We exchange three questions with denz of RSL Soapbox in order to get some insider perspective on Real Salt Lake as they travel to Toyota Park tonight, June 22nd, to take on your Chicago Fire. denz's answer to my first question is below and the other five questions in the exchange are after the break.
1. There has been a lot of talk about Real Salt Lake 'struggling' but the team is still at the top of the points per game standings. Is this a weak attempt to knock a front runner or are there legitimate concerns for RSL's Supporters' Shield hopes?
Not sure, clearly RSL got off to a blistering start and since then have hit a "bump" that has lasted far longer than anyone on the team or any RSL fan thought it would. There was going to be a "hangover" after the Champions League, no matter what the result was, it simply is tough to have the biggest match in club history that early in the season and for teams to come out of it like they went into it. Then add in the pressure of being the first MLS team to advance that far and all the support and attention that the team and players received heading into it, and it is simply unimaginable that it wouldn't have a huge impact on the team. Then you toss in losing your number one offensive player on a awful play in front of your bench and fans, and the emotional stress just increases.
RSL knew that they would lose 3-4 players during the Gold Cup, and had depth to deal with those call ups, but then an unexpected injury to Paulo Jr., an unexpected injury to recovering Cody Arnoux, and all of a sudden you are missing 4 of the top offensive weapons from your team. RSL has great depth, but no team in MLS could lose that many offensive players and not struggle. Thankfully RSL's defense has been simply amazing again this year, and kept the bleeding from getting too bad. RSL has never been a great team away from home, just 4 road wins last year, and just 2 in 2009, so when I see us at 2-2-2 on the road this year, I actually feel confident that the run for the Supporters' Shield is far from over.
2. Who will play in the absence of Jean Alexandre due to his retroactive red card? What will be added and missed from this replacement player?
Well with Arturo Alvarez and Alvaro Saborio both just returning from Gold Cup duty with their national teams, RSL has decided to let them rest on Wednesday so they will look to their bench for someone to join Fabian Espindola up top. I have to believe that it will likely be Artur Aghasyan, who recently joined the team on a short term contract (I believe), he is the cousin of former RSL striker Yura Movsisyan. He has gotten into the last couple matches late in order to get some minutes, seems like he would be the most likely choice. Not really happy that MLS decided to spring that on RSL as the team was heading to the airport today, not a lot of notice. I think are a couple other options, a formation change to a 4-5-1 might not be a bad thing with two midfielders (likely Andy Williams and Collen Warner or Nelson Gonzalez) supporting Espindola up top, or you could see RSL put one of their midfielders up top as well. I have to imagine that RSL's staff will be trying to figure that out on the flight to the Windy City.
3. What has C.J. Brown brought to Salt Lake both on and off the field?
I think he brings a wealth of MLS knowledge, like Robin Fraser before him, C.J. has simply been there, done it, seen it, and probably has forgotten more about the league and it's players than most of us will ever know. I think he is a guy who our defenders can respect and know that he knows what he is talking about. C.J. himself said
"By me coming in, I'm not making them better. It's my job to keep something flowing. Jason and the entire program have done it the right way. Our back line is a pretty comfortable group, working with each other."
Off the pitch I think he has shown himself to be a great guy, he has been very friendly with the media and fans. It was just Saturday night after the match that I had a chance to talk with him on his way out of the stadium with his wife and kids, yet he still took time to stop and visit. I remind him that I get people from Chicago asking about him on a regular basis, and he just smiles. I think he likes the fact that many of the fans in Chicago miss him both on and off the pitch. I do think he is adjusting to a smaller town feel that Salt Lake City offers, and of course there is the transition from player to coach, but so far I think he has been doing a great job for RSL.
RSL Soapbox asks Hot Time In Old Town
1. I have to say I am really surprised that the Fire haven't been better this year, I think a lot of us had high expectations, but now we are almost at the 1/2 point of the season and you have just two wins. I do have to give credit for 9 draws but averaging a point per match won't get you into the playoffs, what happened?
Defense and Goaltending
Sean Johnson was supposed to be a rock between the rods. Instead he was benched for a couple of games, got injured, and missed a total of 6 regular season matches before reclaiming his job. San Jose scored two goals in his return on May 28th but ever since Chris Wondolowski scored in the 74th minute of that match, Johnson has only allowed one goal in 4 games. Wondolowski's goal started a 324 minute shutout streak that was ended only when New England's Rajko Lekic scored in the 48th minute of the Fire's last match. Sean Johnson is not the only reason for the defense's success as Yamith Cuesta and Cory Gibbs have become the unlikely starting duo at CB. Together the two have developed a youngster/veteran tag team feeding off each other's strengths and covering the other's weaknesses. Gonzalo Seagres has provided All-Star quality every game at LB while Bratislav Ristic and Jalil Anibaba have been serviceable in their platoon at RB. There were some major bumps in the road to get where they are now but things are looking up.
The offense started out relatively strong this year (15 goals in the 11 first games) but has also gained a negative reputation for waiting for the other team to strike first before getting the engine going. Chicago was down 1-0 to Seattle before losing 2-1, they were down 3-0 to Portland before losing 4-2, down 2-0 before losing to Los Angeles 2-1, down 2-0 to Toronto before drawing 2-2, down 1-0 to Philadelphia before losing 2-1, and down 1-0 and then down 2-1 against San Jose before drawing 2-2. It is somewhat remarkable that Chicago only lost one time in 8 games despite not having the lead at any point between the 50th minute of the April 30th Colorado game and the 90th minute of the June 12th Columbus game. The Fire offense has had a lead in each of their last two matches. It's possible that tonight's game will be the one where Chicago puts it all together and starts a winning streak... or we might just tie again.
2. So it was only a matter of time after the slow start that a change in coaches was going to be made, what does Frank Klopas bring to the team, and will it be enough to make a difference or is this the start of building for the 2012 season?
I think the biggest thing that Frank Klopas brings to the table is a better understanding of Major League Soccer. Carlos de los Cobos underestimated the talent level of MLS when he asked the team to commit fairly big money to Deris Umanzor and Julio Martinez last year. Martinez was released before the season was halfway over and Umanzor was not given a lot of minutes and did not look on the field. I think CDLC learned from that mistake but that's a canary in the coal mine example that suggests the other problems he had.
Besides having an obvious understanding of MLS after years of being involved, Frank Klopas brings a sense of the strong Chicago Fire history to the team. Klopas scored the first two home goals for the Chicago Fire franchise in 1998 and he scored the last goal of that year when he knocked the ball home against Columbus in overtime in the U.S. Open Cup final. When the Fire defeated the Crew in Columbus 10 days ago, Klopas said ‘I told the guys before the game that in the history of the Fire, we've had some great players, but we've always been a team no one wanted to play against. We have the kind of personality and the players with this team. Let's get back to what the Fire use to be'.
The fans remember those times. They aren't that far in the memory. Klopas remembers those times as a player, a fan, a Chicagoan and a member of the Fire front office. We can talk tactics but at the end of the day that's a very special X-factor to bring to the sidelines. So far, it's so great. I think the team can make the playoffs this year and things look great for 2012.
3. 24 different players have taken the pitch for the Fire, who has been the biggest surprise and the biggest disappointment?
There are a lot of worthy nominees for biggest surprise but I would have to give that award to Yamith Cuesta. Frank Klopas traded a 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft selection to Chivas USA for Cuesta on March 23rd. The 22 year-old Colombian has started the past 10 games and both of the U.S. Open Cup games. I am impressed with his confidence on tackles, passes, and challenges. He has yet to display a consistent weakness. This would be a positive for any player but for someone acquired in exchange for a Supplemental Draft pick? Most players selected in that manner barely get any playing time if they make the team in the first place. Occasionally a team will simply pass up the opportunity to make a Supplemental Draft pick at all.
The biggest disappointment right now would be Diego Chaves. It may sound odd to make him the biggest disappointment but there was a decent amount of fanfare when he came in. He even started off by scoring three goals in his first three MLS games and he is tied for the team season lead with four goals. The disappointment comes from the fact he started off so hot and has looked so poor since. In some games Chaves has turned completely invisible. He might just need a rest but I'm not happy with his play right now. The 25 year-old Uruguayan has gone from hero to goat quickly and needs to start providing some heroics to simply keep his starting job.