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Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union - MLS #21: Three Questions MY50 @ 8:00 PM CST

It's funny because if you look close enough, you can see Carlos Ruiz running to Veracruz in the background.
It's funny because if you look close enough, you can see Carlos Ruiz running to Veracruz in the background.

The Chicago Fire are back in action after a long break and the Philadelphia Union are coming to Toyota Park tonight as the opponent.  To get some insider perspective on the Union, we turn to Ben Feldman of The Brotherly Game by exchanging three questions.  If you aren't going to Toyota Park tonight, you can catch all the action on MY50 and either way kick-off is at 8:00 PM CST.  Ben's answer to my first questions is below and the rest of the questions in the exchange are after the break.

Hot Time In Old Town asks The Brotherly Game

1. With Sheanon Williams being out for Wednesday's game, who will start in his place? What does Williams bring to the table and how much confidence do you place in his backup's place?

The one and only time Piotr Nowak has started anybody other than Sheanon Williams this season was in Portland, when Michael Farfan was given the start. Although the team lost 1-0, he seemed to slot in well. Both Michael and his twin brother Gabe have seen a lot of time, and both are very versatile (Michael started in midfield and scored the opening goal when the Fire were at PPL Park in May). Williams, though, has been very reliable since the club signed him last August, and indeed seems to be getting better all the time (his huge goal line deflection-save on Gaston Puerari in May being one example). He's not afraid to push up when possible, and his incredibly long throw-ins have resulted in numerous scoring chances and even a goal or two. I don't think fans or the coaching staff would have very much concern at all if Michael gets the nod, but yes, it is tough to replace Williams.

2. Carlos Ruiz... definitely gone, right? How long has this 'will he stay or will go' dance been going on? What kind of effect do you think this will have on the team?

Definitely gone -- Nowak said as much after the club's loss to Colorado this past Friday, and his rights have reportedly been sold to Veracruz. The Brotherly Game has been reporting on a possible move of Ruiz for about two months now, including interest from Veracruz and that his family may have been unhappy in Philadelphia, so that it's now official didn't come as much of a surprise. At least to us, anyway. Until/unless the team makes any moves, either within MLS or internationally, the loss of Ruiz leaves the Union with a glaring hole in their roster: a consistent finisher. Generally, when Ruiz hasn't played, either due to injury, Gold Cup or rest, the Union go from finishing-just-enough-to-get-good-results to just-about-can't-score. Sebastien Le Toux filled that role last year, but this year he seems to be snakebitten (no goals in the run of play, just a converted penalty kick) and increasingly frustrated at that. But it remains to be seen whether someone else will step up or be brought in in Ruiz's absence.

3. So the Union have been playing for over a year and a half now. What is your favorite part about being a fan of team? Has anything changed for the better? Has anything changed for not necessarily the worse but different in a negative way?

I think many are still in the "can't believe we have a team" phase, which definitely carried the fan base through a somewhat rough inaugural season, but now that the team has started winning, that attitude is shifting to "happy to have a team, and one that's competitive to boot." Which is neat, because I don't think any of us expected the team to grow up so much, so quickly. I think we were anticipating -- particularly because the Union had such a young roster right from day one -- that there would be a few years of growing pains and slow but steady progress. Now that the team is competing for a regular season conference championship (albeit in the much-much weaker conference), it's just fun to watch. I think that's been one of the great things this year: fans are starting to develop expectations for the Union (which nobody had last year). And these expectations are not "if they don't fulfill them, we want heads to roll," but "it would be pretty cool if they did [X]". And that's a fun environment to be a part of.

The Brotherly Game asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. Are the Fire really as bad as their record suggests? Union fans know all too well after their inaugural season that wins, losses and draws may not necessarily be representative of how a team is playing.

The Fire's record does not accurately represent the individual talent that is on this team. Chicago's starting XI in their last game of the 2010 season and Chicago's starting XI of the 2011 season opener shared four names: Sean Johnson, Bratislav Ristic, Marco Pappa, and Logan Pause. The starting XI for the 2011 season opener and the projected starting XI for tonight's game share five names: Sean Johnson, Cory Gibbs, Gonzalo Segares, Logan Pause, and Marco Pappa. Even Logan Pause, the 2011 captain and one of the few mainstays through the last 21 Chicago Fire MLS Regular season games will likely be shifted to right back if not tonight, then in the future. Despite all of this, the future looks bright for Chicago because several position battles have been finalized and there is a young core that is playing like they are hungry to win. New veteran midfield acquisitions Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini will almost certainly make their MLS debuts tonight because the two positions in the central midfield could not be filled internally.  With their arrival, the Fire have a strong starting XI with little questions as to who will start and where.

The major question remaining is whether or not these new acquisitions will provide the links between all of the other players that earned their spot on the team. Technical director and interim head coach Frank Klopas hopes that Pardo's and Grazzini's veteran experience will kick in to make the team better right away. I don't know how quick this final stage will take but I will say the Union are lucky to be playing Chicago tonight instead of a month later.

2. What do you expect to see from the Fire tomorrow in terms of form and energy, given that they haven't played a competitive match since the 23rd of July against Manchester United and haven't played an MLS match since hosting Portland on the 16th of July? Do you sense that the team is confident enough to jump right in from first kick, or are they going to be a bit tentative and out of sync?

I think this game is a bit of a trap for Philadelphia. The Fire have a little bit of swagger in their step after playing Manchester United so well (lead 1-0 until the 65th minute). The ultimate score was a 3-1 loss but for a team with a 2-6-12 record, they'll take what motivation they can get. New recruits Grazzini and Pardo add some new talent and excitement to the team. The Fire have been taking it light at times even enjoying a couple of days of flat out vacation. Meanwhile Philadelphia is playing on five days rest, coming off a home loss, and just had the team's leading scorer leave the team.

It's hard to be cocky at 2-6-12 but Chicago fans have a healthy sense of confidence going into the game in spite of the two teams' positions in the standings. The weather is suppose to cool down by kick-off time. I expect the Fire to be eager to show off their new look fully rested with a pumped-up crowd behind them.

3. What's with all the draws? Is it that the club doesn't have good starts and concedes first, or are they unable to manage a lead and see it through?

I think the draws are indicative of the talent on the team but also demonstrate how much true team play has been missing. All six of the draws that have been 1-1 involved the Fire scoring first but Chicago was down against Toronto and San Jose and tied the game 2-2 in both instances. The Fire have also scored at least one goal in response in every game they have lost except for the most recent game versus Portland. Given there's seemingly no one or two factors keeping them from winning or losing more often, I definitely point to the team needing more time to become a team on the field. Fortunately for the Union, Chicago might still be a work in progress. Unfortunately for Chicago, time is rapidly running out to make the playoffs.  There's no shortage of story lines to discuss as kick-off approaches.