Anyone that has paid any attention to Chicago Fire so far this year will have quickly picked up on one or two obvious weaknesses in the Men In Red’s line-up. Aging goalkeeper Jorge Bava has split opinion and, on occasion, looks to be a serviceable number one, but it’s at right back where the real problem is for Fire coach Veljko Paunovic and GM Nelson Rodriguez.
Right Back to the Start for Chicago Fire
With limited options on the right-side of defence, Paunovic has put his faith in Michael Harrington there and, come October and playoff time, it could be a selection choice that comes back to haunt the FIFA U20 World Cup-winning coach. Despite being only nine games into the 2017 Major League Soccer season, Harrington has struggled to perform at the same level as his team-mates with opposition coaches now tweaking their tactics to try and exploit the defender’s weaknesses. In last week’s resounding loss on the road at Toronto FC, Harrington was continually caught out of position as TFC’s forwards took advantage of his poor positional play to get in behind the Fire defence and create goalscoring opportunities.
The former Sporting Kansas City, Portland Timbers and Colorado Rapids player ISN’T a terrible footballer either. At age 31, and with well over 200 MLS appearances, he is one of the more experienced players on the Fire roster but has looked every bit the rookie player making his first steps in the professional game, particularly in comparison to sophomore left back Brandon Vincent. With a VERY solid centre (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho, having two strong, consistent full backs is going to be key for Chicago Fire this year if they are to have any hope of reaching the post-season after several years of mediocrity on the field.
Matt Polster’s imminent return from a knee ligament injury could see Harrington replaced before too long and the versatile 23-year-old might be viewed as a long-term solution there; especially with the aforementioned trio of Juninho, McCarty and Schweinsteiger ahead of him in midfield as well as the emergence of Daniel Johnson. Polster is no stranger to playing at right back either, having made appearances there for the Fire and as part of the USA’s ultimately unsuccessful Olympics qualifying campaign. So he knows the position fairly well and shouldn’t have any difficulty in fitting into the starting XI there.
With it looking increasingly unlikely there will be any further roster changes to strengthen at right back, there is also one other option available to Paunovic should he, like many of the fans who watch every week, lose patience with Harrington. Moving back to the three-man defence (or five depending on your perspective) with current starters Joao Meira and Johan Kappelhof partnering Jonathan Campbell or Vincent in the centre of defence. It was used to great success earlier this season (with Harrington even putting in a passable performance as a wing back) but did only leave room for two of the three midfield linchpins to start the game. McCarty, Juninho and Schweinsteiger will be key to any success the Fire earn this season so it will likely prove incredibly difficult to leave any of the three out.
Maybe there will be a change over the next few weeks (or an upturn in Harrington’s form), but if there isn’t it might be Harrington who is the player who dictates Nelson Rodriguez’ success as GM and not Bastian Schweinsteiger.