BRIDGEVIEW, IL - JUNE 17: Fans of the Chicago Fire unfurl a banner after the Fire score a goal against the New York Red Bulls during an MLS match at Toyota Park on June 17, 2012 in Bridgeview, Illinois. The Fire defeated the Red Bulls 3-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
It's time for another iteration of 3 questions ahead of our noon matchup Wednesday at New York. The format you all know and love is back with questions being exchanged by both parties. I spent a bit of time talking to Dan Ferris over at the Red Bulls SB Nation Blog, Once A Metro. Chicago will be coming into the match riding a 3-1 thumping of New York on June 17th at Toyota Park. While an identical scoreline would send every Fire fan into a frenzy, I think things will be a bit tougher this time around on the road. New York just added yet another scoring weapon in Sebastien Le Toux to make their forward corps even scarier than it already was.
Although the noon kickoff on a Wednesday is a unique one, the game has huge ramifications on the Eastern Conference standings. A win could propel the Fire into second place in the standings as we have a chance to leap frog both New York and DC United, who don't play another match until July 21st. Things are looking up after a hard fought 1-0 victory against Vancouver. The defense is going to need to be in top form to try to shut down a strong Red Bull attack.
As usual, first question in the exchange is below, and the rest appears after the break. Enjoy.
Hot Time In Old Town Asks Once A Metro
1. This first questions seems a bit obvious: talk about the big trade that just went down, with New York sending Dane Richards and allocation money to Vancouver for Sebastien Le Toux. Do you think that Le Toux will fit in well with the current NY team (it seemed like he never settled in with the Whitecaps)? Richards seemed to be an odd man out in New York, but what do you think his loss means for the team? Looking back at this trade at the end of the season, do you think it will be a success, failure, or a bit of both? (via Ryan Sealock)
I'm glad the trade happened earlier than later as it gives both players some time to adjust to their new clubs and be ready to contribute down the stretch if not immediately. We saw with Dwayne De Rosario that these "mercenary" experimental players on expiring contracts don't always pan out, but it's clear that Le Toux is a more versatile player than Richards, albeit slower, so there will be plenty of opportunities for him to find his role either on the wing or up top at forward.
By the end of the year, it's hard to see the trade being a "failure" as long as Le Toux doesn't break his leg this week. The Red Bulls had extra depth at midfield but needed some more options at forward if they want to make a serious run for the Cup and/or Supporters Shield. Le Toux can play in either role while Richards struggled whenever he was plugged in at forward. And since both have expiring contracts, it's nice to see the Red Bulls looking to improve and add versatility to their roster in a low risk, high reward kind of way.
2. The forward corps for the Red Bulls seem to be very stacked with Le Toux coming in. Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper have both shown a proclivity at scoring lots of goals. With Le Toux now in the mix it seems like a crowded picture. It's good for depth, but how will Hans Backe handle the forward rotation? Do you think the play of the team might take on a bit of a different look with the addition of Le Toux? (via Ryan Sealock)
Backe first tried going with a 4-4-2 diamond to start Sunday's match against Seattle with Cooper and Le Toux up top and Henry in the attacking midfield role. That changed after twenty minutes to Henry up top and Le Toux on the right and, coincidentally or not, he scored his first goal as a Red Bull on a rebounded Kenny Cooper shot just a few minutes later.
The Red Bulls forward corps is actually now right where it should be. Before Le Toux the team only had two options in Cooper and Henry who have played well together but Cooper has struggled in a lone striker role while Henry has missed significant time with lingering hamstring and calf injuries. Henry also does not play on turf, so it's difficult to say what the Red Bulls ideal starting eleven would be since I can't remember the last time the team was at full strength for a game. Backe seems uninterested in running a 4-4-3 so it seems like the most likely full strength starting 11 could look like Henry and Cooper up top, Le Toux, McCarthy, Marquez, and Lindpere in the midfield, and Barklage, Holgersson, Conde, and Pearce across the back line. That still leaves a lot of capable players as options off the bench (when healthy) such as Jan Gunnar Solli, Teemu Tainio, Roy Miller, and rookie Connor Lade.
As far as the team's approach, having Le Toux instead of Richards on the right side means less speed, fewer passes over the top, and a more possession focused approach to the attack. Richards was basically useless on set pieces, so Le Toux will hopefully help the team improve their finishing off the high number of corners and free kicks in dangerous locations the team tends to draw.
3. Give me a scouting report on Ryan Meara. I suspected he might be a bit of a flash in the pan, but he has kept up his stellar play all year so far. Do you think he is for real or is the jury still out a bit? What are some strengths of his game? Weaknesses? Do you think he is part of the long term plan for the club at the keeper position? (via Ryan Sealock)
Meara is currently day-to-day with a minor hip injury but that aside he has been tremendous for the team. I don't think the jury is out that he is a quality goalkeeper, the Ireland U-21 national team tried to call him up and he has received interest at the club level from Europe as well, but how high his ceiling is remains to be seen. His strengths are his size and athleticism, his distribution and vision which are particularly impressive for such a young keeper, and his judgment when to come off his line and when to stay put. His biggest current weakness is keeping his defense organized, but considering how much change the back line goes through week to week that can't be entirely pinned on him. Without a doubt, with a lesser keeper New York would be a good 7-10 points lower in the standings than they are now.
On the roster management side of things, Meara is an absolute steal. New York was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton last year before bringing in a designated player goalkeeper in the second half of the season to shore up the position. Now their starting keeper is only costing them $32,000 against the cap. He has received nothing but praise from the team's management so if Hans Backe and Erik Soler stick around I would expect to see a lot more Ryan Meara in the future.
Bonus Question: The Fire recently defeated New York 3-1 at Toyota Park. How do you think this game will differ from the earlier Fire win? What sort of tactics or strategies will New York employ that might differ from the last matchup? (via Ryan Sealock)
Something about this team on the road against Eastern Conference opponents this year... three ugly losses at Chicago, New England, and DC have all had the same feel to them. Despite it being an odd weekday matinee with turnout a big question mark, playing at home will still be an advantage for the Red Bulls. Their best hope is to score first and defend like crazy and grab a second off a counter attack or set piece. This will be a tough task considering their last clean sheet in league play was way back in May against a struggling Houston Dynamo.
For their last match-up with Chicago, New York lined up in a 4-4-2 with Dane Richards up top and Heath Pearce in the midfield because of an excess of injuries, so I imagine the approach will be a bit more attacking but just having more players in their ideal positions will help. The other consideration is the team played Sunday afternoon and have another home match on Saturday against Philadelphia, which is being billed by the Red Bulls front office as its nationally televised "rivalry match," so I will be surprised if Thierry Henry plays the entire match on Wednesday, if he plays at all.
Score Prediction: 1-1 with first half goals coming from Kenny Cooper and Dominic Oduro
Once A Metro Asks Hot Time In Old Town
1) The Fire are currently 1 point behind New York in the Eastern Conference standings. How did that happen? We talked just a month ago and the gap between the two seemed a lot wider.
The Fire have been playing pretty well lately except for the recent 2-0 loss at home to LA. We have knocked off some top teams recently, including Vancouver, Sporting KC, Columbus, and New York. We are still having trouble with a lack of consistent scoring, with Dominic Oduro being our only main threat (and a shaky one at that).
To be honest, the defense has probably been the biggest part of our success recently. Sean Johnson has been phenomenal and in the form that had many saying he has the potential to be the next great US goalkeeper. Gonzalo Segares and Dan Gargan have been solid at LB and RB, respectively. Jalil Anibaba is having a good sophomore season, mostly playing CB but also filling in at RB. The big surprise has been rookie Austin Berry. He has broken into the starting lineup and I don't seem him leaving it. He has shown skill and poise beyond his years. I think he will be a legit frontrunner for Rookie of the Year if he keeps up his stellar play. Added together, the defense deserves the most credit for our success lately. Depending on who we bring in before the window closes, we will hopefully be able to slot Chris Rolfe up top behind Oduro to add another scoring threat (as well as any striker we might bring in). Chris has been helping fill the midfield hole recently but is miscast a bit out of position when he does that.
2) Dominic Oduro was in the mix for the golden boot last season but has only scored one goal in his last ten appearances, nine of which he was in the starting lineup. He was caught offsides on a couple of goal scoring opportunities against Vancouver on Saturday night and has an astounding 31 total offsides calls against him just midway through 2012. What's different about his play this year, or is scoring goals a more widespread problem for the Fire (they sure didn't have any issues scoring last month against the Red Bulls!).
As I mentioned in the last question, goal scoring has been a consistent issue for us this year. Oduro still has all the same skills as last year, but since he has been our only real goal scoring threat, defense are starting to lay really deep in front of goal. This cuts out a lot of the long balls he was getting and negates his speed. This is also a big reason for the high number of offside calls too. Although Dom did have a good season last year, he still is prone to conversion issues when he should be scoring a goal. This has cropped up many times when he is in on goal vs. the goalie and ends up kicking it straight to him. Houston cut Dominic because of his scoring issues. While he has been better for us, the issues are still there and he is not that top line striker that can really take us to the top. Fans are getting a bit frustrated as the Front Office has touted that we have the means to go sign a big name player if the fit is right. Instead, at times it seems like we try to do it on the cheap with no names that are a risky acquisition. Clearly the biggest need for the Fire is a top line striker that is a proven goal scorer. Unfortunately lots of teams are looking for the same thing and those types of players never come cheap.
Going back to Dominic, he also seems to be gassed and just plain tired. I think heavy legs is playing a role in his lack of production lately, as well as offside calls too. With Rolfe or another big name up top with him, that will help unlock things again for Dominic. The questions is who that player is and when will they arrive?
3) You can't escape being asked a transfer rumor question since it's that relatively brief midseason period that MLS teams can make major changes to their rosters. Can you run through any additions or departures since the transfer window opened? Any other mumblings about who might be coming or going?
To recap, we lost Sebastian Grazzini due to "family issues". His departure has been labeled "indefinite" but I would be shocked if he ever returns to the Fire. Team sources even stated that his nameplate has been removed from his locker. That doesn't sound like a returning player to me. His loss is massive. If Alex can at least do an admirable job filling that role we should be able to get by IF we get reinforcements up top. Having a good defense has helped but the best teams can score goals when they need to as well. Rafael Robayo is rumored to be heading back to his former club, Millonarios after what can only be called a failed signing. He was expected to come in as a dynamic box to box midfielder, but since he has arrived he has whined and complained at a lack of playing time. When he did get on the pitch, he was unimpressive and just not cutting it. He has made fun of MLS in general, stating he wants a bigger challenge. Fire fans are asking why he is complaining about the league and playing time when he is under-producing in the chances to play he does get. If he can't cut it in MLS how will he be able to cut it in a higher league in Europe? His departure will open a much needed international slot, but it also creates a second midfield hole to fill.
One other player that fans are not happy with is Federico Puppo, who we brought in essentially under DP money. He has been an even bigger flop than Robayo. He is small, so doesn't acclimate well to the physical play of MLS. He has had trouble even getting playing time and, when he does, doesn't show much at all. Most fans want to cut the dead weight but given the amount of money we are paying him that may not be easy or likely. This sort of signing has really incensed the fanbase as I touched on a bit ago. Why spend money like that on unproven commodities (Robayo, Puppo) when we could spend it on a known commodity? From my point of view, it makes more sense to spend a little more (especially when we have the funds) on a known player that can do the job rather than make risky signings that more likely than not won't pan out. For every success story like Sebastian Grazzini that pans out, we lose a lot more on deals like Puppo and Robayo. The Front Office hopefully has this in mind as the window shuts.
The Fire have been scouring the transfer market and have been linked to Sherjill MacDonald of Germinal Beerschot in the Belgian Pro League. Sherjill even tweeted that he was coming to Chicago, but those tweets have mysteriously stopped the past week or so. He needs an international slot open for him, so until Grazzini is officially let go or Robayo (or someone else leaves), he seems to be stuck in limbo. However, his strike rate leaves something to be desired and he isn't the long term answer at forward for the Fire. Other than Sherjill, there haven't been hardly any players linked to the Fire in any sort of reliable way. Time is running out and there is work to do. An already uneasy fan base with the owner could become more unhappy if the team's glaring holes are not properly filled.
Bonus question: Chicago will be missing defender Arne Friedrich due to a red card suspension on Wednesday. How do you expect Frank Klopas will adjust the starting lineup?
Dan Gargan has mysteriously not been in the starting lineup the past couple of weeks. With Friedrich out, I expect to see Gargan back in the starting XI. Look for a backline of Gargan, Anibaba, Berry, and Segares.
Score Prediction: I am going with a 1-1 draw here. Goals from Rolfe and Henry. While it would be nice to put up another 3 goal outing against New York, our options at forward are not there to score multiple goals week in and week out right now.