We exchange three questions with Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart in order to get some insider perspective on the Seattle Sounders as the Chicago Fire head to Qwest Field this Saturday. Dave's answer to my first question is below and the other five questions in the exchange are after the break.
Hot Time In Old Town asks Sounder at Heart
1. With the sudden retirement of Blaise Nkufo and the injury to Fredy Montero, which players are stepping up to fill the forward positions? Would you describe them as permanent solutions, stop gaps or something in between?
Have you looked at this team's scoring? The easy position would be that no one is stepping up at this time. This is also way too simple for me. Seattle two months ago was assumed to be pretty deep - Nate Jaqua, O'Brian White and Mike Fucito were supposed to provide some offensive punch up top. Except that two of of them have been hurt, and the other is O'Brian White who was supposed to be the third man in his role. Now as the starter we are seeing someone who is pretty raw.
The wings were supposed to add offense too. Steve Zakuani was also hurt to start, and lacked that punch that he normally has until the last two games. On the right Seattle has had a revolving door with designated player Alvaro Fernandez looking like a center mid who wants to be on the right. Erik Friberg is providing some service and nice footwork, but is not a direct threat. Mauro Rosales is a right mid by trade but will probably start in Montero's space as a withdrawn forward.
I don't know that I miss anything from 2009 besides the sense of "new" which wasn't really new. In general the club has responded to concerns of fans and supporters alike. Probably the greatest improvement would be that at each match the average fan is more knowledgable of the league. While the sport has always been popular here, attention to MLS used to lack.
That is no longer the case. It is quite rare now when an opposing lineup is shown and the players are unknowns. "Who are you" is merely a taunt, not a question.
3. Whenever I pop into Sounder at Heart it seems like there is a mention of Mike Fucito. His four goals in 9 appearances in all-competitions last year is impressive. It seems like he would get more playing time even as a late sub. Is he a 'tweener' where he would dominate lower levels of American soccer but can't crack it in the MLS? What's all the buzz about?
The Buzz about Fucito? Let's see, it started in '09 when in scrimmages and reserve matches all Fucito did was score, and score, and score. Against the likes of '09 Hurtado/Marshall/Keller, he scored. Against local PDL and college sides, he scored. But he didn't play, as he was parked on the injured list. In '10 his promise became more well-known. He was seen as that late sub to provide spark. Against KC, at home he did that firing in a well-placed gamewinner with a greatly injured knee. Sounders fans wouldn't see Fucito for months as he attempted to come-back from the oddest injury I have ever seen.
He was sprinkled into a few league games as a sub, but his first start for Seattle was in Mexico, against now CCL Finalist Monterey. He put 2 on goal, 2 wound up in the net, one as an own goal. Seattle went to the break up 2-nil in Mexico. He started again when Seattle hosted Marathon, he scored twice. Went down to Honduras later, and again scored.
Fucito is everything that is great about soccer. At 5'6ish, he has a frame like a sparkplug. But with explosive speed like Zakuani. He is the kind of forward that enjoys harrassing the opposing defense forcing poor passes, or just picking the ball up off of their feet. He wins headers through great positioning, timing and solid vertical. And his shots, they are on frame. He is a scorer.
He is also recovering from an injury, and so Chicago is highly unlikely to face someone who would come on in the 70th minute and score a goal or two. It will be the Union that have to face that.
Sounder at Heart asks Hot Time In Old Town
1. The Fire seem to be following the traditional American sports rebuild going with youth from within (this may be colored by the keeper situation) rather than the splashy foreign hires. If last year was year one, and this is year two with a shot at playoffs does CdlC get to year three?
The traditional American sports rebuild typically involves not just going young but actively trading and releasing veterans. C.J. Brown and Brian McBride retired. Freddie Ljungberg and Wilman Conde left the team in a way that suggested they did not want to come back. The team did leave John Thorrington and Peter Lowry unprotected in the expansion draft but they weren't actively shopped. The situations of Krzysztof Krol and Collins John are a little more up in the air but those 8 players added up to around 10,000 minutes of MLS regular season playing in 2010 that needed to be replaced.
In the traditional sense of a rebuild, the core of the Chicago Fire has become Marco Pappa (23), Patrick Nyarko (25), and Sean Johnson (21). This is Marco Pappa's team to take over. The 3-5-2 system is being implemented in large part to create more opportunities for him to get in the middle of the field and wreck havoc. He isn't playing second fiddle to Brian McBride or Freddie Ljungberg. So far he is responding well and it is really encouraging. Patrick Nyarko plays a more than worthy sidekick on the right wing. Nyarko's game involves breaking down defenses with his touch, speed, and dribbling abilities. He cannot shot from distance but his other qualities are complimentary to Pappa's where they create a great combo to build from. Sean Johnson is the USMNT prospect with the sky being the limit. I would like to see Chicago keep these three for several years to come.
That doesn't tell the whole story for the Starting XI though. Logan Pause and Gonzalo Segares were on the 2006 U.S. Open Cup Championship team. Pause is the team captain and Segares is playing an important swing role that covers Pappa as he drifts in the center of the field in the 3-5-2. Cory Gibbs was picked up in the re-entry draft. Pause, Segares, and Gibbs are all around 30 years old or older. Diego Chaves, Josip Mikulic, and Gaston Puerari may not have been ‘splashy' foreign hires but they are players that were brought in from outside of the United States and have played to great reviews so far.
If the Chicago Fire don't make at least the No. 9 or No. 10 playoff seed, I would think that Carlos de los Cobos gets fired at the end of the season. The team has a good core of talent. There are so many bumps to figure out and depth to be tested that I don't expect a top 5 finish but given the weakness of other MLS teams and the talent that is on this Fire roster, it would be a spectacular disaster if the Fire aren't competitive in most games. If this team stalls, Carlos de los Cobos would have failed with a veteran team and a young team. I'm not sure what the rationale for keeping him on would be.
2. Chicago played a competitive match in Peoria for Open Cup qualifying. Is this part of a larger concerted effort to expand interest beyond Chicagoland?
I would like to say yes but nothing in the comments from ownership and team representatives suggest that. When asked about not hosting the game at Toyota Park, everyone from owner Andrew Hauptman down cited the cost of opening the home field. Team officials openly said they were looking at different locations around Chicago and they were looking for the right deal. It's easy to slam them for not playing at home but it is hard to sell tickets to outdoor events in Chicago in late March/early April let alone on a short time frame for a game on a mid-week night.
If the team was serious about expanding interest beyond Chicagoland, I think they should have taken the game to Milwaukee. The Milwaukee metro area has about 1.5M people and can be reached in an hour and a half by train. If the team wanted to be really aggressive, they could have even taken the game to Indianapolis (1.7M metro population) or St. Louis (2.8M metro population). Going out that far is planting seeds way down the line when MLS is on national TV more often, would those seeds even still be there by then? You might also get some Crew fans in Indianapolis or some Kansas City fans in St. Louis but if a relationship was built where Chicago played their early USOC games and a couple of exhibitions every year in one of those three cities, I think the Fire could expand regionally. The game at Shea Stadium was all cost though. Peoria has around 100,000 people and most Peorians root for Chicago teams anyway.
3. The group of forwards isn't the most well-known. Are they going to be able to score enough? Yes, the big names here aren't scoring either.
You say ‘either' like you are trying to bring Gaston Puerari and Diego Chaves down to your non-scoring level... It's so far, so good in Chicago. Puerari and Chaves have two goals each between the two MLS games and the USOC game in Peoria. They have looked very dangerous and had good chances to add even more to their total. However, you did bring up good points in a brief chat prior to the three question exchange. Puerari had a somewhat low goal rate before coming to Chicago. Chaves has bounced around the last two years.
I don't know everything that happened with their teams before but both players are hard workers and positive influences in the clubhouse. I don't think they will quit on the team if they aren't getting enough attention and they didn't come to Chicago with bad attitude labels. You can see the pure talent and technique they display. The main questions are if they have the stamina to make it through the grueling 34 game regular season schedule and if they can be scouted well enough to the point they can be ineffective. Time will tell but I remain optimistic they both will score around 10 goals each with Chaves scoring more.
The last piece in this puzzle again comes back to Marco Pappa. While many fans and analysts including myself cite the 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 formation, if you listen to people on the inside like team writer Jeff Crandall, you'll catch them referring to a 3-4-3. At times I see that on the field because Marco Pappa will move up so far in the center, he might as well be another forward. I do get the sense that a 3-4-3 is where the team is ultimately headed but we need more depth on the left before that happens full time. The Fire are too thin after Gonzalo Segares and Cory Gibbs and I've already cited those players ages. I wouldn't be surprised to see a splash in the transfer market this summer so Pappa can fully take on the forward role.