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3 Questions with Sounder at Heart

The Seattle Sounders blog Sounder at Heart and I exchanged three questions.  My first question to them with their answer is below, my other two questions and their questions to me are after the jump.

Hot Time In Old Town Asks Sounder at Heart

1. Blaise Nkufo broke out a hat trick last week.  Could you see the timing coming around in a similar manner to how Bill Simmon's writes about Manny Ramirez in his Manipulating Manny piece ('Love is Blind' 3 paragraph down) or was it just a total 'Where did this come from' situation?

I don't think anyone would have predicted that Nkufo was going to get a hat-trick as his breakout performance. That would be like predicting a cycle in baseball. What we did know was that Nkufo was doing all the right things as a target forward. He opened up the space for Fredy Montero to do his one-on-one magic. What Blaise didn't get was the ball at the end of his runs.
That is changing, and I'm not really surprised that one of those assists came from a Sounder with a somewhat similar history in Steve Zakuani. Zakuani and Blaise Nkufo are both people who got lucky enough to escape Congo to Europe and become soccer players. They talk to each other in French and Steve considers Nkufo a mentor.
Nkufo will continue to develop into more of a scoring threat. Opposing teams will have to pick their poison - the large target forward who scored more than 20 goals a season over 7 seasons in the Netherlands, or the young Colombian who is a threat to be the Golden Boot winner or MVP in any MLS season. Of note, Blaise may not have the goals and assists, but of Sounders regulars he has the highest Goals +/- with 1.7 per 90.

2. What are your thoughts on the issues in this article on Kasey Keller's eventual retirement?  Does Seattle protect him in the expansion draft?  Do you see Keller joining Portland to book end his career with the Timbers?  Who would you like to see replace Keller?

To me it is quite early to talk about Kasey Keller's retirement. He's still at least an average MLS keeper, and his leadership and worth as a symbol of the franchise makes his contract of fair value. Many are willing to state that he'd probably retire if taken in the expansion draft, but can you really see the team not protecting its captain?
Especially since the options at Keeper are Terry Boss, or talking Marcus Hahnemann into leaving the EPL and returning to Seattle? Boss is an OK back-up, but not worthy of being a starter on a team that wants to compete for multiple trophies. Hahnemann is good to great, but to acquire his rights Seattle would have to give the Colorado Rapids talent (if the league decides they still hold his rights), or Seattle would have to trade to move up in Allocation Order.
I'd rather keep it simple and just keep Keller and find a new Keeper through the draft or free agency.

3.  I asked the same basic question to RSL Soapbox last week but I like it.  Now that we are so far along in the season, which Sounder has been the best surprise this year?  Which Sounder has been the biggest disappointment?

The biggest surprise I think has to be Nathan Sturgis. My readers will laugh to hear it, but the kid went from being on the fringe of the 18 and due to multiple injuries in the central midfield (Evans, Alonso, Vagenas) has become a capable starter. While he may lack some of the vision that I prefer from a center mid (usually ignoring the left) overall his game is solid. He's a large part of the reason that I think Seattle is 17 players deep as capable starters when healthy.
As to disappointment, can I say Freddie Ljungberg? Or do I need to move past that?
The others haven't really disappointed, but instead haven't developed at the rate that I would have expected. Sanna Nyassi has added a little defense to his tool chest that once only had speed. Tyrone Marshall regressed, but that was likely as last year he played out of his mind. Taylor Graham somehow hasn't earned the playing time that his solid defense deserves.
Overall though this is a team playing like a team, and peaking when it matters. Trophy #2 is up for grabs on October 5th, and I'm now of the opinion that when Seattle makes the MLS Cup Playoffs they will be as strong as any other and capable of making a run to the MLS Cup Final.

Sounder at Heart Asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. Is this the make or break match for the Fire's attempt at a Playoff spot?

I’m not sure and that’s more because I think the Fire might already be done.  To get 42 points, the Fire must finish 5-1-1 against SEA, SJ, FCD, C-BUS, KC, DC & CUSA.  Anything less than 4-1-2 and the Fire have less than 40 points – the historical borderline for entry into the MLS Cup playoffs.    

Even if the Fire get 40-42 points, we would need Seattle to get less than 4-6 points in their final 5 games, San Jose to get less than 4-6 points in their last 7 games, Kansas City to get less than 7-9 points in their last 6 games, and Toronto FC to get less than 9-11 points in their last 5 games.  Any two of those teams pull that off, and it doesn’t matter what the Fire do barring an incredible run of 6 or 7 wins.

I guess you could say that if we give even a point to Seattle tomorrow we are down for the count but I think we are already on life support.  The only thing keeping us alive is the distance between now and the end of the season.  I believe only D.C. United are ‘eliminated from the playoffs’ so far but we know a couple of other teams have no real shot.  Sadly I think Chicago is in that category already.
2. When Chicago went a new direction in coaching there was some surprise that they went for foreign leadership. Has this been the issue, or is more about the amount of time it takes to install a new system?

Anyone who wants to see long extended thoughts on this can check out my post last week titled ‘These Things Take Time’.  I don’t think coach Carlos de los Cobos has had any ‘foreign’ problems, just regular first year coach things.  He brought in a couple of players from his old team (El Salvador National Team), he tired players in new roles to see how they played, and he made ‘tough coach’ moves like benching Collins John after he looked great in the LA Galaxy away game because John complained about how hard practices were on Twitter.

Both of the players that CDLC brought in, Julio Martinez and Deris Umanzor, have had little playing time and almost no impact.  Julio Martinez is not even with the team anymore.  I think every player on the team except for C.J. Brown and Brian McBride have played in an unfamiliar position at some point.  It is hard for players to get connections going when their role is constantly changing and the players around them are rotating.  Collins John was just starting to light it up and gain confidence and CDLC benches him because he can’t think of any other way to make an example?  None of these paint the coach in a good light but I do think he has a decent defense.

The game plan for the Fire was to have Brian McBride and Collins John pair up top.  McBride has really fallen off from where he was even last year and Collins John was out in May and June with a stomach issue.  Our backup forward Calen Carr was injured all season until the August 18th game against New England.  The 4th string forward Stefan Dimitrov was released this summer despite our thin front line… that tells you his quality.  Throw in the trades of Justin Mapp and Tim Ward, the release of Jon Busch to begin the season, the acquisitions of Nery Castillo, Freddie Ljungberg, and Gonzalo Segares mid-season, and there just might have been too much change for any coach to overcome.  I have supported all of those player moves and I think they set us up very well for the future but it is possible they were made at the expense of the 2010 campaign.  Some of these moves might fall more on CDLC than technical director Frank Klopas (the Jon Busch debacle being one of them) but that is a debate for another time.

3. What is the biggest weakness you see on this year's Fire?

Chicago leads the league in goals given up in the last 15 minutes of matches.  The worst part about it is they have given points to most of the teams they are chasing because of this fault.  San Jose Earthquakes stole a 2-1 win in the 82nd minute in the Fire home opener on April 10th.  Conor Casey stoppage time header on June 11th gave Colorado a 2-2 draw instead of Fire three points.  You are well aware of the stoppage time header by Fredy Montero on August 29th to give Seattle a 2-1 win.  That right there is 5 points lost for the Fire and 6 points in favor of the teams they are chasing.  If you go down the schedule, Maicon Santos 76th minute header to give Chivas a 1-1 tie, Kei Kamara in the 89th minute to give KC a 2-2 tie, Brian Ching in the 85th minute to give Houston a 4-3 win, and an Omar Gonzalez header in the 90th minute to give Los Angeles a 1-1 tie.  They have been snatching defeat from the jaws of victory all season long.

Giving goals up late seems like one of those intangibles you can’t put a finger on but I think there are a couple of things going on here.  First, I would blame the lack of consistency in the lineup.  Coach’s desire, injuries, what you have you, the back line has not been able to build up a trust of one another.  Instead of feeding off one another and knowing their roles, two defenders go for the most threatening player leaving someone else open, the goaltender doesn’t come out when he should, the defense falls back when they should press because they don’t trust the goalie, etc.  These are the things that anyone might bring up and I’ll tell you as an observer of this team I have seen all of those happen this year and worse. 

The other thing to consider is that Collins John might be right about how difficult practice is.  Among the fans who attend practice on a regular basis, there is a consensus that the practices in the World Cup break seemed a little tougher than usual.  I’m sure Carlos de los Cobos was just trying to keep them in game shape but he might have gone too far.  CDLC hasn’t coached a club team since 2006 and before that hadn’t coached one since 2003.  Don’t forget that we hired him away from the El Salvador national team.  It is quite likely that his training regiment for a long season is out of tune with what is actually needed.

I imagine the debate of ‘too much training’ and ‘not enough communication’ will go on all off-season but the debate on Carlos de los Cobos may be a very short one.  I personally wouldn’t mind seeing him back as the head coach next year.  He seems like a smart guy and I think he could learn from his mistakes.  However, the El Salvadoran team wants him back to coach their team and he has people calling for his head here in the states.  He might decide he would rather go back to a safe position than stay here where he could be fired after a couple of games in 2011.