Bill Parcells, the NFL Hall of Fame coach, uttered perhaps my favorite sports-related axiom:
“You are what your record says you are.”
Got a bunch of young potential stars? Got a high payroll? Got big names, foreign and domestic? All that’s nice, but if your record says you’re a mid-table team, then you’re a mid-table team. You are what your record says you are.
But here’s the catch: The transfer window opens midseason, and everyone who’s on the outside looking in gets their chance to strike gold. Add the right piece, and you can go from an also-ran to a contender. You can make your record a liar.
That’s why coaches in all sports make such colossal transfer window (or trade deadline) gambles. They want to disprove Parcells’ axiom.
It usually doesn’t work out, of course. Trades rarely provide huge upgrades, and transfer signings – even if they have a ton of talent – rarely fit snugly enough to take a mediocre team to the promised land.
But it looks like something special may be happening with the Chicago Fire these days. They just had a solid August, pulling themselves to the brink of playoff contention. While we can comfortably say about the rest of the league, “You are what your record says you are,” the Fire have gone a long way to convincing their fans and foes alike that they’re better than 4-7-15 would indicate.
Frank Klopas took a transfer window roll of the dice on Sebastián Grazzini and Pável Pardo, and it’s paid. Neither scored DP contracts, but Grazzini was instrumental in getting Chicago to the US Open Cup final and Pardo has earned praise from all corners for his locker-room leadership. That alone is a transfer-window coup.
Just as important is that they’ve helped turn of cascade of draws – a record number, as a matter of fact – into wins in league play. Chicago have an actual “winning streak” – one of only four teams in the league who can say as much.
And that’s made for a night-and-day transformation within the fanbase. From March to July, Fire supporters would watch their team with knots in their stomachs, wondering when the other shoe would drop.
How would the collapse happen this week? How would the men in red turn three points into one?
Now those same fans are expecting their team to go out and turn one point into three. The Fire suddenly have an identity, they have confidence and they have a midfield that simply works the fundamentals to play to their strengths.
Those fundamentals come in the shape of a 4-3-1-2 with Grazzini as the “1” and Pardo in the middle of the “3.” What’s made it so successful is that either is capable of hitting a pass to spring Dominic Oduro – currently the league’s hottest striker, and no, I can’t believe I typed that either – or Patrick Nyarko through the high, pressing backlines that are played almost uniformly throughout the league.
There’s nothing particularly complex about what Chicago’s doing, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop. The reason Pardo and Grazzini have each been succeeding in central midfield for a decade is because they could make the game simple for those around them, put the ball on a platter and generate chances.
What’s remarkable, though, is how quickly they’ve found themselves on the same page as Oduro, Nyarko and – weirdly – left back Gonzalo Segares.
Segares has, pretty much out of the blue, rediscovered his offensive game in the past month. He overlaps effectively nearly every time Chicago transitions, giving Pardo and Grazzini another target to aim for with their long, searching through balls. When he gets onto them he’s an able crosser who makes up in speed of thought – he’s one of the few fullbacks in the league willing to play an early ball – what he lacks in precision.
There are other areas in which the Fire have improved as well. Cory Gibbs and Jalil Anibaba have been very, very solid in the middle of the back line when both are healthy. Dan Gargan has been solid at right back, even pitching in a timely goal against his former team in Chicago’s 2-0 win over Toronto. Marco Pappa finally realized that “defense” is a thing. And Oduro, as mentioned, has stopped shooting like a drunk at a rodeo and is instead scoring some goals.
It’s simple stuff, really, but simplicity is the essence of the game.
Sadly for the Fire, the transfer window rebuild may have come a month too late. They’re five points back in the race for the final playoff spot, and have four teams to beat out in order to snag it.
But for a team that was left for dead a month ago, they at least have something to build on for the rest of 2011. And an Open Cup final to play in Seattle next month.
Once in a while, the gamble pays off.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MLS_Analyst