Armchair Analyst: Djordje and the Fire and life on the MLS playoff bubble

The first half of February is for digging into teams' preseason rosters. Doing that gives you a sense of balance with regard to their depth chart, and their balance with regard to both how old or young the roster skews, and how heavily tilted it is toward, say, possession or countering or pressing.

The second half of February is for watching preseason games, caring a little bit about the results and a lot about the lineups, formations and tactics the coaches use. If your team drops a 2-1 result, don't sweat too much. If they drop a 7-1 laugher, you should feel the first hints of legitimate panic in your bones (yes, that previous sentence was basically a Sounders subtweet). If, at this point, your favorite young player is still with the B team showing out against college kids... well, that pretty well means your favorite player is not going to be in the XI for First Kick.

Djordje Mihailovic need not worry about that. The 20-year-old US international looks like he's going to be the Fire's starting No. 10 for 2019, as he was at the close of 2018. He marked his debut for the USMNT last month by putting the ball into the back of the net, and on Saturday he did the same, while playing the same spot, in a preseason game for Chicago:

There's a lot I like about Mihailovic in that clip – right place at the right time, a quick, decisive and low rip into the bottom corner. Mihailovic doesn't "wow" you with pure magic; rather, he just does the fundamentally correct and technically sound play again and again and again. You can rely upon him, and his veteran teammates do. That is a rare quality in a young player.

There's a lot I like about the Fire in that clip. Dax McCarty, healthy again at d-mid, winning the ball and making that subtly brilliant pass to Aleksandar Katai's feet in the pocket. Katai feeling the pressure and slipping the ball through to where he knows Djordje is.

Those three guys, plus Bastian Schweinsteiger, new arrival Przemyslaw Frankowski and 2017 Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic... I have bought a lot of stock in Chicago's front six. I can look at that team and see a group that dominates possession via the midfield and puts the ball into the net 60 times this coming season. Mihailovic should be a big part of that – something like 6g/10a should not be a surprise from him if he stays healthy.

Sixty goals and six internationals in your front six, a No. 10 that puts up meaningful numbers and some fun depth pieces that I rate should be enough to punch a team's ticket to the playoffs, but from the outside looking in the Fire are on the bubble. 

Here's the summary:

This is a team that should almost never deviate from their Plan A, and their Plan A should always be to maximize their time on the ball. That would play to their strengths (excellent, technical midfield) while minimizing their weaknesses (can they defend at all? Are they the slowest team in the league?). But in 2018, head coach Veljko Paunovic came out with a new Plan A just about every week.

I worry that he tinkers so much that they'll never build the type of metronomic consistency and chemistry they need to really get on the ball and use it to control games. And if that's the case, the Fire might be closer to the Wooden Spoon than a playoff spot.

If, however, 2018 was an injury-inspired blip, and Paunovic intends to go back to the more stable approach of 2017, then I could see Chicago coasting comfortably into the playoffs.

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