If you're like me, you maybe don't pay that much attention to everything going on with the rest of MLS, so may not know all that much about other teams in the league. To help out with that, I'll be doing a regular-ish feature, inviting a blogger from Toronto FC's upcoming opponents to answer a few questions and give us an idea of what to look out for when TFC play them.
Here to prepare us for Saturday's game and introduce us to the Chicago Fire is Tweed Thornton of Hot Time In Old Town which you can check out to get the Chicago view on the upcoming game. So, Chicago, how you doin'?
Waking the Red: After saying goodbye to a lot of big name players over the winter, currently riding a 6 game win-less streak, and struggling in the table, how are Chicago fans feeling about the season so far?
Hot Time In Old Town: Has it been six games since the Fire last won? I've been too busy celebrating the three-game undefeated streak to notice.
Few Fire fans take that sentiment seriously and most are getting very anxious. It is tough for the fan base because the Chicago Fire have only missed the playoffs twice in club history (2004 and 2010). Meanwhile the prospect of missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in club history seems very real. Chicago went all out for one last year with the veteran core of C.J. Brown, Brian McBride, John Thorrington, and Wilman Conde. That didn't work.
Now a total rebuilding of the roster (over half the roster is new to wearing Fire red) is struggling out of the box. It's always tough to face failure but Fire fans have experienced two different kinds of roster failure in one year when fans are use to competing at the top of the league year in and year out. Patience is wearing thin and it's really too bad.
The front office has made some great moves bringing in productive players on the cheap (top goal-scorer Diego Chaves makes $45,000). I think by the time the summer transfer window opens up, there will only be a couple of holes in the Starting XI. There should be enough salary budget left to make a high impact move or two with an eye towards 2012 and 2013. It's possible the team might even make a late playoff run. It doesn't hurt that 10 teams out of 18 make the playoffs this year. That game plan doesn't soothe the fiercest critics because it sounds too much like last year's moves of picking up Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg in July. Either way, I'm sure you would agree it is a bit of a mess and no one likes an unfinished product especially those used to wrapped packages with bows on top.
More from Tweed and then I answer his questions about TFC after the jump
WTR: What kind of formation will we see from Chicago, and who are the dangermen to look out for?
HTIOT: Coach Carlos de los Cobos will be putting out a 4-1-4-1. My best guess for the Starting XI is Jon Conway; Jalil Anibaba, Cory Gibbs, Josip Mikulic, Gonzalo Segares; Daniel Paladini; Dominic Oduro, Corben Bone, Gaston Puerari, Marco Pappa; Diego Chaves.
Chaves and Pappa are by far the most dangerous men who will wear the Fire badge on Saturday. If Pappa has the ball anywhere near the box, there's a good chance he'll find a way to score. He is prone to mistakes and turning the ball over by trying to force his way through a defensive crowd but sometimes he has the power and speed to get the job done. Bulls do occasionally leave china shops with everything remaining intact.
Chaves has more of a finesse approach sneaking behind defenders or using his teammates to create give and gos. If Pappa makes it long and drawn out, Chaves will make it so you don't even realize what just happened. Gaston Puerari and Dominic Oduro each have a goal on the season and are bound to make a run or two that make you sweat. You don't need to worry as much though. Fire fans will be sweating just as much wondering if either will actually score as they have more epic misses than shots on goal.
WTR: Which of the new players brought in for this season have impressed the most, and which ones have disappointed?
HTIOT: I think you understand by now that Diego Chaves has impressed this year. Josip Mikulic is playing a much bigger role on defense than I anticipated he would. For what it's worth, the team is 1-1-4 with 7 goals against with Mikulic in the lineup and it is 0-2-0 with 6 goals against with Mikulic out of the lineup. Cory Gibbs and Yamith Cuesta have looked good in defense when healthy. Gaston Puerari and Dominic Oduro are making more solid contributions on offense than what fans were expecting.
Jalil Anibaba started out being the weakest link in the starting lineup but he has improved with every game. As I have often said this year, I had unfairly high expectations for Anibaba. I should probably be more disappointed in how high my expectations were for a rookie than anything else. Marko Maric is the highest paid player on the team and he has been constantly injured. He came on as a sub against Portland only to have to be subbed out 18 minutes later. Did I mention he hasn't been on the field since and he is now officially on the disabled list? Highest paid player ($200,000) and cost two substitutions in a game where we were down by one goal with under ten minutes to go? That's the Least Valuable Player of the year right there.
Overall I think Chicago has the right players on the roster to be building towards a successful team. It certainly isn't there yet and we are a couple of dominoes falling in and out of place to be a threat week in and week out. Toronto FC would be wise to take advantage of that on Saturday night but don't rule out things clicking into place for the Fire. I would love to see Chicago get some revenge for last year's 4-1 shellacking at BMO Field.
And the other way round
HTIOT. Which players have benefited from the departure of Dwayne De Rosario the most? Which players have seen their fortunes plummet now that De Rosario is gone?
WTR: Would it be facetious to say Luke Rodgers? Yes? OK then. It's difficult to say who's benefited as there's been no one who's really stepped up and filled the gap he left, though eventually the team as a whole will hopefully work better without him as he had a very big influence, and not always for the better. Taking into account off the pitch stuff, I'll say Julian de Guzman, as there was always a lot of tension over De Guzman being a DP and De Rosario wanting to be a DP, so De Ro leaving has reduced that tension, and taken some of the pressure off, and De Guzman has responded with probably his best play in a TFC strip so far this season.
Whose fortunes have plummeted? In a strange way, I'll say Alan Gordon. They only played once together and Gordon's done very well for us since the trade, but his strength is as a target man, and using his movement to create holes for his fellow forwards and midfielders to exploit. I can't help but think De Ro would have worked very well with him and scored plenty of goals, as it is, there's no-one else who's really been able to take advantage of his play.
HTIOT. Joao Plata was last week's MLS player of the week. Was this just a flash in the pan or do you see a bright future for the MLS rookie?
WTR: A month or so ago, people were asking if Javier Martina was for real after a two goal game against Portland, he's already found his way into Aron Winter's bad books and to the bench, so anything can happen. I do see a bright future for Plata, but like any flair player, he's going to have his ups and downs. His size is obviously an issue, especially when he gets the ball with defenders playing him tight, but if he drops a bit deeper to pick up the ball with room to run at the defence, look out. As much as I hate to say this, probably the best thing for his career would be to learn the dark arts of diving and drawing fouls in order to get the space he needs to work his magic. One thing that's clear though, his teammates love him. There's an affectionate mascot/little brother vibe to how happy they were for him when he scored his first goal last week.
HTIOT: Toronto FC is playing on short rest thanks to Wednesday's game against FC Dallas. How much of the usual starting XI started on Wednesday? What changes might happen to the lineup or formation on Saturday as a result?
WTR: TFC has been going Saturday/Wednesday/Saturday for weeks now, Saturday's game will be the 7th in 22 days. It doesn't get easier either as we have two more weeks of that before finally getting a midweek break in June. Given how League success is unlikely this year, this coming Wednesday's game in Vancouver, the first leg of the Canadian Championship final, with Champions league qualifying on the line as well as national pride, is probably going to be the most important game of the season. That means there's a very good chance there'll be some squad rotation going on.
The formation seems set as 4-3-3, and the last few games that's been more of a 4-1-2-3, which I'd expect to see continue. It's difficult to say exactly what the first XI actually is, we haven't played the same lineup in consecutive games all season. I'd expect to see the same defensive lineup as Wednesday night, but there could well be changes up front. Maicon Santos and Javier Martina have been dropped from the starting lineup for the last two games, but could well be back on Saturday. If I was going to guess any change it would be Santos coming in at the Centre Forward position.
Either Jacob Peterson or Tony Tchani could get rested in midfield with rookies Oscar Cordon or Matt Gold as the likely replacements. The only one of the forwards or atttacking midfielders I'd put money on playing right now is Plata, he was subbed off in the 49th minute, and with the energy, momentum and feel good factor he currently has on his side, I'd be stunned to see him not start at Left Wing.