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Chicago Fire vs. San Jose Earthquakes - MLS #11: Three Questions

Robert Jonas credits Steven Lenhart, the dude with curly blonde hair in the center, with putting the San Jose Earthquakes back on a winning track this year.
Robert Jonas credits Steven Lenhart, the dude with curly blonde hair in the center, with putting the San Jose Earthquakes back on a winning track this year.

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 they head to Toyota Park to take on the Chicago Fire tomorrow night.  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. The Chicago Fire may have escaped Tuesday's game by advancing through penalty kicks but the San Jose Earthquakes have had the better form in MLS Regular Season games as of late. Has there been one big difference in the recent positive results or little things coming together for the Earthquakes?

The difference maker for the Earthquakes in their return to winning soccer came in the form of the curly-haired blonde striker Steven Lenhart. After missing much of the beginning of the season due to a knee injury and the death of his father, the physical forward has entrenched himself in head coach Frank Yallop's preferred starting XI. Whereas Jamaican international Ryan Johnson strived to play the target forward in the Earthquakes formation early on, he had limited effectiveness in that role. Lenhart has few issues with taking punishment from defenders while also dishing out his own physical moves. That combination, plus his ability to hold up the ball in the attacking half, allows strike partner Chris Wondolowski and the outside midfielders to fill space as the Quakes move forward. Lenhart has done an admirable job connecting with those teammates while also earning a good number of free kicks that have led to set-piece opportunities.

In the past two regular season games - both wins at Buck Shaw Stadium - Lenhart proved how important he is to the Quakes attacks in both the team's opening goals. In almost identical situations, Lenhart's presence in the area on crosses forced two defenders to collapse on the San Jose striker, while a teammate was able to get open in the vacated space and complete one-time finishes for goals. Given how effective Lenhart is at getting his head to the ball in those situations, opposing defenses are caught in the decision as to where to leave players open. The beneficiaries the past two games, Wondolowski and Ellis McLoughlin - both very effective finishers - should expect quality scoring opportunities all season as long as Lenhart stays healthy.

2. After Tuesday's 120 minute battle, who has the remaining stamina to play for San Jose this Saturday? What are some disadvantages San Jose will face while trying to put together a choice Starting XI?

Well, the good news for the Earthquakes is that coach Yallop had his preferred starting line-up for Saturday decided well before the team's loss to the Fire on Tuesday. Of the 14 players that saw the field during the U.S. Open Cup qualifier, only 3 of those starters are likely to resume their roles on Saturday (Wondolowski, Brad Ring, and Justin Morrow), while two others that made substitute appearances should get promoted to the first choice line up (Lenhart and Khari Stephenson). Ellis McLoughlin - the game's first goal scorer - may replace Morrow in the probable starting line-up, but his health status is not clear as he suffered in groin injury that forced him from Tuesday's match.

The biggest name in that group is, of course, Chris Wondolowski. Having played all 120 minutes after also playing 90 minutes the weekend before against New England, the U.S. Men's National Team call-up has shown an endless energy level this season and is primed to make it another full game against the Fire. With Wondo set to leave the Earthquakes on Sunday morning to join Bob Bradley's crew, he is sure to give everything he can to his club team as they search for a third straight league win. Coach Yallop will have to find a replacement for his star striker starting next week, but knows he can count on him to play the full 90 on Saturday.

The biggest disadvantage San Jose will face this weekend is how to replace Ryan Johnson, who has already joined the Reggae Boyz for a Gold Cup preparation camp in Brazil. Johnson arguably had his three best games of the season going into last weekend's match, and had staked his claim to the left midfield position. Such was Johnson's effectiveness that the Earthquakes highest paid player and season starting left midfielder Bobby Convey was shifted to left outside back. Convey has stated he does not prefer to play on the back line, so he stands a good chance to move back into the role vacated by Johnson. That leaves open the uncertainty of who pairs with Convey on the left - McLoughlin coming off an injury Tuesday or Morrow coming off a full 120 minutes - and forces him to pick up the defensive slack. There is also the outside chance that Ramiro Corrales, the team captain entering the season, who also played the full 120 minutes on Tuesday as a possibility for left back. Whichever decision coach Yallop makes, the Earthquakes will have some vulnerability on the left flank to the Chicago wingers.

3. Even casual fans of the Chicago Fire over the past couple of years should be familiar with Jon Busch and Tim Ward. How are the recent Fire alumni faring in the Bay area? What have been some highlights if any for the two?

When Tim Ward came to San Jose last August in exchange for a bag of balls and a conditional pick in the 2011 MLS Supplementary Draft, he quickly established himself as a reliable outside back for coach Yallop's defensive four. Never spectacular, Ward was reliable in defense and started both games in the postseason series with the New York Red Bulls. Late in preseason training this year, Ward picked up a hamstring strain and has yet to see the field for the Quakes this season. He has been training with the team all week, but is still some time away from being fully match fit.

Jon Busch was quickly picked off the trash heap just days into the 2010 season and quickly endeared himself to his teammates with a solid work ethic in training as well as a effective communication with his defenders. Vying for playing time with incumbent Earthquakes goalkeeper Joe Cannon, Busch made his first debut three months into the season with a shutout at Real Salt Lake. He would go on to make 18 starts for the Earthquakes, including all three postseason games, as Cannon went down with a season-ending ankle injury in August, effectively ending the competition for playing time between the two.

Quake, Rattle and Goal asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. Since its founding in 1998, the stated mission of the Chicago Fire on the field has been to capture two trophies every year: the MLS Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. While in 2011 the campaign for the former is not off to a great start, qualification toward earning the second has been accomplished. From the supporters' perspective, what has been the attitude toward to Open Cup tournament, and would a successful run in that competition temper any negativity cast on the team for their struggles in the MLS regular season?

The die-hard supporters of the Chicago Fire have embraced the U.S. Open Cup from the very beginning. The club ownership has not been so consistent. The good news on the ownership front is that it has turned around as of late. For example, last year the only U.S. Open Cup game was played at Toyota Park. This year the U.S. Open Cup Play-In match against Colorado was played in Peoria but the game was live streamed on the Fire's website. We will see if the team makes a serious bid to host the next round of the U.S. Open Cup. I am optimistic that after a couple of ‘dark years' of USOC competing, Chicago will put forth their best effort both in terms of advertising the game (be it home or away) and in putting out a choice Starting XI even to the detriment of the MLS Regular Season.

As you point out though, the decision to take the USOC more seriously than the MLS Regular Season this year has been aided by the fact that the team has had poor results in the MLS Regular Season. It's easy to put all of your eggs in one basket when the second basket doesn't have much to begin with. The track record for teams with large roster turnover is not kind in MLS or soccer anywhere really. The 2011 regular season has always been approached with concern because it takes time for roster battles to settle and it takes time for players to gel as a team. The team would be wise to focus on the USOC to build some goodwill with the die-hard supporters.
However, not every fan cares about the USOC. There are over 3,000 new season tickets for the Chicago Fire this year. Many of them have never heard of the USOC let alone seen a USOC game. Even if the Chicago Fire advance in the tournament, how do you get the casual fan interested in a competition they might not watch in person while the team is racking up loses and ties in the many games they do see? It brings up a couple of tough issues and it's a fine tightrope the front office has to walk.

At the end of the day, the Chicago Fire need to be true to themselves. We are the Kings of the Cup: the MLS team with twice the number of USOC trophies as the next MLS team and one short of tying Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles for the overall lead. Whether in first place or last place in the MLS Standings, this club has been built on success in the U.S. Open Cup and should put out a first team for USOC games accordingly. Some fans might be negative for now if we lose a MLS Regular Season game or two but the supporters of the team should always be able to look at the Chicago Fire and be able to say that current custodians of the club tried their best and gave it their all in the U.S. Open Cup year in and year out.  That is an identity that will attract fans in the long-term.  The USOC success is an identity that keeps me a passionate fan of this club.

2. A new face for the Fire, Cristian Nazarit, made his debut for the club in Tuesday's Open Cup qualifier and displayed a good nose for the ball and the ability to get himself open in the attacking half. What are the expectations for the 20-year old Colombian this season, and are the Fire working to fast-track him into the regular starting line-up?

It's hard to say what his expectations are because technical director Frank Klopas and coach Carlos de los Cobos are tight lipped individuals. Prior to signing with the Fire, Cristian Nazarit had not played competitive soccer for a couple of months. I was surprised he went 120 minutes against the San Jose Earthquakes on Tuesday. Technically that's not even true because Nazarit started cramping up in overtime of Tuesday's USOC game. In the original press release Frank Klopas was quoted as saying:

"Cristian brings a wealth of talent and experience to the Chicago Fire," said Fire Technical Director Frank Klopas. "The Colombian target forward has pace, strikes the ball well and is able to play with his back to goal. His size and offensive abilities make him a positive addition to our team."

I will say that many people were confused to see Nazarit signed because the backline has been hurt by injuries and inconsistency and Nazarit filled out the roster at the maximum of 30 players. I tend to agree that the team is pretty shallow on defense so I hope that Nazarit wasn't signed to be a second or third string forward. I think fans in general would be more excited (I mean, Simon Borg was calling him the Colombian Samuel Eto'o and there was rumored interest from Real Madrid and Chelsea previously) but we've also been burned by a promising forward who was not 100% in game playing shape upon being signed. At least Chicago can take comfort that Cristian Nazarit is making $1.7M less than Nery Castillo was.  In fairness to Nazarit, he did put a ball in the back of the net only to have it waved off as offside on Tuesday and he has scored a goal in a MLS Reserves League game.  That's more than Castillo ever did.  At 6'1, Nazarit also brings some much needed to size to an offense that is still looking for a corner kick goal (0 for 54 in the regular season) and has featured 5'10 Diego Chaves and 5'7 Gaston Puerari up top.  There's a good chance he will be a starter by the time Chicago travels to San Jose on September 10th but we are hesitant to bet on such a thing.

3. Sean Johnson had a howler of a time on the Earthquakes second goal Tuesday night, and seemed to play with a lack of confidence at times. Talk about the struggles he has had this season and also the role of Jon Conway in the goalkeeper conversation for the Chicago Fire.

Jon Conway is your typical veteran backup. He is serviceable but not elite. Conway has been mentoring Sean Johnson and that is crucial to Johnson's development.

In watching the highlight video of Tuesday's game, it is a little disappointing to admit that isn't the first time I've seen Sean Johnson let in a goal like that. He has an incredible ability to not hold onto the ball. Goals off of rebounds have been a plague for him.

After reviewing Sean Johnson's rise, I've started to wonder how much national media hype has added to his reputation so far. His MLS debut came against the Los Angeles Galaxy on August 1st. The next week the Chicago Fire played against the New York Red Bulls in front of a nationally televised audience. Sean Johnson stopped all seven NYRB shots and was the star of a matchup that featured Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and the debuts of Raefel Marquez and Nery Castillo. You know, back when it was a big thing that Castillo was coming to the MLS. On September 4th, 2010, Sean Johnson stopped a Landon Donovan penalty kick, something MLS goalkeepers do once every four years or so. The buzz around Johnson to get a USMNT call-up started soon after that.

Meanwhile the flaws of Sean Johnson were on full display in low profile games like the August 21st, 2010 match against the Houston Dynamo. Johnson gave up four goals including one where he leaped up to grab the ball, collapsed on top of his teammates, and had the ball slip out of his hands. Brian Ching quickly put the ball in the net. I think part of the reason Johnson was benched this season was because he is too confident in the air and has been giving up too many rebounds. He has not learned from plays like the Ching goal but I think other teams have. It is hard to attack Sean Johnson on distance or mid-range shots. His pure athleticism will lead to highlight saves. Teams seem to have figured out that Johnson's weakness is set pieces, crosses, and other aerial strategies.

If Sean Johnson wants to become an elite goalie, he must address this problem. The problem is we thought Sean Johnson was a finished product. Our expectations should be that he is a 21 year-old goalkeeper with a lot to learn just like the majority of players his age. The Chicago Fire defense must focus on a game plan that minimizes Johnson's weaknesses and maximizes his strengths. Sean Johnson is the goaltender of the future for this team so I'm happy to see the team work around the learning curve.