We exchange three questions with Scott Kessler of Brotherly Game in order to get some insider perspective on the Philadelphia Union as the Chicago Fire head to PPL Park Stadium on Saturday night. Scott'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 Brotherly Game
1. Philadephia's low goal scoring (6 goals in 9 games) is well known at this point. It is interesting to note that the team is not even winning corner kick opportunities. Last year the team was 5th in the league with 147 corner kicks for a 4.9 CKs per game average while this year the team has only had 21 corner kicks in 9 games for a 2.33 CKs per game average. Who is failing to even get the ball forward for the team?
Most of the midfield has disappointed so far this year in that regard. I wrote a piece recently discussing how, while the offense has certainly been lacking this year, the midfield was the part of the team that truly was letting down everyone else.
Other than a midfield that has at times done well on the flanks, and other times disappeared completely, head coach Piotr Nowak has for some reason attempted to play Carlos Ruiz as a target striker. Ruiz deserves criticism for not giving results that the highest paid player on the team should provide, but it's tough to fully fault him considering he's a poacher, not a target striker. Nowak let Alejandro Moreno get away during the offseason and decided to try to continue to play with a target striker without adding a new target striker.
There are plenty of problems with the way that the offense has orchestrated itself this season, but there's not one thing to directly point to right now.2. While the offense has struggled, the defense has covered the team. What role has off-season acquisition goalie Faryd Mondragon played in making Philadelphia's defense the second best in the league in goals against average?
I have a feeling that this question will continue to come up every week.
Mondragon's leadership and organizational abilities have been the most important part of his signing. Last year the Union suffered from under-par goalkeeping and disorganization in the back. The latter part was mostly the fault of a young goalkeeper's inability to organize, Chris Seitz, and a veteran back up's average, but unspectacular showings. The 39-year-old Colombian international seems to never stop shouting out directions to the players in front of him, which keeps everyone in line.
Adding fellow Colombian Carlos Valdes has aided in Danny Califf's return to his youthful days of almost average speed and agility. Their partnership has given Mondragon confidence in the players in front of him, which all together has beget the defensive numbers that you mentioned in your question.
3. The offense and defense could continue to play at their respective levels the rest of the season but most likely something will give. Which side of the coin do you see happening first? Do you think the offense will get better or the defense will get worse?
The easy thing to say is that the defense cannot continue to keep itself going at such a high level, but at some point soon this offense has to get moving. A team with Ruiz, Danny Mwanga and Sebastien Le Toux cannot feasibly keep not producing. It's just inconceivable, in the words of The Sicilian from "The Princess Bride."
Brotherly Game asks Hot Time In Old Town
1. Sean Johnson was a steal for the Chicago Fire when they drafted the Generation Adidas goalkeeper in the fourth round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. What has happened to him this year that has put him on the bench?
2011 started off as a great year for Sean Johnson. He didn't start the January 22nd USMNT friendly against Chile but Bob Bradley did put him in the second half. Johnson was the starter throughout pre-season. The Fire tied 2010 MLS Cup Finalist FC Dallas 1-1 in the first game and won the next game over Sporting KC 3-2. All was right in the world.
Then Chicago traveled to Seattle and the team lost 2-1. It wasn't so much the fact we gave up two goals to Seattle but in the manner they took place. The first goal Johnson wasn't quick to react on an O'Brian White header. The second goal Johnson gave up too much room on the near post. In looking over the tape of the Sporting KC and FC Dallas games, you could see Johnson wasn't trusting his defense and was making risky runs. He wouldn't even go to grab the ball. He just punched the ball. There were a couple of close calls and he just didn't look 100% sharp. One of the HTIOT writers wrote a piece suggesting that Johnson sit out the Portland game. He doesn't look 100%, the stage is going to be huge, and Jon Conway the veteran is better suited to take in this atmosphere. If Conway struggles, Johnson can take note that it's not just him. If Conway succeeds, Johnson can take note of how Conway is working with the entirely new defense.
Well Sean Johnson got the start and the team lost to Portland 4-2. Now that Portland has shown its home domination perhaps the Fire shouldn't feel too bad. However, coach Carlos de los Cobos announced that Jon Conway would start the next game against Los Angeles Galaxy at home. Instead of the temporary situation we were hoping for, Jon Conway has continued to start since April 17th. In his starts Conway is 0-1-4 so he has hardly been dominant but he has stopped the bleeding so to speak after the team lost three games in a row. Sean Johnson has also been unavailable the last two games thanks to a right quad strain. The good news is that he isn't listed on Friday's MLS Injury Report. It is very likely he will start on Tuesday, May 24 when Chicago takes on San Jose in the U.S. Open Cup Play-In game. Hopefully that environment will allow him to get back into the swing of things. The back line is playing well together after a rocky start. Sean Johnson is the Fire goaltender of the future while Jon Conway is a veteran stop gap.
2. The Fire seem to have focused most of their player acquisition efforts on improving the offense. Of the attacking players, who is currently the one to watch out for?
The last couple of weeks I would have said Diego Chaves without any hesitation but it's not as strong of an endorsement right now. Chaves started off scoring four goals in the first four games but he has started to look sluggish in the last games against Vancouver and Toronto. He came over from Uruguay and they don't play nearly as many games in their season as MLS. There are some serious fatigue concerns. That doesn't play well with the Fire coming up on a 9 games in 42 days stretch. That said, if Chaves has a good look in the box, he will almost certainly finish it. He has a killer instinct while not being a flashy player. He pops up and it's lights out for the other team. His fellow Uruguayan Gaston Puerari will be more noticeable tracking down balls, making runs, and having his long hair flow in the wind. His finishing is not nearly as clinical as Chaves so you can breathe a little easier if he has the ball on his feet. Long story short, Puerari is the one you'll notice but Chaves is the one to be on the lookout for.
3. Has the current winless streak caused concern in the Fire's camp and fanbase?
Yes and no. There are some people who look at the team, see the 8 points in 9 games, see Carlos de los Cobos as coach and think, ‘Uh-oh, here we go again. It's 2010 all over again'. Others came into 2011 knowing that this would be a work in progress with more than half the team having to be new players to fill out a 30 man roster. We have 8 points in 9 games despite the fact that Sean Johnson, Logan Pause, and Patrick Nyarko have missed significant amounts of playing time? I'll take it. Things could be worse, we could be Sporting KC.
The defense is starting to look better and the offense refuses to quit during any game. A lot of fans were happy to see last week's performance where the team went down 2-0 in the second half and managed to comeback to tie the game 2-2 on the road. Chicago hasn't won in 7 games but they haven't lost in 4 games either. Patience will run thin in both camps if the Fire start to lose or even just tie every game but Carlos de los Cobos has built up a little bit of breathing room for himself. I'm currently in the ‘Things might improve' camp but talk to me in two weeks. Hell, depending on how today goes I might tell you it's the end of the world after two hours.