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Chicago Fire vs. San Jose Earthquakes - USOC #2: Three Questions

Bratislav Ristic #77 of the Chicago Fire dribbles the ball against the San Jose Earthquakes during an MLS game at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Bratislav Ristic #77 of the Chicago Fire dribbles the ball against the San Jose Earthquakes during an MLS game at Buck Shaw Stadium.

We exchange three questions with Robert Jonas of Quake, Rattle and Goal in order to get some insider perspective on the San Jose Earthquakes as the Chicago Fire head to Buck Shaw Stadium on tonight.  Robert'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 Quake, Rattle and Goal

1. How has San Jose fared in the USOC historically? Highest finish? Lowest finish?

Since San Jose rejoined MLS at the start of the 2008 season, the Earthquakes have failed to qualify for the U.S. Open Cup. Prior to this season, they have made an annual exit from the MLS qualification bracket in each of their first round of games. Earlier this month, the Quakes picked up their first win in tournament qualification with a 1-0 extra time victory at the Portland Timbers. Tuesday's match with the Fire marks the Earthquakes' first ever win-and-your-in qualification match opportunity.

In the first incarnation of the Earthquakes, the Clash, the team participated in the U.S. Open on eight occasions. They reached the quarterfinals in seven of those years, with their best finish a semifinal appearance in 2004. In 1998, the San Jose Clash faced the Fire in a quarterfinal match played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. After regulation the game stood tied at one goal apiece, and following a scoreless 30 minutes of extra time, the match went to penalty kicks. Chicago won that day 4-3 on PKs and went on to famously win the Open Cup in the first year of the franchise.

2. With games this past Saturday and another one this Saturday, what lineup do you expect San Jose to use on Tuesday? How will it differ from San Jose's choice XI?

Head coach Frank Yallop is saying all the right things to the media regarding the importance of the U.S. Open Cup to his team, but with league matches bookending Tuesday's meeting, expect quite a few changes from last weekend's starting XI. Also, with the two teams facing off again on Saturday, Yallop has stated a desire to mix things up to keep the Fire guessing and also to make sure he has fresh legs on the field.

First off, defender Brandon McDonald will be available after serving a one-match suspension over the weekend for a red card offense. He looks probable to return to action in partnership with Bobby Burling in the center of defense, but Ike Opara could start instead with Burling in the same duo that played the full 120 minutes at Portland in U.S. Open Cup qualifying earlier this month. Looking back to that game for more clues, Steven Beitashour and Ramiro Corrales look like good bets to complete the back four.

The midfield is where things get interesting for the Quakes. Second-year player Brad Ring has started each of the last five games, and the team has responded with five solid efforts. While Ring is due a break, I expect he will make it six starts in a row on Tuesday, and the rested Sam Cronin should be his central partner. The two outside midfielders are less certain, with last Saturday's substitutes in the Revolution match Anthony Ampaipitakwong and Ellis McLoughlin part of a group of potential starters that includes Justin Morrow, Bobby Convey, Scott Sealy, and Joey Gjertsen. Convey and Gjertsen are outside choices, so two of the remaining four candidates will face the Fire on Tuesday.

Starting up top will definitely be the team's leader scorer Chris Wondolowski. Having played every minute of every Earthquakes match this season - before the McDonald red card against the Crew forced him off the field for tactical considerations - Wondo is tireless in his pursuit of winning. Made team captain three weeks ago, the 2010 MLS Golden Boot winner prides himself on his conditioning and intensity, no matter the opponent or the competition. A bigger question is who his striking partner will be on Tuesday. Steven Lenhart looks to be the favorite to start, but he is due a rest given the abuse he takes in his role as a target forward. Rookie Matt Luzunaris has made a pair of substitute's appearances so far in 2011 and is due for more playing time. If McLoughlin is not selected to reprise his midfield role from last Saturday, he could also join Wondo up top.

The key to all these starters is that Yallop finally has some flexibility in player selection that he did not enjoy the past three seasons. In five quality matches on the trot, the Earthquakes have used 21 different players in their starting line-ups - a clear testament to the Quakes having a roster stacked with mid-level talent. The stars still play virtually every game - Wondolowski, Ryan Johnson, Jon Busch - but there are plenty of complementary players up and down the roster.

3. With the rosters expanding to 30 players, there's much more room for a player to move up and down the depth chart. Who has risen the most and who has fallen the most since the beginning of the season?

The clear rising star of the Earthquakes this season is central midfielder Brad Ring. In a handful of starts in 2010, the Indiana University product, who was forced to sit out the entirety of the 2009 season with a hip injury, showed the defensive tenacity that coach Yallop admires in his players with a hint of offensive potential. His no-nonsense approach to his midfield duties has earned him the respect of his teammates, and overall the club has a 4-1-1 record in 2011 when he takes the field. Ring tallied his first MLS assist in the win against Columbus a week ago, but don't doubt his danger in the offensive third. He possesses a solid kick on the ball born from his work as a defender which sooner than later will result in a shot on goal that will leave the opposing goalkeeper waving at air.

On the down-swing for the Earthquakes is erstwhile team captain Ramiro Corrales. The 34-year old defender featured as a rookie for the San Jose Clash back in the inaugural MLS season of 1996, and still has a lot left in the tank in playing as a left-sided defender. However, he has battled injuries the past two campaigns, and coach Yallop has stated that he prefers to pick his spots in playing Corrales this season. While not fleet of foot, Corrales can still dispossess an opponent with skillful tackles, but he can be burned on the flanks by speedy wingers. Working best in partnership with a quick left midfield teammate - Bobby Convey being chief in that category - his age limiting deficiencies are easier to hide. However, as the 2011 season has progressed, we are starting to see the end of the Corrales era as an everyday starter in San Jose.

Honorable mention for improvement goes to Ampaipitakwong as a central and outside midfielder. The rookie out of Akron is proving he belongs in MLS despite concerns going into the season that he was too small for the physical demands of the league. Looking at the players sliding slowly down the depth chart, striker Scott Sealy fits that bill as the often injured striker has yet to deserve consistent playing time for the Earthquakes.

Quake, Rattle & Goal asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. With the MLS regular season not going as the Fire had hoped, does head coach Carlos de Los Cobos look to the U.S. Open Cup as a chance to turn around the club's fortunes or more as distraction to his preparations for league play?

I think one of Carlos de los Cobos' last chances to hold onto his job lies in the U.S. Open Cup. Chicago Fire fans have always taken the U.S. Open Cup very seriously even if the front office has not always done so. With four titles (1998, 2000, 2003, & 2006), Chicago has the most USOC trophies among MLS squads and is only one trophy away from tying the all-time USOC leaders Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles.

How much Carlos de los Cobos personally cares about winning the trophy is up for debate because last year he made some disparaging comments. He went on to imply that SuperLiga was a more important tournament and was panned for it in Chicago. Something might have got lost in translation so I'll cut him some slack. His English from last year to this year has significantly improved. de los Cobos seems committed to winning the USOC trophy this year and he started a full strength squad in last month's game against Colorado. It should be noted that we didn't have a MLS regular season game until 10 days after the match.

2010's USOC game was a disaster with the Chicago Fire losing to the Charleston Battery 3-0 in penalty kicks. Yes, that's right. The Fire missed all three of their penalty kicks. I think CDLC will be doing everything in his power to make sure we don't get close to penalty kicks again. If the Fire go out in epic fashion like last year, even the diehard fans who have embraced the U.S. Open Cup and embraced Chicago's role as ‘Kings of the Cup' will begin to leave Carlos de los Cobos' corner.

2. This week presents the rare scheduling double as the Earthquakes and Fire play against each other twice in the span of five days. What challenges does the Fire face in seeing so much of the Quakes in such a short time period? Conversely, what are the advantages?

The coaching staff of the Chicago Fire does not quite know the limits of all of their players yet. Readers at HTIOT are probably getting tired of reading this line but over half of the Fire roster is new. I wouldn't be surprised if Carlos de los Cobos is forced to use a substitute or two at halftime of tonight's game or Saturday's game just because he overestimated another player's ability to go a full 90 minutes. A good example is Uruguayan forward Gaston Puerari. Puerari has started 8 MLS Regular season games and been subbed out 6 times. That in itself is not necessarily remarkable except a couple of times it was early in the second half coming in the 46th minute, the 58th minute, and the 69th minute. In other games it looked like he should have been taken out earlier. His fellow Uruguayan Diego Chaves is looking worse for the wear just ten games into the season too. It will be interesting to watch how those two are deployed this week and what other Fire players might slip up due to fatigue.  It's possible that the lesson on Puerari has been learned and he'll be used as a sub in both games.  Supersub might be his best role for the team for the rest of the season.

I think an advantage the Fire have is that it is hard to scout the team because so many players have been given opportunities to play. For better or worse, there aren't too many teams that have started 20 different players and used 3 or 4 different formation this year. That number doesn't even take into account Orr Barouch, a 19 year old Israeli international that is 7th on the team in games played but hasn't started yet. I have a good feeling this week will finally be his time to hit the XI. Overall the Fire might be suffering to match opposing teams in top players 1 through 5 but I think Frank Klopas has done a very good job of putting together a deep team 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 all the way through 30 roster spots.

Chicago is a team in transition working out roster battles between relatively inexpensive players. Once those battles have been figured out, hopefully the team will have found their top priorities to fill and they'll have enough room in the proverbial wallet to do so. For now, a two-games-in-one-week matchup might be just what the doctor ordered to flex some depth. Chicago will lose both of these games if San Jose's elite players like Chris Wondolowski expose Fire players on the back on the depth chart or San Jose has some of its own bench players flex some muscle.

3. Often times in the U.S. Open Cup, the match-day roster is filled with rookies and reserves. Who are two of the bright young players on the Fire that might make the starting XI at Buck Shaw Stadium Tuesday night?

As I mentioned above, at this point Chicago has seen most of their players already so not too many surprises remain. I will highlight Orr Barouch who has started in Reserves League games but not started in MLS games yet. Barouch is a 19-year-old forward born in Haifa, Israel and raised in Woodland Hills, California. He played in Chivas USA's youth system at a young age before beginning his professional career at the age of 17 with the Tigres UANL youth system. After he graduated from El Camino Real High School, Tigres UANL put him in their reserves in September of 2009. While with the Monterey, Mexico based club, Barouch appeared in 24 matches, scoring one goal, primarily as a left winger, while helping Tigres to a first place finish in the Mexican U20 Apertura tournament. Barouch joined the Fire on trial during the club's Florida phase of preseason camp. After appearing as a sub, Barouch got his first start against New York Red Bulls' Reserves squad and promptly scored four goals. Perhaps we'll see a little bit of that ‘first-start' magic again this week.

One player Chicago fans haven't even got a look at is Cristian Nazarit.  The 6'1 Colombian was officially signed on May 4 to a bit of fanfare.  When most were asking for more help in defense, it was odd to see a forward signed to the last spot on the 30 man roster.  The 21-year old striker has already scored in the Reserves League but has only made the bench against Philadelphia and he did not come on as a sub.  Nazarit adds some height to the team and might actually provide an aerial threat for an undersized squad that is 0 for 54 on corner kick conversions.  Barouch is 6'1 too but he has not looked very good in the air.  Teams could operate an entire defensive strategy against the Fire of encouraging corner kicks over any kind of field progress towards the goal.  Hopefully Nazarit will change that reality.  Perhaps Barouch will even start throwing around his size as well.