Connolly: Jaqua key for Chicago

Nate Jaqua, left, will be a key to the Fire's success this season.

Photo Credit: 
John Todd/MLS/WireImage.com

Of all the teams that will be affected by the start of World Cup qualifying, no team's lineup will have to juggle like that of the Chicago Fire.

It somewhat started last weekend, when super-sub Dipsy Selolwane missed the Men in Red's 3-0 victory against D.C. United while he was on duty with Botswana's national team. While he'll return this weekend, the Fire won't have captain Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, Damani Ralph and Andy Williams due to their respective national team commitments. It forces Dave Sarachan to bring to Los Angeles a squad that won't include four of his starters, to play the first-place Galaxy.

While it certainly takes away quite a bit of firepower and limits the side as far as flexibility – something Sarachan relishes about his club – the absence of star players leaves room for others to shine. And if anyone on the roster seems ripe for such a transformation, it's the team's top draft pick from a year ago:

Nate Jaqua. The Gentle Giant.

Though he's impossible to miss at 6-foot-3, last year's third overall selection in the MLS SuperDraft is one of the quietest players in the league. That's even filtered over into how he's viewed around the league, as the 22-year-old Oregonian has very quietly become a regular for Chicago in his second year, starting six of the team's first 10 games. He's played so well that Sarachan has even been lining Jaqua up as a right midfielder as of late. The move can be seen as nothing else than a creative effort by the head coach to get his best 11 players on the field, as Jaqua has never played in such a role.

Not with the U.S. Under-23 national team. Not with the University of Portland. Not even back in high school in South Eugene, Ore., or with his club team.

"I've never played out wide before," admits Jaqua, who said this type of move was discussed during the preseason before injuries kept him playing up top in his usual striker position. "I played a little bit as an attacking midfielder in college, but going out wide was never a position I even thought about as a position I might play."

At first glance, one could make an immediate comparison to what Bruce Arena did with Tony Sanneh when the two were at D.C. United during the mid-'90s. Sanneh, who also is tall and lanky at 6-2, was turned into a right-sided midfielder because the team had an excellent pair of strikers up top in Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce. Once he learned how to defend properly at that level, he not only got a shot with the U.S. national team, but became the team's answer at right back starting in early 2000 right through the 2002 World Cup.

For Jaqua to one day achieve such success at a new position, he has to learn to defend and cover much more ground than he's ever been used to. To do that, he's been spending time talking to several of his teammates who have played the position.

"The older guys have been a big help, yet so has Beasley," he said. "The coaches have been working with me a lot, too, and have been constantly giving me a ton of feedback. I have a general understanding of how to do it, especially going forward, it's just been on the defensive side where the guys have had to help me and give me pointers."

That's especially the case in the systems Sarachan likes to employ. Last week, the Fire were lined up in a very aggressive 3-4-3 formation when they took on D.C. United. Slotted in on the right side, Jaqua was directly behind Ralph and in front of C.J. Brown.

Fortunately for Jaqua, D.C. was forced to defend for much of the afternoon, which opened up his flank greatly, and allowed him to combine with both Ralph and Williams, who was in the attacking midfielder role, throughout the match. It even resulted in one of the odder goals you'll see this season, when he hit a volley back over his head at the goal to Ralph, who then held off Mike Petke to complete his hat trick and give Jaqua his second assist on the year.

When the going is that good, he could care less where he is playing. In fact, it's become a role Jaqua has enjoyed over the past few weeks.

"It's nice facing the goal after always playing with my back to the goal as a forward," he said. "Plus, I enjoy running at people. I like that aspect of it."

Of course, the biggest aspect is just being on the field. As an attacking player, perhaps the only place as difficult to break in as a forward or midfielder as it is with the Fire is with the MetroStars. Jaqua realizes that, and has done nothing but embrace the change.

"We have so many great players that one of the main things the coaches have been trying to figure out this year is what sort of combinations will work, and in what positions," he said. "It's nice to have a lot of options. Some have worked, some that we've tried haven't. We're figuring it out and getting better. It certainly makes for great training sessions, which only helps you get better.

"I just want to play, so I'll take whatever I can get."

Over the next two weeks, he'll get plenty of PT. That's no longer the problem. The question is what he does with it. It's the same opportunity that various coaches around the league will bestow upon young players such as Josh Gros in D.C., Arturo Alvarez in San Jose, David Castellanos in Colorado, Mike Magee with the MetroStars and Joseph Ngwenya in L.A.

As far as Jaqua goes, Sarachan will most likely shift him back up front since most of his squad's depth is in the midfield. Along with Ante Razov, he'll be relied upon as one of the team's main offensive weapons while Beasley, Ralph and Williams are away. That sort of responsibility is something that he might not have been ready for last year, but is certainly capable now that he's no longer a rookie.

"From where I am now from this time last year, it's just completely different," said Jaqua, whose side will look to keep its five-game road undefeated streak (1-0-4) intact against Los Angeles on Saturday. "Losing the guys this week will be tough, but it'll also be a good challenge for us. There are a lot of guys on the team who haven't had much time this year who will now get some time. Those players, myself included, have to step up."

Whether it's as a striker or as a wide midfielder.

Four quick ones

Questions for D.C. United goalkeeper Nick Rimando

Most underrated player on your team: Brian Carroll

Funniest player on your team: Ben Olsen.

Funniest player not on your team: Pablo Mastroeni.

Movie you've watched multiple, multiple times: Seven.

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs


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