A wise person once told me 'All unhappiness comes by way of comparison.' And so it's been for Fire fans this season. The gulf between the season we thought we were getting and the season we've gotten has varied from 'just a little too far to jump across' to 'I think there's another side over there somewhere.'
There's another side to this comparison-coin, though. We have, in DC United, a handy mirror to see just how bad this season could have been:
- We complain about our absentee owner and his right-hand man being disconnected from the team and the city. Consider, then, Eric Thohir, Indonesian real-estate magnate and primary IO of DC United. Our every complaint about Hauptman is reflected funhouse-mirror style in Thohir: Disconnected from the supporter base, seemingly indifferent to the team's fortunes, laggardly with investment. You think LA's too far away? How about Indonesia?
- Chicago has, at times, sucked on the field, but DC has answered our tame home-vacuum-cleaner sucking with the kind of negative pressures usually found only near heavy industrial pumping facilities. 10 points of a possible 57. Eight goals - EIGHT! - all season, or a goal for every three and a half hours of football played.
- Toyota Park hasn't been full, the municipality it's built in is broke, and some fans complain about its siting - but consider for a moment the crumbling hulk of RFK stadium. The grand old stadium has been allowed to slowly decompose, and there's no end in sight, as the meatgrinder politics of the District keep progress toward a new facility a pipe dream.
Point is, as bad as things have been for the Fire, United demonstrates that yes, it could be worse. 2013 has been a tragic tale for MLS' first dominant franchise. So, with a win, the Men in Red will be 5 points back of Houston going into next week's showdown in the Oven, meaning that they'd be in touching distance of the playoffs with a win in the malarial swamp ... two points back with 13 games to go ...
Which is exactly the problem with the match in prospect. The Fire are extremely unlikely to play the same DC United which capitulated so tamely to them in early June. Since then, they've flipped Alain Rochat (turning a draft pick into a fat sack of allocation money), traded with their former president for Luis Silva, dumped massively underperforming Brandon Macdonald, signed Jared Jeffrey off the waiver wire, won a weighted lottery to loan Conor Doyle, and signed another hot prospect from their productive academy.
It's also extremely difficult to imagine that every man on the field for the Fire will take these warnings and bring his A game. It's just human nature. You played a team in those uniforms six weeks ago, most of the same guys were there - same field, same everything - and won in a canter. Combine that with a team-wide penchant to start the game as if just wakened from a nap and we have a recipe for disaster. In short, this game is a trap.
We've discussed in this space before the knock-on effects of roster improvement - new faces can mean a lack of cohesion, but when the team is incoherent anyway, the improvement shown simply from competition for places on the field can be immediate and palpable. We have only to look at our own recent past to see how just a couple of additions can change the dynamic; DC United has turned over 20 percent of their roster in the last two weeks. They've added elite US prospects at striker, attacking midfield, and central midfield. In short, we have no idea what kind of team United will be this evening.
While they've gotten younger and presumably hungrier, Chicago have gotten tired. A fascinating bit of analysis from OnTheFire.com's Adam Morgan points out that our back line, whose recent form is shambolic, have piled up the most minutes played in the league by a fairly wide margin. The tactical changes Frank implemented around the time of the Soumare and Magee acquisitions are getting stale; opponents have figured out that consistent high pressure will cause our centerbacks to drop clear-cut chances in their laps.
This all could be much ado about nothing. Doyle could be out of shape. Olsen could stick with Carlos Ruiz and Kyle Porter because 'they just worked so damned hard this week' or something. Our attack could have us three up in the first 10 minutes - I mean, this team is starting Danny Woolard in central defense, for the love of Zoroaster.
But it could be the other thing. I'm worried. IT'S A TRAP.