Waking The Red: Frank Yallop's first year seems a little underwhelming. Is there much faith among Fire fans that he knows what he's doing and the club should stick with him and things will get better?
Hot Time In Old Time: There's a potent stew of dissatisfaction among the supporter base, but it's tempered by the realization that the early-season happy-talk about "being a tweak or two away" was just that. Everyone acknowledges that the salary-cap situation was a disaster coming into 2014 (although the club's characteristic lack of transparency makes this more of a case of 'trust us' than is comfortable). Much of the work in the preseason was an attempt to shore up the defense while leaving the offense alone, and it hasn't worked out - witness the Hurtado-for-allocation trade with Chivas USA for proof of the death of that idea. It's clear now that the roster is due for a thorough overhaul, and with fewer contractual and cap tangles to unsnarl, the offseason should be interesting indeed.
There's also the feeling that changing coaches at the first sign of floundering is exactly what terrible teams do. Expect to see Yallop and Bliss wearing the Fire badge at least through 2015, barring a team-wide meltdown of epic proportions (like, say, losing 10 of the first 12 or something). This is a club with a long road back to respectability, and changing directions constantly virtually guarantees covering the same sad ground again and again.
WTR: A lot of new attacking players have been added recently, Earnshaw, Cocis, Sinima Pongolle (will he be available for this game?). Are they seen as long term additions, and what does it mean for the prospects of Quincy Amarikwa, or Harry Shipp?
HTIOT: The two strikers you mention - Robert Earnshaw and Florent Sinama-Pongolle - are almost certainly playing for a contract in 2015. The Fire's striking options (especially with Mike Magee out for the remainder of the year) are so very thin that the team needs help right now as well as going forward; they'll have a chance to prove they belong in these final eight games. I doubt that their presence means much of anything for Quincy Amarikwa, who has matured into a decent squad player in 2014.
Cocis is an interesting question; he was billed as an attacking midfielder when he was acquired, but he plays more like a clever box-to-box midfielder with the Fire. It seems likely that Cocis and Shipp could play alongside each other quite amiably, as they're very different players. A great deal hinges upon what shape Yallop and the staff settle upon as their preferred one. Shipp has struggled with defensive positioning when placed on the wing, in large part because his offensive game requires him to roam to find space. Played in the middle with two responsible, intelligent midfielders behind him, he would be spared a great deal of that responsibility. Like everything with this team, label it 'under construction.'
WTR: So, Jermaine Jones. How are Fire supporters feeling about that whole process? Will that big money be available for other future potential signings?
HTIOT: I think I speak for essentially everyone that we're feeling screwed over by the 'process,' if you can call a coin-flip made up on the spur of the moment and adjudicated behind closed doors a process. There's been a lot of frustration with the club's failure to spend the kind of big money on prominent players that we see everyone else acquiring; that said, Toronto's situation spells out in no uncertain terms the fact that spending a huge amount of money on a few marquee players is no guarantee of success in MLS.
My feeling is that Yallop and Bliss know that depth and consistency are more important in the league than the talent of the best players on the squad, and will prioritize that first. I'd guess that we will see a lot of roster churn in the offseason, looking for depth and solidity (and neccessarily, in a double-expansion-draft year); should that seem accomplished, they'll try to add the last bit of quality for the stretch run in June/July. This offseason is hugely important for this front office. If they can't find the right balance, it's doubtful a DP would help much.
WTR: Lineup and score prediction.
HTIOT: Magee is out for the season, and Earnshaw is still hurting. Sinama-Pongolle is in France to get his P-1 visa, and won't be back in time. This leaves the Fire playing a 4-4-1-1. The question is, will Frank play the kids? I haven't predicted many changes, but it's possible that guys like Chris Ritter, Greg Cochrane and Benji Joya will get a chance to grow over these last eight games. If I'm wrong about many of these predictions, that's the direction the wrongness could take.
Predicted lineup (4-4-1-1): Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Jeff Larentowicz (c), Lovel Palmer; Sanna Nyassi, Razvan Cocis, Matt Watson, Patrick Nyarko; Harry Shipp; Quincy Amarikwa.
Score prediction: The Fire stay compact and frustrate an already-frustrated TFC. Shipp and Nyarko combine to cause problems. 2-0, Chicago, as Toronto remains winless in the Windy City.
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HTIOT: Clearly, the plan to dominate the Eastern Conference hasn't worked out for Toronto, despite spending great gobs of money on players in the offseason. What kind of finish will it take for the Reds long-suffering supporters to feel good about 2014?
WTR: Yeah, it's all fizzled out remarkably quickly really, TFC have screwed with their fans in many many ways since they started up, this stoking of crazy thoughts of ambitions and hope before the big letdown was certainly a new one.
At this stage, with the grand architect of it all Tim Leiweke leaving soon (and who knows how the new expanded bmo field is going to end up looking without someone in charge who seems to actually understand soccer), yet another coaching change, and not for someone established but for yet another rookie coach, and with Jermain Defoe looking to get out as soon as he can, there's a very jaded and bitter feel around the club.
Given that, I think even if TFC were to get themselves together and stumble into the playoffs, that wouldn't be enough given the expectations going in. For myself at least, it would need some winning in the playoffs, let's say reaching the conference finals as a minimum, combined with some good moves in the off season to improve the squad to make me feel good about 2014. Failing that, let's fail bad enough that the new guy gets fired and this year's big off season splash can be an experienced Coach, one with a history of success. We've tried everything else so far.
HTIOT: Whither Ashtone Morgan? Is his lack of playing time a case of the manager(s) not trusting younger players, or is there some other issue with the TFC homegrown?
WTR: It's a good question really as his fall out of favour has been quite comprehensive. It wasn't about Ryan Nelsen not trusting young players, Doneil Henry and Jonathan Osorio have continued to get a lot of playing time so he wasn't bothered by age, he just didn't like his game, or his attitude, who knows really?
It was last season, under Nelsen that people first started to worry about Morgan as his defensive shortcomings showed up more and more, without the balance that his attacking instincts provided in previous seasons as he wasn't asked to get forward quite as much. In mid season Kevin Payne signed Jonas Elmer and the competition seemed to improve his game and Morgan kept his place with Elmer going back to Europe without ever really playing. Still, almost everyone agreed left back was a position that needed an upgrade and no-one was surprised when Justin Morrow claimed the starting spot, and his play certainly meant he should keep it. We didn't see Morgan at all, but that was understandable given Morrow's play, and a criticism of Nelsen is that he wasn't good at rotating the squad and giving the backups the odd game here and there, so Morgan not playing didn't seem odd.
Then Morrow got injured and rather than simply replace him with Morgan, the entire defence was shuffled around, with right back Mark Bloom playing on the left, Morgan not even on the bench. A mystifying omission, though reporters who watch him in training were much less surprised than the regular fan. He did get into the team under Greg Vanney, but was sent off in his first game back and missed the last game against Philadelphia. Justin Morrow seems to be getting close to healthy so we may not see Morgan again this season and I'd expect him to be expansion draft bait and then cut at the end of the year. Hopefully he ends up somewhere where he can get regular playing time, mainly for Canada's sake, we need all the options we can get.
HTIOT: You are Michael Bradley's agent - or better yet, his father - and you've been given a one-use time machine which will return you to January 1, 2014. With Bradley's career arc in mind, do you take the huge money and go to Toronto, or do you follow Juergen Klinsmann's dictate and look for a gig in a top five league?
WTR: Oooohh, I'm Bob Bradley, that sounds exciting. I'd be looking for a few things here, first and foremost regular playing time as that wasn't really happening at Roma. Below that, there's other factors to consider.
Level of competition would also be important, ideally staying in a big league would be good, but whether any club in one of the top leagues would be able to guarantee that regular playing time is probably a big question mark and given where he ended up, I'm guessing Bradley probably looked into that option and couldn't find it.
Determining that a move to MLS wouldn't drastically affect his USMNT hopes would also be important, and that obviously didn't turn out to be a problem.
Cash. Bradley's obviously already wealthy but still, the chance to make a massive pay cheque can't be sniffed at, throw in quality of life issues there as well, the chance to move back to North America if that's important to him.
Weigh all those things and come to the best decision, and I (Bob Bradley) would support him in a proper fatherly fashion whatever his decision.
But then you add in the fact that I'm coming back from the future and have a lot of hindsight and all of a sudden you have a new number one consideration: Don't listen to that smoothtalker Leiweke, whatever you decide, ignore TFC. See what other clubs in MLS might be willing to offer you, then decide if it's worth it to leave the bigger leagues, but first and foremost, avoid that mess in Toronto at all costs.
HTIOT: We usually end with a potential starting XI and a score prediction.
WTR: Injuries and suspensions, especially in defence, make this a crapshoot, but I'll go with this. right to left. Joe Bendik; Mark Bloom, Nick Hagglund, Bradley Orr, Justin Morrow; Dominic Oduro, Michael Bradley, Kyle Bekker, Dwayne de Rosario; Luke Moore, Gilberto. And I'll go with 2-0 to Chicago.
Many thanks to Sean, be sure to check out Hot Time In Old Town for the Chicago view of the game.