Waking The Red: Chicago just really haven't got going at all this year, why is that, and is there any hope among the fans that the season can be redeemed and a playoff run be made?
Hot Time In Old Town: It's a combination of things. Frank Yallop really turned the roster over in the offseason, focussing on revamping a moribund defensive unit; those changes haven't worked, in large part. The offense has been hamstrung by the continuing struggles of sorta-DP Juan Luis Anangonó as well as Mike Magee's stop-start early season. The team worked ceaselessly on changing to a high pressing, compact 4-1-4-1 squad, only to revert back to 4-4-2 upon the commencement of league play. 2014 is playing out as Yallop's 'gimme;' he's sorting the players and the tactics out slowly over time.
All of this is witheringly frustrating for a fanbase starved for success, especially as the club gives its supporters just about zero idea what the actual plan is going forward. We're a decent team, not a terrible one. The fans (this one included) are starting to realize that the Open Cup is once again our only chance for some hardware.
WTR: Quincy Amarikwa and Harrison Shipp are both tied for top goalscorer. Which of them is more likely to keep it going throughout the season?
HTIOT: Amarikwa's game is predicated upon his prominent athletic attributes - surprising strength and balance, and a willingness to grind for 90 minutes game-in and game-out. It's hard to imagine that he can continue to approach every start with the kind of kamikaze passion he's showed so far. Shipp, on the other hand, is growing into his game and into the league in a really beautiful way. He's consistently dangerous, both during the run of play and on his immaculate set pieces. The smart money says Shipp winds up winning this notional competition.
WTR: The Fire are at least doing well in the U.S Open Cup this year. Is that a priority for the club, Would a season like DC United had last year, struggling in the league but winning the cup be considered a success?
HTIOT: We don't make "Kings of the Cup" tifo ironically - the Open Cup is very important to the Fire, who have won it four times since '98. That said, there's no way CF97 supporters would be satisfied winning the Open Cup while playing like trash in the league. If the alternative is creating localized vacuums in both competitions, of course, we'd take some success over none whatsoever.
Starting XI prediction: (4-5-1) Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Patrick Ianni, Lovel Palmer; Dilly Duka, Alex, Harrison Shipp, Jeff Larentowicz, Grant Ward; Quincy Amarikwa.
The Fire are mum on whether Magee will be available this evening; his absence, and that of winger Patrick Nyarko (knee surgery), mean that Shipp will again be asked to provide all the ideas going forward. Alex has slowly been coming back into fitness; expect to see him in the middle with Jeff Larentowicz, whose wife hopefully times the arrival of their first child for, say, Thursday evening. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado is a huge miss in the center of defense; without his able coverage, the Fire's defensive woes would have been much worse. I have Amarikwa starting and Anangonó on the bench; either could start as a lone striker, or they could line up alongside each other in the execrable 'two target men' lineup made popular by Yallop's San Jose 'Goonies' squad.
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HTIOT: The Reds starting midfield for their last game was Oduro, Osorio, Warner, Jackson, which seems a bit light on folks interested in tackling or managing space - Oduro and Jackson are attacking wingers, and Osorio's a playmaking type. (Obviously, the loss of Michael Bradley to the World Cup affects these things.) Is this kind of lineup an ordinary thing under Ryan Nelsen, or are there other factors in play here?
WTR: Until Bradley gets back, I'd look at that as very much our first choice midfield and formation, though with two games this week rotation might mean it gets changed around a bit for Wednesday's game. Two wide midfielders/wingers has always been part of that for Ryan Nelsen, it's never quite worked out perfectly, the recently acquired Oduro is the latest attempt to find the right fit. Collen Warner isn't a particularly sexy name but he may well be the most important part of the midfield as TFC have lacked a proper defensively focused player to anchor the midfield since having to give up on somehow finding a way to keep Matias Laba. He's looked better than expected so far and does that whole tackling and managing space thing you mention quite well as well as keeping possession ticking over quickly enough for the more creative attack minded midfielders to be dangerous. Add in Bradley's box to box intercepting tackling and passing skills and that should be a very decent central partnership by MLS standards.
The one time this particular foursome have played together was Friday against new York and it looked very good for most of the game. There was a lot more possession than we've become used to this season, and in more meaningful and dangerous places, quicker and with more attacking intent. Perhaps that shows the benefit of a few weeks of training without games getting in the way, or perhaps it's the benefit of not having Kyle Bekker be the man everything's running through and slowing it all down, maybe it was just taking advantage of a poor undermanned New York midfield.
HTIOT: What's the deal with Gilberto? Is it form (a short-run problem) or quality (a long-run problem)?
WTR: Well that's a very good question and the jury's still very much out on this one. He's had a nagging hip flexor injury he's been carrying through the season which hasn't helped, but he's been unconvincing. So far the mockery of his lack of goalscoring has remained gentle and friendly rather than hateful and everyone wants him to succeed, there was a lot of happiness when he finally got his first goal. It wasn't just that it was a good goal, or that it gave Toronto the lead, or the rather hilarious pre goal argument with Jermain Defoe and fun post goal celebrations, it was the fact that it was Gilberto that scored that caused a huge amount of relief.
He's clearly a skillful player and has done plenty of good things, so you can argue that it's merely a goalscoring form thing, though you could also argue that that is just people not wanting to admit he's failing and looking for any positive they can find to try and convince themselves it's not a dud signing. It's a pattern that's played out many times before with forwards who don't score enough, some TFC fans have taken to calling him GilBarretto (I prefer 'Ol' Gil' as a derisive nickname) though I'd say the more obvious comparison is Pablo Vitti back in 2009, an Argentinian who looked very good but just couldn't score. A lot of people are bringing out the 'once he scores one, he'll score plenty' cliche as another article of faith to convince themselves with, now he has actually scored we'll get to see if that's right. If he can play the same as he has so far and add in the goals, well that'll be not a bad signing at all. My instinct is that he'll never quite do enough to be considered a success and management will find a way to get rid of him at the end of the season to make room for a different DP signing. Hopefully I'm wrong.
HTIOT: Is Doneil Henry growing into the starting role?
WTR: Absolutely he is, though it's still very much an ongoing process. He's still only 21 and he has over 50 appearances over the last 4 seasons with TFC and if you focus on the positives he's a very bright prospect who could be a top end MLS defender, or be good enough to earn himself a transfer overseas and should be the rock Canada build it's defence around for a decade. Look at defensive stats and he's right up there near the top of the entire league in many ways, watch him during the game and you can see why, he's got the height and build and the aggressive attitude to be dominant in the air, and the speed to be an effective last man, keep up with forwards and make recovering tackles. Add in the goal threat he brings from set pieces and he's the complete centre back package.
But you can't ignore the negatives, currently there's mistakes that happen way too often, whether it's a misplaced pass out of defence, a clumsy tackle, or an error in judgement as to whether to commit to a tackle or just maintain position. the aggression that helps him to do good things sometimes leads to very very bad things. He leads the team in fouls committed, way ahead of the other defenders, and has conceded 3 penalties already this season. If key turnovers was a stat similar to key passes, he'd be very very high in that as well.
As noted though, he's only 21 and is still learning, the down side to his game is very much the mental side of things, judgement, the sort of knowledge that only experience can bring. Having Ryan Nelsen as his coach and Steven Caldwell alongside him can only help with that. He's going to be a very very good centre back. Right now, he's a very good centre back with random and often crucial lapses. It's all very Titus Bramble.
Predicted starting xi? Both Defoe and Gilberto looked like they picked up minor injuries at the end of the last game, and there's a game on Saturday so there might be rotation to deal with, but I'll guess at an unchanged lineup, as follows, right to left.
Joe Bendik; Mark Bloom, Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry, Justin Morrow; Dominic Oduro, Jonathan Osorio, Collen Warner, Jackson; Jermain Defoe, Luke Moore.
Thanks to Sean, and be sure to check out HTIOT for the Chicago view of the game.