Well this week SB Nation launched Hot Time In Old Town, a Chicago Fire dedicated blog. It was just in time for this weekends match between RSL and the Fire, so what better time for a friendly round of "3 Questions"?
Here are the questions that they asked me, along with my answers:
1. When the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake met in the semi-finals last year, RSL were viewed as stumbling into the playoffs and then upset every team in their path. This year's stellar success shows that last year was no fluke. At what point did you realize this team was something special?
A: It was the friendly match they played against real Chivas last year, it was a scrappy match and RSL had just come of two horrible performances at Houston and at FC Dallas and it looked like their playoff hopes were clearly dashed. RSL came out playing their open attacking style and caught Chivas off guard, when RSL took an early lead in the first half the Chivas players got very physical and dirty with their play. Just minutes before halftime, a hard studs up foul on Andy Williams had Jamison Olave to his defense and the pushing and shoving lead to a Chivas player slapping Olave. Well as the dust settled on the pitch, both the Chivas player and Olave were given reds and sent from the pitch as the halftime whistle blew, the action however didn't hear the whistle as the two teams and several players continued going after each other in the tunnels leading to the locker rooms (yes the police had to separate everyone).
When the second half got underway, RSL played as a team and while they gave up a goal and the match ended in a 1-1 draw there was something different about them. It was at this moment that I believe that everyone finally got the concept that "the team is the star" and they played that way for the rest of the season, and have continued to do so this year. When you have talented players who are willing to fight for each other, who are willing to do what it takes to make the team be the most important thing, well they can accomplish great things. It is that team concept, which eludes so many teams in so many sports, that makes RSL something very special.
Questions 2 and 3, and my questions for them after the jump:2. With the CONCACAF Champions League game Wednesday and the ever constant presence of injuries, will RSL be starting a choice XI or might Chicago be catching a break on paper at least?
A: There will be no break for Chicago, other than the retroactive red card given to Javier Morales, both Fabian Espindola and Robbie Russell returned to practice today and I expect both will be on the bench and ready to go for Saturday. I would expect a lineup of: Rimando, Beltran, Olave, Borchers, Wingert, Gonzalez, Beckerman, Williams, Johnson, Findley, and Saborio to be the starting XI. What Chicago fans will need to worry about will be either/both Espindola or Paulo Jr. coming off the bench. In just a few minutes of playing time against TFC the new kid on the RSL block made a huge imapct, and it looks like RSL is already working to make the loan of Paulo Jr. a permanent move for 2011.
3. The season is already 2/3s behind us. What players have been the biggest surprises for RSL this year? Who has been a great success and who has been the biggest letdown?
A: For me the surprise of the year is a toss up between newcomer Alvaro Saborio who simply has been electric for RSL both in MLS play and in CONCACAF Champions League action, He has 5 CCL goals, and 8 goals, 4 assists in MLS play. The other guy that has really been a surprise for me is Andy Williams, with so much going on in his life and no longer being a spring chicken, @bommadog has stepped up his level of fitness and is playing some of the best footy I have ever seen him play. I really think he needs to write down his life story, it would make a great read and I could see it becoming a made for TV special.
I am going to surprise some RSL fans and say my biggest disappointment has been Robbie Findley, a player I defend constantly and will continue to defend. I thought that the people who thought Robbie had a breakout year in 2009 were wrong and that this would be the year he would have a real break out year, I was one of the few who weren't surprised with his pick for the USMNT, and I really thought it would propel his game to a whole other level. It hasn't happened, it is funny that people consider 5 goals, 3 assists in 1,100 minutes a bad year, he would be considered a huge hit for many teams, but this is RSL and we know what he is capable of and he is being held to a very high standard. I am hoping that once a goal comes, that he will open the flood gates and they will all start going in, and to be honest I can think of no better time for that to happen than say,, Saturday afternoon.
So I fired back a couple of my own questions:
1. So what is the deal with Marco Pappa? He clearly is the offensive mastermind (the new Blanco) for the Fire, and in the last 3 matches in which he hasn't played the Fire have scored just one goal and not gotten a win. He isn't on the injured list, so what is the deal?
A: Marco Pappa missed the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC games because he was on national team duty for Guatemala. He missed last Saturday's game against Philadelphia because of hamstring tightness. He might have been able to go but I think the team leaned on the cautious side with Philly being a weaker opponent and Pappa having played on Tuesday in the international friendly. If it was a gamble, clearly it came up snake eyes.
I can see how you would look at the stat sheet and think that Pappa is the new Blanco but Pappa doesn't have Blanco's creative flair. Pappa also doesn't run the ball in the center like Blanco would. Often Pappa's success comes from plays that start out on the wings and move diagonally into the box. His assists are more his ability to create dangerous opportunities for himself first. Once he is boxed in or a shot becomes impossible, then he passes the ball. I don't want to make him sound selfish and if anything that tells you about the offensive players that have surrounded him this year - he has to look to shoot first. No one else is going to get the job done.
If there is a new Blanco, it is Freddie Ljungberg. Since his arrival, he plays right in the center of the field. If the defense or Logan Pause can collect the ball and make a controlled pass up the field, they look for Freddie. Freddie lacks Blanco's flair and fancy passes but he makes good technical passes and has the speed to burn defenders (Would you expect anything less from ex-Arsenal?).
We are very excited that Pappa will be back. Hopefully he gets back to adding goals to his 2010 campaign.
2. Most experts say it will take 42 points to make the playoffs this year, Chicago has 26, when I look at your remaining schedule (@RSL, Seattle, @ San Jose, @ FC Dallas, Columbus, KC, DC United, and @Chivas USA) I see 4 wins and a draw, 13 points where do you think the 16 points will come from, or are the playoff hopes for the Fire already extinguished?
A: Many fans think that the Fire's playoff chances are gone but I'm like the guy in the sports underdog movie who keeps telling everyone not to give up. I had this formula worked out that at the beginning of September that put us in good standing... but that formula also involved beating Philadelphia. Taking 2 combined points from LA and Toronto keeps us alive but it's pretty dark. Barring a complete change of fortune, any Fire playoff scenario will require beating KC, DC United and Chivas USA to finish the season. That is 9 points right there. If we can't beat those three teams when it counts the most, I wouldn't want to see them in the playoffs anyway.
For the final 6 points, we pretty much have to beat Seattle to keep them down. Handing them another 3 points next week might even end the season right there. Even if we lose tomorrow's game but Seattle loses to Columbus and we beat Seattle next weekend, we would just be 4 points behind with 2 games in hand on Seattle. Toronto is a mess and beating KC later on would hopefully leap frog us over them so it is not entirely impossible. Do the Fire have a long road ahead of them? Sure, but a win tomorrow in the Rio Tinto would be a huge jumpstart to the 2010 chances.
3. The matches between Chicago and RSL over the last few years have been tight matches with often set pieces making the difference, in the past that has meant Blanco, but he is gone and the Fire only have 1 player on their current roster (Patrick Nyarko) who has ever scored a goal against RSL. Who is will be the guy taking the set pieces against RSL and who do you think can add their name to Nyarko's as someone who has scored against RSL?
A: The fact that Nyarko is the only guy on the roster who has scored against RSL is fairly ironic. Nyarko hasn't scored all season and it is quite puzzling. He has gotten much better at breaking down defenses and he has been the catalyst for a lot of our offense this year but he can't score this year to save his life. Teams are starting to give him more room to defend against his quick ball movements and sharp passes. The times that he has shot the ball, it hasn't gone very far or been very threatening. If Marco Pappa is always looking to take a shot this year, Nyarko is always looking to make a pass. If they could combine into the same player, they would be a leading EPL hero for sure.
In the RSL game tomorrow, Nery Castillo will likely be taking the set pieces. He has been taking them since the Seattle game and gotten better with each attempt. Depending on the situation, Collins John or Freddie Ljungberg might take the kick. Collins John did of course have that beauty of a free kick against LA Galaxy on September 4th. As for who will open up their scoring account against RSL? That is the frustrating part about this team, they all look brilliant at times. Pappa is our leading goal scorer, Ljungberg has been very close to scoring, Castillo improves with every game, Calen Carr has provided two substitution goals, Brian McBride still has world class headers, even Wilman Conde is incredibly dangerous on corner kicks. The potential for this team to start steamrolling teams like a locomotive is there, and it's there, and it's there every week but so far the train hasn't even left the station. It's why I hold out hope for the playoffs but it's also why I fear the Fire could lose 3-0 or 4-0 tomorrow. Get ready for the Chicago Fire - we'll be like a bomb. We are either going to explode and cause havoc on RSL or we'll explode in the process of being ignited and I'll turn the TV off before the game is even over.
Well there you have it folks, some good things to think about heading into a huge match for both sides.
For me this match has a major footnote and I want to offer up this one thought, this match will be the last chance for fans in Utah to see one of the greatest American soccer players ever. He is a MLS original, he is a USMNT legend, and he has played in the best league in the world for years as one of their better players. He also is one of the players that got me hooked on MLS back in 1996 when he was playing for the Columbus Crew, and for me knowing this is likely the last chance I will get to see him play live is really a sad day. Brian McBride has never been anything but a class act, he simply is one of the best American players ever and I will miss being able to watch him play no matter what kit he happens to be wearing. Thank you Brian for the memories and showing so many Americans that this really is the beautiful game.
OFF MY SOAPBOX