The Portland Timbers know the feeling. In 2013, after two years outside the playoffs, the team shot to the top of the Western Conference, putting two seasons of postseason irrelevance behind them en route to the conference finals. A corner was turned, everyone thought, but when the team missed the playoffs the next season, a lesson was learned.
In sports, it’s often easier to climb a mountain than stay on top. It’s why winning back-to-back titles is so rare. Players age, mentalities change, and methods get deduced. Successful teams have to evolve.
How the Chicago Fire evolve after last year’s success is an open question. In their third season under Veljko Paunović, the Fire leapt from last in the Eastern Conference, where they’d spent the previous two seasons, to a 16-11-7 season. The team made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and while a 4-0, knockout round defeat to the New York Red Bulls struck a sour note, progress was palpable.
This year, though, the Fire have started with two straight losses. Each game was decided by a single goal, but three weeks ago, few would have bet that a home game against Sporting Kansas City and a trip to Minnesota would yield no results. Is there some sort of regression happening in Chicago?
Perhaps. It’s entirely possible the Fire played over their head last season, and that the team’s true level is somewhere between last season’s third-place finish and the previous year’s 10th. Maybe Chicago desperately misses the dynamism of the departed David Accam, who was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason. Or, maybe the rest of the league has figured out what, last year, made Paunović’s side so successful.
A big part of that success was the team’s approach, one which reflects where Paunović spent most of his playing career. Though he was developed as a young player at Serbian titan Partizan, Paunović left Serbia as a 17-year-old to join Marbella in Spain. Over the next 12 years, he would play for a host of Spanish clubs: Atlético Madrid, Mallorca, Oviedo, Tenerife, Getafe and Almería, Though he also spent time in Germany, Russia and MLS, Paunović’s main influences come from his decade-plus around La Liga.
“You can see a very important Spanish influence in him, in the style that he plays,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said earlier this week. You see that influence in how his team moves the ball: quickly, on the ground, with players moving off the ball instead of with it. You can see it in the technical quality of the players he chooses. You can see it in how the Fire transition through the middle and try to break down teams in the final third.
That approach makes the intelligence and technical quality of “Pauno’s” key players all the more important. The acquisitions of Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger before last season not only gave the Fire a huge boost in talent, but it also gave them two midfield generals to reinforce their approach. Schweinsteiger’s ability to move all over the field and execute in tight spaces complements McCarty’s presence deeper, as well as his ability to shift the team’s attack with his long diagonals.
Without players of that quality, Chicago wouldn’t be able to execute Paunović’s vision, perhaps explaining why, in the previous two seasons, the Fire were unable to escape the Eastern Conference’s basement. It may also explain why, in their last game, the Fire were unable to unlock a defensively-challenged Minnesota, given Schweinsteiger missed the game for the birth of his son.
All that, in turn, makes the play of the Timbers’ midfielders on Saturday (3pm PT, FOX 12 Oregon) more important. In a ball hawk like Diego Chara, Portland has the perfect midfielder to hound the roaming Schweinsteiger, but unless the long-time Timbers player has a perfect day, he won’t be enough. Higher up the field, Savarese will need Diego Valeri and Sebastián Blanco to account for McCarty, somehow. If they can’t, it will be up to players like Cristhian Paredes, Andrés Flores, or whoever is chosen in midfield to make sure McCarty and Schweinsteiger’s targets are less dangerous ones, in less dangerous areas.
This is where the absence of Accam (above) could really be felt. The Fire still have last year’s Golden Boot winner, Nemanja Nikolić, but in Accam, they had somebody who could transcend a system. The Ghanaian international delivered 33 goals in his three seasons under Paunović but departed this winter in a deal that netted the Fire $1.2 million in allocation money ($300,000 of it “GAM” – General Allocation Money). In his place, the team has brought in Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai from Spain’s Deportivo Alavés, but they’ve yet to replace the raw explosiveness the speed of Accam offered.
No longer can the Fire rely on Accam’s escape valve when things get bottled up. Much like the Timbers are adjusting to life without Darlington Nagbe, so, too, are the Fire coping with the departure of an important part. Chicago no longer has a guy who, when all else fails, can beat players one-on-one.
For both teams, the early season will be a process, but after last week, the Timbers seem slightly farther along. In Dallas, Savarese found something that worked, giving Portland a foundation to build on. Chicago, on the other hand, are waiting for their first breakthrough, leaving doubts as to whether their 2017 can carry over into the new season.