Whenever Xherdan Shaqiri is healthy, he’ll play. It just might not be in his customary spot in the Fire midfield.
During his media availability Wednesday, Fire coach Ezra Hendrickson said it’s possible Shaqiri is available Saturday night against DC United. Over the two games he has missed with a right upper leg problem, the Fire have scored six goals and been fueled by Shaqiri’s replacement, 19-year-old Brian Gutierrez.
Gutierrez’s pace has meshed well with wingers Chris Mueller and Maren Haile-Selassie, stretching opposing defenses and creating chances. That was best illustrated on the Fire’s game-winning goal last week at Inter Miami, when Gutierrez dragged the Miami back line toward the ball and fed a pass to an open Kei Kamara, who delivered the team’s first win of the year.
Knowing what he has done and his potential for more, Gutierrez doesn’t deserve to lose his spot directing the Fire offense. But Shaqiri is the Fire’s highest-paid, most-accomplished and technically gifted player, and benching him when healthy would be a risky move.
To get both on the field when Shaqiri is ready, one choice for Hendrickson is sending Shaqiri to the right wing, where he usually plays for the Swiss national team. And Hendrickson didn’t dismiss that option.
“We can’t give up too many tactics here to whoever is listening, but it’s a possibility,” Hendrickson said. “But right now, you know, we are just happy that the team is playing well. We are doing the things that we need to do to finally put the ball in the back of the net. And we are just going to continue in that way. Once Shaq gets back, we’ll determine what’s the best way to move forward.”
Shifting Shaqiri or even Gutierrez to the right wouldn’t just be a simple swap.
If the Fire stayed in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, that would likely mean either Mueller or Haile-Selassie is dropped from the starting 11 or moved to an unnatural position.
A formation change to accommodate Gutierrez, Shaqiri, Mueller and Haile-Selassie could have negative repercussions on defense, which would be a problem because the Fire have conceded five goals over the last 180 minutes. Such a move would be even riskier without defensive midfielder Federico Navarro (left upper leg), who hasn’t played since opening night and won’t appear Saturday.
Hendrickson, though, has thought about ways to get the four attackers onto the field.
“That’s something that, as a coach, after watching the past couple games, you start thinking of ideas and ways to do that,” Hendrickson said. “But we don’t want to be so offensive-minded that we give up too much in the back.”
Gutierrez’s early showing has forced this kind of thought. He has impressed Hendrickson with how he has learned from mistakes and applied those lessons, and his teammates see a young player coming into his own while clicking with Mueller and Haile-Selassie.
“We still have to improve the connections but obviously when you have good players on the pitch, the transition is easier to get to know each other quickly,” Haile-Selassie said. “I feel like with these guys, we understand each other pretty well and of course you can’t forget Shaq, who is in the moment not available, but when he’s coming back I’m looking forward also to playing with him because he’s a great player, too.”