Prime Your Fire Pump: Chicago at Sporting KC

Friday Night. National TV. First place up for grabs. ‘Nuff said. (Photo: skcreports.blogspot.com)

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already about Friday night’s nationally televised battle for Eastern Conference supremacy between the Men in Red from Chicago and the pansies in powder blue from Kansas City?

Well, plenty. Let’s do a preview of 2012’s third installment of this manufactured rivalry shall we…?

The Past Five Days

As you can imagine (or perhaps know because you don’t simply wait around all week for me to write this – or maybe you do? That would be awesome.) Chicago dominated MLS talk this week. The Tweetosphere, Blogville, Podcastlandia, Message Board City, and the rest of the Interwebs were chock full of information about your Men in Red – almost to the point where it became a bit too much for this fan blogger to handle. But hey, I work hard for no money, so here’s a rundown of what “they” were saying this week about the most glorious club in the Western Hemisphere known as Chicago Fire SC:

“Ground control to ‘keeper Sean. Drink your Aldi milk and put your green shirt on.”

We here at On The Fire are going to do our best Hot Cast in Old Town impression this week and start on a negative note. Sorry guys, but it’s true. Remember that Space Oddity you saw on the pitch last Saturday night at Toyota Park? You know, the one where Sean Johnson assisted a little yellow banana on a goal? Well, that big boo-boo prompted Soccer by Ives to write an entire piece on the development and struggles of young MLS goalkeepers, complete with SeanJ as the cover boy. Read all about it! 

After his spectacular brace at home against the Crew, Chris Rolfe was understandably the talk of MLS soccer town this week. Chicago’s golden foot led his own accolade parade. Here’s the rundown:

Basically, Chris Rolfe was a bonafide baller last week and appeared on every MLS team of the week known to mankind – except for Jeremiah Oshan’s – if he has one.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Rolfe rekindled the Fire in the Sporting News, and spoke with our main beat man Anthony Zilis about his new leadership role with the Fire.

Chris joined the boys on MLS Extra Time Radio to talk about what’s behind Chicago’s meteoric rise to the top of the table: “It’s the personality of the locker room. Everybody’s buying  in to Frank’s system.” Rolfe also mentioned Klopas’s match-to-match and week-to-week approach that emphasizes reflection and improvement and keeps the players focused.

When pressed by journo Andrew Wiebe to describe Klopas’s system in more detail, Rolfe said: “It’s a very selfless system. We all are out there trying to play for each other.” On his own role and Frank’s expectations of him on the pitch, it’s “to get forward and create chances [and] link up the attack and defense.” Rolfe pointed out that there is “No big ego or big personality in the locker room. We all get along.” In particular (and readers of this blog know I’ve emphasized this point over and again), Chris highlighted the fact that he believes his play and Sherjill MacDonald’s compliment one another’s. The stats speak for themselves. Since MacDonald entered the starting lineup on August 12th in Philadelphia, Chris Rolfe has six goals in seven matches.

Wiebe continued by asking Rolfe the big question “What’s at stake in this game?” Chicago’s trequartista remarked: “Everybody’s been even-keeled about this game. It’ll be a great experience before the playoffs start for the young guys.” Even-keeled yes. Unaware of its implications? Not a chance.

Because they just can’t get enough, Wiebe, Borg, and Firchau again talked in-depth about the Fire on Thursday’s show. On the match at hand: “Friday’s gonna be a barnburner. Chicago is capable of beating SKC and putting fear into them come playoff time. On the “rivalry” between Chicago and SKC: “The so-called rivalry is manufactured by SKC. It’s a marketing gimmick.”

Simon Borg wants the Fire to put on a show Friday night and make their mark: “Show us why you’re a power to be reckoned with” he said. Referring to their changing tactics, the imitable Maltan wants to know “what [the Fire] are all about.” Borg claims the Fire don’t yet have an identity, and he wants to see one emerge on Friday night. That’s fair, if a bit simplistic. The Fire’s identity lies in their teamwork, ability to play multiple tactical sets, and adjust on the fly. Chicago is not built to be obvious. And that’s how the Gaffer wants it.

MLS’s March to the Match couldn’t put out their Fire either this week. On Friday’s match: “This one’s for all the marbles.” The hosts praised Chicago’s scouting prowess, in that seven of Chicago’s starters came from the MLS Superdraft, while the other four are veteran acquisitions made within the past eighteen months. They noted a competitive advantage the Fire enjoys over other squads (Houston, SKC for example) in that their “difference makers” are fresh, having played less minutes than other starters. Rolfe, MacDonald, and Alex (at the moment at least) come to mind.

More analysis from Doyle, Tomaszewicz, and Freedman: With MacDonald pulling out to the flanks, splitting central defenders, Rolfe pushes into the middle and poses serious problems for defenses. Both are heady, clever players. El Flaco plays better in a varied system (like Chicago’s) that doesn’t focus on one guy to score. The Fire are 7-0 with these three in the starting XI together.

On Arne Friedrich: “He injects passes forward into the midfield, and even if they come back, he controls them and redistributes.”

On the Chicago defense: A dynamic back line. Pause and Pardo not making turnovers helps too. They cycle the ball quickly to the flanks, then Fernandez and Nyarko play vertical. Finally, the radio trio agree that Austin Berry is the MLS Rookie if the Year front-runner.

Regarding Berry, if he continues to play like he did against Columbus I’d like to hear the arguments against him winning ROY. Tough to argue against him. And despite the hype, it ain’t gonna be Vancouver’s Darren Mattocks. One spectacular play does not a Rookie of the Year make – unless the folks who vote on this award care more about style than substance.

Just look over your shoulder Frankie. The trophy may be there…(Photo: slidetackles.blogspot.com)

This week also saw increased chatter about Frank Klopas as a front-runner for MLS Coach of the Year. While he may be a darkhorse at the moment (San Jose’s Frank Yallup is the consensus choice), if Chicago wins at KC on Friday night and winds up taking the East, Klopas will be a serious contender for the honor.

Chicago Fire communications director Brendan Hannan reminded us that Frank Klopas has led his team to a 16-8-5 record with 53 points so far this season. Since the start of the season, Klopas has added seven new faces and seen seven leave.” Klopas is quickly developing into one of MLS’s premier managers, both on and off the pitch. He’s the architect and commander of what is now the league’s most dangerous squad.

Pavel Pardo’s status: After healing his aggravated hamstring, the General unfortunately strained his calf. It’s unlikely he’ll play versus SKC. Look for Alex to start in his stead once again.

Finally, the last word from this week’s media blitz goes to gentleman Graham Parker from The Guardian: “It should be quite a game. Chicago are transformed from the side that stole a smash and grab win at Livestrong earlier in the summer, and have won seven in eight in a perfectly timed tilt for the post-season. The speed that the Fire possess may be a better match up for Sporting’s high tempo, high pressure game than New York’s ponderous midfield was in midweek, when they made their bid to overtake the Eastern leaders. There will be twists and turns to come in the East, but no doubt what the next compelling game is. Clear your diaries for Friday night.” Indeed.

To Power Rank or Not to Power Rank: MLS Round 29

Chicago Fire Aggregate: 3.4 (up 1.5 from last week)

ESPN FC: #2 – “An early gaffe from goalkeeper Sean Johnson put Chicago in a hole against Columbus, but two brilliantly taken goals from Chris Rolfe enabled the Fire to claim a 2-1 victory, its seventh in eight games.” ESPN has Chicago at #2 because they actually give the team credit for being 2-0 vs. SKC this season.

Fox Soccer: #3 – “Is this team built for a deep postseason run after feasting on a soft schedule? Or is this impressive surge just a nice way to secure a playoff berth?” Wow. Thanks for the vote of confidence. You know, I’m beginning to suspect that most of these guys who do power rankings don’t even watch the Fire. 

MLSsoccer.com: #3 – “We can point to savvy midseason acquisitions and veteran leadership, but the simple fact is that the Fire have been built through the SuperDraft. Seven starters – Sean Johnson, Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry, Gonzalo Segares, Logan Pause, Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe – came to Chicago by that route. You don’t have to spend big to win big.” Truth.

Soccer America: #3 – “The Fire confirmed its status as a serious title contender by wiping out a 1-0 deficit against the Crew with a pair of Chris Rolfe goals three minutes apart and maintaining that 2-1 edge to the final whistle. Sean Johnson fought off a fierce shot from Josh Williams to help preserve the victory. Seven wins in the last eight games fueled by one of the league’s most potent lineups has the Fire burning hot heading into a conference showdown Friday in Kansas City, where its back line and young keeper, whose gaffe provided the Crew with the only chance it converted, will be sharply tested.” Fair and balanced.

Goal.com: #3 – “Is there any doubt that Frank Klopas made the right decision for this season when he exiled Sebastián Grazzini and imported Chris Rolfe to take his place?” No, there isn’t. And there hasn’t been for at least a month. Don’t you have anything interesting to say? Oh, wait. You don’t actually watch the Fire play, do you Kyle McCarthy?

Si.com: #4 – A newcomer to the power ranking biz, writer Avi Creditor had just one word to describe the Fire: “Dangerous”. He may have the Fire at #4, but at least he’s got Seattle where they belong: BELOW CHICAGO. I like you Avi. Welcome to the show!

BS Nation: #4 – “Chicago continues to roll with 7 wins in their last 8 games. KC stayed up while NY sunk. If a side can win this Friday, they will be top of the East. A tie means Chicago can take first with a win over Philadelphia next Wednesday.” Take a wild guess at which team is at number 3. I’ll give you a hint, their name rhymes with “flounders”.

NBC Sports Pro Soccer Talk #5 – “Chris Rolfe keeps turning up Team MVP performances. We haven’t heard league MVP talk just yet; probably a bridge too far. Plenty of others had good nights in a 2-1 win over Columbus, including Sherjill MacDonald, Patrick Nyarko, Alex, Austin Berry and Arne Friedrich. Even goalkeeper Sean Johnson did fine – after that one silly, sloppy pass, that is.” Alright, look. I like Steve Davis. He’s one of the class MLS writers. But his ranking this week is bogus. 

*Soccer by Ives took a powder this week. They’re listening to Snap instead.

Last week, as a point of comparison between reality and fairy tales, I posted the MLS composite table after the power rankings. Then, I asked you my dear reader to make up your own mind about which team should be where. This week however please forgive me, because I must once again call out these Sounder fan writers for their utter lack of objectivity. All of those lime green popsicles must have given them brain freeze.

Jerry Oshan at BS Nation and Steve Davis at NBC Sports have the Sounders ahead of the Fire in the power rankings, which is absurd. If you look at the table below (props to settingthetable.info, we’ll miss you next year), you’ll see Chicago at #3 and Seattle at #8. Let me repeat, Chicago at #3 and Seattle at #8. Level on matches played, the Fire have three more wins than the Sounders. Something stinks like flounder.

Moreover, national media types consistently harp on about how much stronger the Western Conference is than the Eastern conference. Again, look at the composite table below to see the truth. As Brendan Hannan pointed out Monday, there are four Eastern Conference teams with 50 points or more. Only San Jose in the West has more than 50. Take things a step further, and you’ll see that if the MLS was like the rest of the world and didn’t have divisions, six of the ten playoff teams would be from the East. So the next time you hear some national journo (or Sounders fans posing as professional writers) blowing hot air about how much stronger the West is, know this: It’s pure, unadulterated conjecture.

How They Stand in the East

The Fire saw favorable results last weekend, as all Eastern Conference playoff contending teams except DC United left points on the table. Aside from the Fire/SKC match, the contenders meet the pretenders in the East this weekend, so look for Houston, RBNY, and DC to strengthen their relative positions.

#1 Sporting KC (55 pts./30 played) – Not much to say here except the pressure’s on them to hold their lead. First place is theirs to lose. After Friday, only three matches remain for Vermes and company, with two on the road against Columbus and New York. Sporting closes out the regular season at home vs. Philly.

#2 Chicago Fire (53/29) – The key here is Chicago’s match in hand. If the Fire draw at SKC and follow up with a win at home vs. Philly next Wednesday, they’ll be in first place and even on matches played with SKC. If Chicago can take home at least a point on Friday night, they’ll be well-positioned to win the East. If they cede all three points to Sporting, second or third place in the East seems more likely.

#3 New York Red Bulls (50/30/50 goals for) – Hans Backe’s crew continue their downward spiral. Last time out, RBNY was gifted a point at New England by bad officiating after Jerry Bengston’s goal in the fifth minute was disallowed on an incorrect offside call. To add insult to injury, Defender Connor Lade earned himself two cautions and a suspension. If RBNY doesn’t take all three points at home versus Toronto FC this Saturday…well, despite their problems I can’t even fathom that. RBNY: Another example that money can’t buy you love. Or trophies.

#4 DC United (50/30/47 goals for) – Despite the loss of star Dwayne De Rosario, filthy-mouthed coach Ben Olson (watch the MLS 36 episode on De Ro and you’ll see what I mean) and company are moving up the table – just barely. After three one-goal wins in a row over New England, Philly, and Chivas, the Dirty Birds are suddenly threatening to take over third place. And while their soft schedule is certainly good news for DC in the short-run, it’s not in the long-run. Matches against Portland (away), Toronto FC (away), Columbus (home), and Chicago (away) remain. I’d love to see a battle-hardened Fire squad meet a United team with a false sense of confidence in the Eastern conference semifinals.

#5 Houston Dynamo (46/30) – Bottom Line: This team is just plain tired. Concacaf Champions League play and international friendlies are seriously testing the depth of coach Dom Kinnear’s squad. However, they are finally catching a break. Check out their final four league matches: vs. New England, vs. Montreal, vs. Philadelphia, at Colorado Rapids. That’s four matches vs. non-playoff teams, three of which are at home. They’ll be in the playoffs and they’ll be dangerous. 

#6 Columbus Crew (45/30)Robert Warzycha should send Freddy Adu a fruit cake and a bottle of Wodka after the Union sent Dom Kinnear and the boys back to Houston without a point last Sunday. C-bus are still in the hunt, but it doesn’t look good for them in the long run. They’ve skidded back to earth lately, as teams have figured out how to control or neutralize Federico Higuain. Film, film, film. Here’s what’s left for the yellow bananas: vs. Philly, vs. SKC, at DC, vs. Toronto. Seeing as their schedule is more difficult than Houston’s, I’m afraid Columbus will be on the outside looking in come November.

First Place?! (Photo: chicago-fire.com)

Sparky’s Sizzling Questions

Will the Fire be able to withstand SKC’s High Pressure?

No doubt, it’s a tough task. But Chicago’s done it twice already this season with a lesser team. Logan Pause will work his tail off to contain Graham Zusi and temper the number of chances he creates for the big, fast guys up front (Sapong, Kamara). The back line will play tight and mark up. A strong defensive middle is the key to getting a result in this match, so Berry and Friedrich must be in top form as well.

Will the absence of Pavel Pardo make a significant difference Friday night?

Normally, I’d say yes – especially against such a formidable opponent. But, Klopas inserted Alex a couple of matches back, and it’s worked. So the question for KC is whether or not they’ll be able to adjust to a serious scoring threat at Chicago’s forward holding mid position. I think not. Alex is going to cause problems for Vermes and company.

Will Sean Johnson give us another brilliant performance between the pipes?

SeanJ’s going to meditate on his last performance at Dopestrong Park – arguably MLS’s best single-match goalie performance of the season – and channel his inner world-class ‘keeper self. No momentary lapses of reason on Friday night for Johnson.

Will Sporting KC be able to handle the new look Fire?

This Chicago team is much stronger than the one SKC has lost to twice already this season. Odds are they’ll lose again. The answer: NO.

Predictions

Before we get to the official prognostications, here’s Soccer by Ives’s Jeff Krause keepin’ it real: “SKC is incredibly beatable [on] Friday, especially if you consider that they’re more or less a .500 team since starting the season 7-0. At home they’re highly unimpressive.” Yep. Go bold or go home…

  • Fire win 2-0
  • Goals by Sherjill MacDonald and Alvaro Fernandez
  • The Fire defense contains Graham Zusi, and this is reflected on the stat sheet
  • Peter Vermes pops a blood vessel
  • Chicago gets out the brooms and sweeps itself into first place in the East
  • The #FireBus rides home to glory

**Chicago Fire at Sporting Kansas City: Friday, September 28 – Live on NBC Sports Network**

#FirstPlace

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s