We ask, they answer
Hot Time: The Revs are still in third place despite their four-loss skid in MLS play. What's changed from the first 10 games of the season to now that has suddenly made Ningland beatable?
Bent Musket: Well, it's not so much what changed since the first games of the season. Remember that going into late April, the Revs had like one win. They were completely toothless in the attack, and while the defense had tightened up, it was definitely vulnerable. Then, all of a sudden, they went on an offensive tear and started jacking fools all the way through May.
What happened there was twofold. First, there is way too much attacking talent in this club for them not to blow some games wide open. It's just the nature of the beast. Moving Bunbury wide and Mullins up top facilitated that immensely. It helped maximize the talent on the field, and also the central synergy between Kobayashi, Nguyen, and Dorman made a big, big difference. From the Revs' perspective, that was the major change.
But the other major change was that the Revs went on a run where they played a series of teams coming off midweek games, and in many cases, coming off of thousands of miles of travel. Seattle and Philly in particular were totally gassed and rotating their squads in those five-goal games. That's not an excuse - you take the schedule as it is given to you, and those teams are still professional teams with depth, and no matter what, five goals is five goals - but it definitely makes it easier for a fast-breaking team to slice an opponent wide open. As soon as the Revs started playing well-rested teams, though...the performances suffered. You can't ignore that.
HT: I asked how Teal Bunbury was filling the Juan Agudelo-shaped hole at the top of the Revs' formation last time, and I'm still wondering - will anyone claim the 9 role as his own? With Bunbury, Bengtson and Mullins, there's certainly some talent up top. Have any of these guys showed signs of taking over?
BM: Mullins has shown the best signs. His ability in hold-up and movement in the box was key to the five-match unbeaten streak, and allowed him to pick up four goals in four straight games. He's started to fall off a little bit, but it's not for lack of chances. In the last two matches alone he had chances to score at least once, if not twice, and squandered them. That's going to happen with strikers, and for him, it's about getting that confidence to continue and push through.
Bengtson is a lost cause. At this point, cutting him outright would be preferable to keeping him around. Bunbury has shown promise on the wing, using his speed to open up defenses and create/score chances, but he's streaky and his first touch is lacking. Right now, the only viable option as a true center-forward is Mullins, unless Charlie Davies emerges from the woodwork with Jay Heaps' blessing. Even then, that's not really Davies' game.
HT: In sort of a follow-up to the above question: Mullins' hot streak in May - form or quality? Discuss.
BM: I think both. He was getting handed some really great chances on a team that was totally clicking, which makes a difference. That said, you still have to finish the chances, and some of those finishes were really good. He still had to put himself in those positions, and you're still seeing him do that now, though he's not finishing. It's not as though Mullins was a lumbering ox in college, either; he was a proven goalscorer at that level, and while that doesn't always translate, some of those instincts are instincts you don't forget. He has the quality, but probably needs a little help in form, too.
HT: How do New England fans feel about the Fire? Does the team register on the awareness of your average northeastern soccer fanatic?
BM: The Fire are rivals. For some, major rivals. We still remember all those playoff encounters, the Twellman bicycle kick, and the long-running Eastern Conference animosity that comes with it. It's funny, most of the Revs rivalries, at least among fans, seem less regionally-based and more based on past results. I'm not sure I would say that the Fire are viewed as the Revs' biggest rivals, but no one here likes them. At all.
HT: And, reciprocally, a predicted scoreline and starting XI.
BM: Shuttleworth; Tierney, Goncalves, Soares, Farrell; Dorman; Fagundez, Kobayashi, Rowe, Bunbury; Mullins
I'm gonna predict a 2-2 draw. This defense is leaky, but the offense will click, even without Lee Nguyen. But I don't see Chicago losing.
They ask, we answer
BM: I'll start simple: ten draws. Ten draws?! Honestly, for a ninth-placed team, this season doesn't even look all that bad for the Fire, but ten draws is the most in the league right now. It's only July, and there was a World Cup break, and the Fire are in double digits! What has lead to so many honors-even encounters with Chicago?
HT: The 2014 Fire are a team that hasn't quite grown into itself. The defensive overhaul in the offseason - which exacerbated rather than alleviating a tough salary-cap situation - has, for want of a kinder word, failed. The Fire are still searching for their first clean sheet of the year. But the offense, shorn of Chris Rolfe and DP striker Juan Luis Anangono, has been a delight, thanks largely to the growing influence of Harrison Shipp (whom I'll talk more about in the next question.) The Fire are just good enough to be very hard to beat, but not nearly good enough to dominate anyone. Ergo, draws.
BM: Harrison Shipp is a name we've been hearing an awful lot about recently. It almost seems as though he's a shoe-in for the Rookie of the Year (though we're hoping Patrick Mullins gets back on the scoring wagon and takes that particular honor). What is it that he does so effectively, and what can we expect to see from him on Saturday?
HT: Shipp's game is, as I discussed in my essay "Harry the Hook", quite a bit different from that of a notional baseline "American attacking midfielder." Shipp's game is largely mental; he finds pockets of space, sees the runs all around him, and makes brilliant decisions at that point. But his technical game is great, too: It's doubtful there's a better provider of through-balls in the league than Shipp, and his service on dead pieces is fantastic.
Channel your inner scout and just watch Shipp for stretches in this game. His first touch can be absolutely world class, and he's learning every game how to keep himself involved even when the team isn't playing well. I was always hopeful for Harry; now I'm convinced.
BM: Last time our two sites spoke, Quincy Amarikwa was on a hot streak and everyone was still going on and on about Mike Magee's "holdout." Both players are now level on goals. Is Amarikwa still getting it done, and has Magee thrown off that pre-season funk to be the deadly scorer of last season?
HT: It's a tricky question, so I'm going start by answering, then elaborate. Yes, Quincy is still getting it done; no, Magee has not thrown off his preseason funk.
In re: Quincy, he's shown that his early-season level wasn't some sort of fluke. I'm always leery of strikers whose game seems predicated on EFFORT!!! the way Quincy's is, but through 20 or so games (league & cup) this season, he's brought a palpable intensity every time. I'll say this: The centerbacks around the league have to hate playing against him. He works so hard, and has such a great sense of leverage that he turns every possession into a vicious battle for position. Plus he finishes if given a chance.
Mike, though, is a different story. Magee has scored some goals, but has seemed out of sorts all season. It's a bad sign when he's more engaged with the officials than with the task of keeping or recovering the ball, and we've seen it happen again and again in the last several games. He's the same player he was last year, but the chances aren't falling to him in the same profusion, and he's not handling it well, in my opinion.
BM: Tell us who you think the Fire fear most on the pitch for New England.
HT: Taylor Twellman? (I thank goodness he's not still playing.) From the current squad, I'd say Lee Nguyen stands out as someone I anticipate ill favors from; he seems to find a way to hurt us. Since Nguyen's suspended, I'll go one deeper and mention Diego Fagundez. Obviously the kid hasn't had things all his way this season, but his cleverness and quality - and the kind of outside-in runs from the left which are his bread and butter - are going to cause the Fire problems today.
BM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
HT: Fire XI (4-2-3-1): Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Lovel Palmer; Jeff Larentowicz (c), Chris Ritter; Harrison Shipp, Mike Magee, Grant Ward; Quincy Amarikwa.
Notes: Alex is finally fit again, and could see a start in favor of either of the defensive midfielders.
Predicted scoreline: I'm imagining this one as a rollicking, entertaining DRAW, because FI-YERRRRRR are Teh Kings of Teh Draws. 2-2? 3-3? Something wacky like that.