Chicago Fire assistant coach C.J. Brown knows a little bit about competition at the center back spot.
During the tail end of the his run as the Fire's all-time leader in minutes and games played, the club brought in central defenders Bakary Soumare and Wilman Conde, each of whom have been named to the MLS Best XI since then, to compete with him.
Now, Brown and the Fire are trying to bring that same type of competition back to Chicago.
After Soumare (pictured) and Austin Berry started in the middle of the Fire back line for a large part of 2013, relatively unopposed, competition for the spot in 2014 has been heightened considerably after the club acquired two experienced center backs in Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni from Seattle.
“I think all you need is competition,” Brown said before the preseason. “For the past few years, or last year at least, that back line didn't have competition. It was just that back line. Now, we brought in competition, so I think everybody's going to be raining hard every week, putting in the work that's necessary for the weekend. It's going to be a very hard decision for us to put a starting four on the backline.”
During the first few preseason games, Soumare and Hurtado have started at center back, with Berry and Ianni playing in the second half. But head coach Frank Yallop said Ianni and Berry, who was out for most of the offseason after having shoulder surgery, aren't far behind.
“You never say exactly what you're going to do, but it feels like they will be a good pairing in our defense,” Yallop said. “But again, things happen in preseason, there's injuries, there's lack of form, all of that. I would think [Hurtado and Soumare] would be starting the season together, and that's not to say Patrick and Austin aren't right there, knocking on the door. We have four very good center backs.”
Hurtado, Soumare and Berry, who is six games away from breaking the MLS record for consecutives games played, all welcomed the competition early in preseason.
“It's good, having competition is good,” Soumare said. “You don't get in a comfort zone, you always have to watch your back. It's also good when you're playing Open Cup and league games. Sometimes during the season you have three games in a row, and that's when you need the depth.”
Brown said that when he was a player, he loved the competition, and it helped him thrive.
He hopes the new additions at center back play the same role.
“I felt like every year, they always tried to bring a center back in to take my spot, to push me,” Brown said. “I think that's what we're trying to build.”