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Chicago Fire vs. Columbus Crew - #MLS 14: Three Questions & Game Preview

Firehouse East
Firehouse East

In the off-season the Chicago Fire made the promise to Section 8 Chicago that if Section 8 had over 800 season tickets before the season started, the team would cover the fan buses for the Columbus road trip.  The board, volunteers, and other friends of Section 8 all came together to not only match that mark but get the Section over 1,000 season tickets.  The team came through on their word and invited every Fire season ticket holder to take the trip to Columbus transportation free.  Over 400 people will be departing from Chicago to Columbus starting tonight at 12:00 AM.  Chicago Fire Director of Ticket Sales Mike Ernst had this beautiful picture of what all of those tickets look like.  Depending on how you want to define it, this is the largest road trip in Chicago Fire history.  Congratulations to Section 8 for all of their hard work and congratulations to the team for their forward thinking.  In addition to some headlines, the team is bound to have an extra spring in their step on the field and the fans in the stands will have memories that will last a lifetime.

For some insight on the Columbus Crew, we turn to Matthew Bernhardt of the  The main storyline coming out of Columbus this week took place on Wednesday when Real Salt Lake faced off against the Crew. Designated player Andres Mendoza went to take a penalty kick despite the fact that Jeff Cunningham was the designated penalty kick taker that evening.  That may not seem like a big deal but Jeff Cunningham started his career in Columbus playing for 7 seasons between 1998-2004.  Cunningham stands one goal short of tying Jaime Moreno's all-time MLS goal scoring record.  Everyone in Columbus wants to see Cunningham tie that record and there's no guarantee that the veteran will get another chance to do so.  Instead of Mendoza ceding to Cunningham, this happens:

Not Cunningham, not Sebastian Miranda, and not even captain Chad Marshall can talk Mendoza off the mark.  When Mendoza scores successfully, he turns to his teammates and puts his finger to his lips in a 'shush' motion and then turns to the crowd and repeats it.  Just imagine the vitriol that would be aimed towards Freddie Ljungberg or Nery Castillo last year if they moved Brian McBride or John Thorrington off a penalty kick and then motioned to Section 8 to 'shush it'.  The Crew fans were happy with the goal but booed Mendoza when he was subbed off minutes later.

After the game Mendoza told the Columbus-Dispatch through an interpreter: "It looked like they were trying to get Jeff to take it...but I've taken penalties my whole career to help teams get to Champions Leagues and things like that so I decided to take it. I am here to play and score goals. You need to ask the fans why they boo me."  On Mendoza's actions head coach Robert Warzycha said "He has got to long as what he does is against me, I can manage that. But when he is doing things against our fans and club, that is not acceptable."  It sounds like Mendoza's days in Columbus are numbered.  The Peruvian star is the subject of one of my questions to Matthew Bernhardt and that along with the other 5 questions in the exchange are after the break.

Hot Time In Old Town asks Bernhardt

1. After the Crew collapsed down the stretch in 2010 and seemingly lost a lot of talent in the off-season, I picked the Crew to struggle in 2011. Crow is on the menu for me Sunday as the Crew are 7 points ahead of the Fire in the standings. What have been some keys to success as the yellow team currently sit in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference? Did you expect them to be where they are right now?

Well, I wouldn't go looking up crow recipes quite yet because the Crew have struggled this season. While Columbus are currently in third place in the Eastern Conference, their offense has come in fits and starts - which means the team has had to settle for draws in games many feel they should have won. 14 goals scored is near the bottom of the league, and is propped up by a significant number of penalty kicks awarded.

To answer your question more directly, the Crew's best attribute thus far has been their defense. Chad Marshall has continued his high level of play, while Sebastian Miranda at right back has proved to be more stable than Hejduk was. Julius James gives many people heart attacks, but generally has been able to pull off the things he tries. Rich Balchan started the season off with several good performances, but has fallen from grace a bit lately after some weaker outings. Josh Gardner, Dejan Rusmir, and Kevin Burns have also contributed well when called upon.

Overall, I think the team is a bit better than I hoped they'd be. The offense is a bit weaker, while the defense is significantly better. My preseason prediction was that Columbus would make the playoffs, but not challenge for hardware; so far, they're on track to do that.

2. It's possible that all of Columbus' multiple goal scorers of Andres Mendoza, Emilio Renteria, and Robbie Rogers will all be out this Sunday due to injuries or Gold Cup action. Who does the Crew offense turn to in this situation to lead the attack?

Justin Meram has played the last two games on the left wing, and has contributed significantly during his limited minutes - it is possible that he'll get his first start tomorrow. Jeff Cunningham has also showed well in the minutes he's logged, but has yet to score that all-important first goal. I would anticipate those two players getting a start on Sunday if Mendoza or Renteria cannot play. Further into midfield, players like Eddie Gaven or Emmanuel Ekpo can also spark the attack - particularly Ekpo if he can complete some of his long dribbling runs.

3. Regardless of Mendoza's ability to return from health, his status on the team is up in the air after he took a penalty kick when the Crew fans, his teammates and even his own coach asked that Jeff Cunningham take it instead so Cunningham could try to tie the MLS All-Time scoring record. Do you think that Mendoza will take the field again after he followed that act up by making a 'sush/silence' gesture to his coach and the fans upon successfully converting the penalty?

Well, that's the big question around Columbus right now. On one hand Mendoza is now the team's leading scorer - and after the game Jeff Cunningham hit the nail on the head when he said that the "give me the ball" attitude is exactly what you want from a DP forward. On the other hand, Mendoza showed a shocking disregard for the team and coaching staff's desires in taking the penalty.

If Mendoza is healthy, I do think that he will start. Warzycha has kept him in the team after previous displays (walking past the bench into the locker room after being subbed against Chivas, flubbing easy chances against New York, etc) and refused to criticize him after the Salt Lake game. Jeff Cunningham himself propped Mendoza up after the penalty kick, and after the game, with some comments to the Columbus Dispatch that showed how much of a leader Cunningham can truly be. Provided there hasn't been more drama on the practice field, it is hard to see Mendoza losing his place for anything he did on Wednesday.

Bernhardt asks Hot Time In Old Town

1) It seemed at the beginning of the season that Chicago had found some real gems in Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari, but lately the team has had trouble scoring. With the firing of Carlos de los Cobos, do you expect their offense to improve, or will this unsettle the players brought in under the former coach?

The book is still out on Gaston Puerari. He started out as a forward in March and most of April. Then Carlos de los Cobos switched over to a 4-1-4-1 formation for the April 30th game and Puerari played a central midfield role until Frank Klopas started him at forward against Kansas City on Thursday. It was Puerari that launched the long ball that allowed Dominic Oduro to create the chip shot that forced Jimmy Nielsen's handball outside the box. Puerari also setup Dominic Oduro's assist to Marco Pappa in the Colorado game with a long ball. Neither pass was created for an assist (for different good reasons) but just because Puerari's goal total is down doesn't mean he isn't contributing.

Puerari missed some easy chances early on so he developed a reputation for not being a very good finisher. Now he has started subbing in more games and he has been taken off the forward position until this past Thursday but he only has 7 shots in his last 487 minutes while he took 6 shots in his first 254 minutes of play. Perhaps interim head coach Frank Klopas can give him more confidence or Puerari will continue to embrace his assisting ways. It's tough to gauge whether or not Puerari should be taking more shots at this point.

While Puerari has gotten a lot of slack for not being able to finish, it's Diego Chaves who has gone cold since he scored a goal against Houston on April 23rd. Chaves has also hit the crossbar a league leading 3 times this season. It's also Chaves who has taken 30 shots and only 9 shots have been on goal. Chaves is the one with no assists this year. I think there is a conception that Chaves has contributed to the Fire offense more than Puerari and I'm not sure that's true. Puerari has been a substitute for the last couple of games. It might be time to rest Chaves so he can come back stronger.

As for any kind of unsettling because Frank Klopas is the new coach, I guess that is possible. Right now we aren't seeing it on defense as the team has had back to back shutouts (impressive for a team that was giving up 1.73 goals per game) in the Klopas ‘era' but the offense is sputtering with their own scoreless streak. It's important to note that the past two games are the first 180 minutes that the Fire have played without Marco Pappa. While Columbus will have the advantage of a Pappaless Chicago team thanks to the Guatemalan's Gold Cup duty, I think the full and fair answer on the effects of Chicago's offense post-Carlos de los Cobos will have to wait until Pappa's return.

2) Is there a particular player that Crew fans should keep an eye on this Sunday? Who is the quiet lynchpin, either to the team's offense or defense?

When Logan Pause was injured prior to the April 30th Colorado match, it opened a door for Daniel Paladini to make a start. The midfielder who had played two years with the Carolina Railhawks prior to this season has taken that opportunity by the horns. After not playing a single minute all year, Paladini has started seven games in a row. He does not have an assist or a goal yet and frankly that's quite surprising. He is starting to connect very well with his teammates on passes. Paladini's shot against Seattle last week caused Kasey Keller to have a save of the week nomination. Orr Barouch should have scored a goal off a rebound from Paladini's shot from distance against Kansas City on Thursday. It might be too much to describe Paladini as a lynchpin to the offense but his play is quietly under the radar so far. He is pressing the point and getting better with every game. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he crashed onto the MLS scene tomorrow with a goal and an assist.

3) Both the Crew and Fire have struggled over the last five games, but each showed some signs of life lately - the Fire with two straight shutouts, while the Crew has scored six goals in three games. What do the Fire need to do to shut out the Crew, and how likely do you think that is to happen?

Chicago's defense has finally come together after a rocky road to begin the season. Even in the Fire's lone win on March 26, the team gave up two goals while being up 11 to 10 men on the field. Sean Johnson is back from an injury, back to being a starter, and back to looking like the quality keeper we thought he was. After giving some starts to Josip Mikulic and Dasan Robinson, Cory Gibbs and Yamith Cuesta have been the two center backs for the last 5 games and look to be the final answer there. Gonzalo Segares looks like his old self at LB and while there are questions about Jalil Anibaba or Bratislav Ristic starting at RB, both look at least capable or giving good starts. Hot streak aside for Columbus, the Crew have only scored 9 goals from the run of play in 13 games. If the Fire can avoid giving up a penalty kick situation, I like Chicago's odds of running up another scoreless 90 minutes.