Lack of Midfield Stars a Problem for the MLS and Chicago Fire

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Lack of Midfield Stars a Problem for the MLS and Chicago Fire
The gaping hole in the middle of MLS fields is growing wider

It's evident that Major League Soccer is missing something.

As the Chicago Fire take on the Philadelphia Union in a league matchup, with both teams fighting for their playoff lives, the missing ingredient in the MLS is becoming slowly evident.

The oldest argument in the book about the MLS is that the players are lower quality, so the games lack the excitement of European leagues.

What's lacking, however, is not excitement. It's a game that is controlled by the middle of the field. Certainly in today's matchup, it's impossible to ignore the gaping hole in the middle of the field. This is evident when you view a game from the press box, as opposed to watching it on TV.

If you're into tactical observations, the press box is the place for you. A birds eye view is how soccer is meant to be viewed.

Michael Regan/Getty Images
Xavi, Messi and Iniesta are some of the best at closing the gap in the midfield

The recent world football era of small, attacking midfielders (mostly in Spain) may appear to have "ended" with Barcelona and Real Madrid getting worked into submission by the taller, air-attack heavy Bayern Dortmund sides. Maybe, though, America is just a few years behind Europe when it comes to properly utilizing our midfielders. 

What the MLS is missing—and what every major European league has—is a solid core of both attacking and holding midfielders.  

Here are the reasons for Chicago's 1-0 loss to the visiting Union:

1.) Long balls from the Fire's defending core of Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry and Gonzalo Segares went for naught as Patrick Nyarko struggled to put the ball in the net. Moving from defense to midfield and midfield to strikers (one pass at a time, one section of the field at a time) isn't part of the game plan. 

Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

2.) On corners, the taller and more physical Anibaba pressed forward to either take corners or scrap in the middle for headers to win. This left their defense quite a bit more vulnerable than the Union, who play a more conservative style and don't press forward. This is part of Chicago's weakness (a lack of striking and/or finishing power). 

3.) Simple play works most effectively for the men in red.

Logan Pause and Jalil Anibaba epitomize this style of play, which for Chicago doesn't typically translate to goals.

It does translate to what they're known for—a solid defensive core, with last year's Rookie of the Year Austin Berry, Anibaba, and newly minted backup keeper Sean Johnson. Pause is much more of a holding midfield and doesn't attack like we're used to seeing in Europe (watch Barcelona's Andres Iniesta work his magic to push forward while still playing defense).

Especially with Philadelphia's "stack the back" game plan on defense, Frank Klopas' men have proved the importance of spreading your defense and developing individual players as opposed to "parking the bus," as John Hackworth's men have done. Unfortunately, spreading the defense failed on the game's only goal off a long ball from Sebastian Le Toux to forward Jack McInerney.   

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

4.) In the second half, Daniel Paladini came on and provided a much more stable midfield presence, which led to multiple opportunities for the Fire. You see this all over the MLS, though.

Moving the ball from one third to the next and trying to skip the middle portion is like writing a book report without ever reading the middle portion: You can get the gist, but you can't work out the details or do any real analysis.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Pause and Duka battle for a header

5.) Dilly Duka and Joel Lindpere are new midfielders in the Chicago system, so it's possible they haven't adjusted yet.

I'd argue nine games is plenty of time to adjust, particularly since Duka is an MLS veteran and Lindpere is 31 years old. I suspect they're both solid clubhouse leaders that posses intangibles we didn't see here today. 

Unfortunately Instagram won't save the Fire or the MLS, for that matter

 

In general, the MLS has evolved greatly in the past 10 years, if for no reason other than its popularity seeing a noticeable boost. On the field, there is still far less organization on both ends than we're used to seeing in Europe. There is a general lack of crispness but no shortage of creativity on both ends.

For both Chicago and Philadelphia, they are most effective when they spread the field. Most of this would be solved with a crew of midfielders dedicated to a smoother flow of moving the ball from one end to the other. 

In conclusion, America is a few years behind on our "book reports." MLS (and more specifically, the current Chicago squad) has failed to scout the best midfielders.

What's next in the MLS? Will we see a charge ahead to find midfielders that will create security in the middle third of MLS matchups? Or will aging stars like Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Robbie Keane and Obafemi Martins show up in the league for star power?

Ned Dishman/Getty Images
Your book report is waiting, Don.

The more important question to address is whether commissioner Don Garber cares more about developing the style of play in MLS or the style of player.

There's a book report waiting for you, Mr. Garber. My advice is to take a seat at midfield and think carefully about what you want your league to look like. 

Follow me @ericdrobny for more on world football. 

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