'14 Season Preview: Can Magee replicate 2013?

2:29 PM, Mar 5, 2014   |    comments
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Bridgeview, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - There are a number of questions facing new Chicago Fire head coach Frank Yallop as the season gets set to begin.

One is how well a re-tooled back line will hold up, while there is also doubt surrounding forward Juan Anangono and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, who could be asked to take on a bigger role in midfield.

But without question the biggest factor that will determine the success of Yallop's first season in Chicago is the play of forward Mike Magee.

If the 29-year-old can replicate his 2013 season, which saw him earn the MLS Most Valuable Player award, Chicago should be a factor in the Eastern Conference.

If not, Yallop's honeymoon will end quickly and the team will struggle to find goals.

The Fire began last season with just one point from its first four games while scoring only one goal.

And things didn't improve much over the next two months as Chicago won two of its first 11 games, digging itself into a hole in the East.

But the fortunes of the club improved significantly when it sent the rights to Robbie Rogers to Los Angeles in exchange for Magee, who made an instant impact upon his arrival.

Magee scored in his first four games for the Fire and the team claimed 13 of a possible 15 points to get itself back in contention.

By the time the regular season ended the Fire finished in sixth place and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker to Montreal, with Magee leading the way by scoring 15 goals in 22 matches.

The problem for Chicago was that after Magee, Chris Rolfe, Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko finished tied for second in goals with only four, illustrating the need to give Magee some help.

Anangono was brought in during the season to offer a hand in attack, but he netted only two goals in 13 appearances and will need to take a big step forward to add punch to a one-dimensional attack.

All eyes will be on Magee as well to see if last season was merely an aberration or if he has finally found a home.

Prior to 2013, when Magee scored 21 goals combined for both Chicago and Los Angeles, his previous career best was seven goals in a season.

The play of Larentowicz will also be key as he is expected to shoulder a greater workload in midfield due to a potential formation switch by Yallop, which could leave the former Rapids man as the lone midfield player sitting in front of the back four.

And speaking of the defense, Yallop will have to sort through a group of new faces to put together a cohesive unit.

The acquisitions of both Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni in a trade with Seattle gave the Fire quality depth in the middle of the back line.

With Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry starting the majority of the time last season in central defense, the additions of Hurtado and Ianni figured to give Yallop some good depth in that area and provide competition for places in the starting lineup.

"I think all you need is competition," Fire assistant coach C.J. Brown said before the preseason. "For the past few years, or last year at least, that back line didn't have competition. It was just that back line. Now, we brought in competition, so I think everybody's going to be training hard every week, putting in the work that's necessary for the weekend. It's going to be a very hard decision for us to put a starting four on the backline."

But then the Fire traded Berry to Philadelphia for allocation money, while another regular in the back line, Jalil Anibaba, also left.

In addition to Hurtado and Ianni, Chicago also brought in Lovel Palmer, who appeared in 17 games last season for Real Salt Lake.

Any new coach needs time to implement his system and make his mark on a team, and Yallop's transition after spending nine years in San Jose will be no different.

But with so many questions still to answer, another slow start is very possible, unless Magee can provide the kind of heroics that saw him revive the Fire's season last year.

ACQUISITIONS: Lovel Palmer (D/M), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (D), Patrick Ianni (D), Benji Joya (M).

LOSSES: Paolo Tornaghi (GK), Michael Videira (D), Joel Lindpere (M), Maicon Santos (F), Wells Thompson (D), Daniel Paladini (M), Jalil Anibaba (D), Austin Berry (D).

OUTLOOK: The trade of Berry to Philadelphia did not sit well with many Fire fans and it leaves a lot of questions about how well a new-look defense can come together. But after yielding the third-most goals in MLS last season with 52, there is plenty of room for improvement. Veteran midfielder Larentowicz will be important to the success of the team as his role will likely be expanded, while players like Rolfe and Anangono will need to increase their production. But the pressure is definitely on Magee to produce the type of MVP season he did last term, which will ultimately determine the success of the Fire. At this point it appears there are too many question marks to make Chicago a real contender in the East, although if things bounce the right way, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Fire battle for the final playoff spot as they did last season.

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