Magee, Part II: First, the good news is that Mike Magee has rejoined the team in camp and apparently sorted out whatever was at the root of his absence (more info on this expected Friday). Now that he's back, the question is whether he can he possibly replicate his MVP season from a year ago. His previous season high for goals was 7 – which he tripled in 2013. Gonna be a marked man now.
Backline shuffle: Out go Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba, in come Lovel Palmer and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. Hurtado was, at one point, one of the better defenders in the league, but he hasn't been the same since doing his ACL in early 2010. Palmer has been a rotation player at best. It's hard to be a fan of these moves at first, second or third glance.
All on his own: Looking very likely that Frank Yallop is going to run this team in a 4-1-4-1 with Jeff Larentowicz as the lone d-mid. Larentowicz is a borderline All-Star every year, but his best days have always come alongside another guy who can do at least 50 percent of the dirty work. And these weren't random destroyers – it was a pair of of Hall-of-Famers in Shalrie Joseph and Pablo Mastroeni. Even last season his brightest moments came next to Arévalo Ríos, who's now in Mexico and will be playing for Uruguay in this summer's World Cup.
Star Attraction: Mike Magee
Everything he touched last year turned to gold, and it's worth noting that once he came on board, Chicago had the best points per game in the league. This wasn't a small sample size, either – 22 games, stretching from May til the very last week of the season. The Fire, lest you forget, lost out on the playoffs only by goals scored. Magee really had them buzzing.
He gets the job done by being smarter than just about every defender he's up against, finding seams and committing to them in a blink. He's also got a very soft first touch and vision, which makes closing him down tricky. He's not going to go by defenders from a standstill, but if you come at him, he will slip a simple pass then make the right run into space to use your momentum against you (you can see pretty much all of that at play in the GIF above, though it should be noted that Juan Luis Anangonó was definitely offside and the goal shouldn't have counted. Rave on, Revs fans). The Fire did a good job of finding him in those spots in 2013.
It looks like 2014 will see him in a slightly more withdrawn role, probably doing a bit more playmaking and a bit less poaching. That's in his skillset as well (remember, he was primarily a midfielder for the Galaxy), and he should be complemented nicely by the pacy wingers around him. The goal total will almost have to decline, but if Anangonó is finally and fully acclimated, Magee could end up making a run at double-digit assists.
Probable Formation: 4-1-4-1
Major Acquisition: Harrison Shipp
Look, he's not going to start (right away), and by all rights Hurtado or Palmer should earn the "major acquisition" title. How they fare will have a much bigger influence on where Chicago ends up in the standings than anything Shipp is likely to do.
But here's a couple of things: Shipp is a purebred playmaker, a true No. 10 who lives to create chances. And he was developed in the Fire Academy. And he would have been, at worst, the No. 3 pick in this year's draft. And he has a winning pedigree (won the national title with Notre Dame this past year) from a program that's produced a few decent pros (that was intentional understatement – last year's Rookie of the Year, Dillon Powers, was Shipp's teammate at Notre Dame).
Even if Shipp doesn't become a star right away, Fire fans have plenty of reason to hope that he can be their answer to Luis Gil at RSL or Kelyn Rowe in New England: a young, talented, technical American playmaker.
SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
"[Yallop] wants it to be a high-intensity kind of game where we're squeezing teams, and trying to dispossess the ball as quickly as we can and then just attack. It's just that mentality, to focus on pinning other teams to one side of the field, and then trying to win possession as quickly as we can and attacking. From speaking to Frank, he wants us to be a little more offensive this year."
Fantasy Pick: Dilly Duka ($6.5m / selected by 5.8 percent of teams) – Had four goals and three assists in 2013 and should improve upon that total in 2014. Speedy winger who can get into the attack and create his own shot or distribute with the final pass. For an offensive winger, Duka provides good bang for your buck..
Players to watch: Juan Luis Anangonó, Mike Magee, Steven Kinney
They've got to hope the Larentowicz move pays off. I think the success or failure of this team – definitely in the early season, but maybe overall – will hinge largely on that.
Larentowicz played as a lone d-mid for most of Oscar Pareja's first season in Colorado, back in 2012. They started off that year going 8-16-2. Then Hendry Thomas came aboard, split the defensive duties, and the Rapids finished strong(ish), going 3-3-2 over the final eight. I don't think that's an aberration.
The other big hurdle is obviously the forward pairing. Magee's still in the "maybe it was a blip" zone, while Anangonó looks more like Sherjill MacDonald than Ante Razov at this point. He deserves another couple of months to make his case for certain, but he's not likely to get more than that.
I'm pretty confident in Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko on the wings, provided they stay healthy, but everything still feels so unsettled for this group. A slow start doomed them last year, and while it's no guarantee that they'll stumble out of the blocks again in 2014, they sure don't look like a finished product at this point.