed and a deliberate first touch and - in Pappa’s case – flair that resembles the Mexican leagues where de los Cobos carved his niche as a player and coach.
The outside midfielder spots to belong to Pappa and Martinez, the latter of whom was a de los Cobos disciple with the Salvadoran national team in 2009 and is on loan from Club Leon in Mexico. Logan Pause anchors the defensive midfield spot, while Thorrington and youngsters Baggio Husidic and Peter Lowry will compete to fill out the middle of the new 4-1-4-1 formation.
“People think the forwards have the only responsibility of finishing the action. But no, the midfielders here will take a huge responsibility,” de los Cobos said.
And de los Cobos isn’t quite sold on the idea of pairing McBride with his former Fulham teammate Collins John, who signed a multi-year deal with the Fire last week. Praising the speed of third-year forward Patrick Nyarko and how he fits into the club’s new style, de los Cobos admitted it could be difficult to play the two former EPL forwards together at the same time in the new system.
“It’s possible that Brian and Collins will fight for that final space,” de los Cobos said.
McBride battling for a spot? Speed and style over grit and guile? Believe it. Consider the Fire a test tube of sorts in 2010, with as much at stake as any team in the league. For his part, even de los Cobos isn’t sold on the team’s progress so far, admitting that despite weeks of preparation, he’s nowhere near where he’ll want to be for the first whistle. He’s not about to abandon it now.
But that will is what landed de los Cobos in Chicago, where it’s all hands on deck in the eyes of Klopas and a restless fan base tired of cancelling flight plans to the MLS Cup.
“Day by day,” de los Cobos said, “we’re getting there.”