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Chicago Fire vs. New York Red Bulls - MLS #32 - Fireside Chat with Once A Metro

The Chicago Fire come stumbling in to this weekend's huge matchup vs. New York on national TV. The Fire and Red Bulls will be gracing NBC's flagship channel, so the stage is set for the Fire to show everyone that the past two games have just been a blip in the radar.

Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

Ok folks, it's time for another Fireside Chat. This one comes with an extra helping of questions to boot. I took a few minutes of time out of the day of Dan Ferris over at Once A Metro. The Red Bulls have had some interesting news the past couple of days themselves. GM Erik Soler was suddenly removed from his position just a couple of days ago. This seems like very odd timing to me, so make sure you read the whole Fireside Chat for the scoop on this and more.

Keep an eye out for a preview from me later today, as well as the customary gamethread tomorrow that we urge you to join. Enjoy!

Hot Time In Old Town Asks Once A Metro

1. The news broke yesterday that (now former) Red Bulls GM Erik Soler was fired. He has been replaced by Jerome de Bontin, formerly of AS Monaco. This seems like pretty big, shocking, unexpected news. Did you see this coming? What is the general consensus in Red Bull land over this move right now? (via Ryan Sealock)

No one saw this coming, at least outside the organization. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense changing things around at the top with just a couple of weeks left in the regular season. While I've heard some try and spin it like this could light a fire under the players for their final stretch run as a unit, I think the best case scenario is the players are able to block out the change like any other distraction and keep their focus. Maybe we'll learn more as time progresses, but I wouldn't expect it from the organization that issued surprise dismissals of now former assistants Richie WIlliams and Des McAleenan just weeks before the start of the season.

2. Building off the first question, it would seem Hans Backe will likely lose his job sooner rather than later? Is this an accurate statement? What is Backe's status in the eyes of Red Bull supporters? (via Ryan Sealock)

Hans Backe's contract is up after this season, and I would be completely surprised if he's brought back. The buzz that accompanied the arrival of the new General Manager was that the powers that be have also begun identifying targets for a new head coach to replace Backe. I think the majority of fans respect what he was able to achieve without a lot of squad depth in his first two years. But a sizable amount will never forgive or forget his complete dismissal of the U.S. Open Cup, his unwillingness to make substitutions during matches, and his never ending lineup tinkering.

3. I have to be brutally honest here. I am pretty sick of MLS fawning over a second New York team. Is this the sentiment among Red Bulls fans as well? What advantages/disadvantages do you see if NY #2 comes into existence? (via Ryan Sealock)

A lot of Red Bull fans feel slighted, obviously, that so much media coverage in the tri-state has been focused on a team that does not currently exist, when the team in New Jersey has put together some pretty impressive games in 2012. I have yet to see a scientific poll conducted on the matter, but anecdotally the apprehension toward NY2 transcends different groups of fans - from the ones who have been around since the 90s supporting the Metro to first year Red Bull season ticket holders. If Red Bull Arena were consistently sold out, there would be a lot more apathy toward a second New York franchise. But attendance this season has been disappointing, to say the least. Red Bulls aside, I think the talk around NY2 is unfair to other teams around the league that are really thriving and NOT in New York City. Not that a team (and youth academy) in NYC wouldn't be good long-term for the league, but it really distracts from how well MLS is doing otherwise.

4. The Fire roster looks a bit different than the last time the 2 teams met. It took an absolute golazo from Thierry Henry to break the deadlock. What worries you most about this re-tooled, revamped Fire offense? (via Ryan Sealock)

It's hard to ignore Chris Rolfe - eight goals in just sixteen starts? Some players just have an eye for goal, and the Red Bulls have had difficulties keeping their mark on players like that. I'd also say the same player who I worry about every time New York meets Chicago - Dominic Oduro. I know, I know, he's used off the bench now, but too many times speedy attackers run circles around our physical yet slower defenders. And if Oduro is brought on in the 75th minute to go up against tired legs, he could absolutely be the difference maker.

5. Do you think the current Red Bull roster has what it takes to make a serious MLS Cup run? (via Ryan Sealock)

If key players stay healthy and avoid suspensions, New York is a pretty deep team, at least in the midfield. I do think New York's best eleven can beat any other team in MLS. After almost three years of tinkering, they have finally found a group of players that can really play off each other's strengths and largely cover for any weaknesses. While Thierry Henry taking the lead on New York's stretch run is no surprise, some of the other players who have emerged this season such as Brandon Barklage and now Lloyd Sam show the resourcefulness of now former-GM Erik Soler and Hans Backe. The real issue the team will face is defensive consistency. They give up too many goals early in matches and are often torched by quicker attacking players. That won't fly in November.

6. Name 1 or 2 key matchups in your mind that will decide the outcome of this game. (via Ryan Sealock)

Thierry Henry vs the Chicago Fire. No, seriously. He has been on such a tear, and Backe gives him the freedom on the field to go wherever he likes. He will drop deep back into the midfield and linger out on the wing, until suddenly he's pulling in a pass over the top inside the eighteen yard box. It's also interesting watching a player face his former team, so let's also keep an eye on Wilman Conde. Defensively he's been pretty solid when has hasn't been injured this year, even after he was moved to left back. What I hadn't seen from him previously in his career, was an ability to get forward. It's almost as if he's tough to defend when he has the ball because an opponent won't expect it and suddenly Conde is running past him with the ball at his feet.

Bonus: Predicted Lineup:

GK: Bill Gaudette
DEF: Conde, Pearce, Holgersson, and Barklage
Midfield: Lindpere, McCarty, Cahill, and Solli
Forwards: Henry & Cooper

Bonus: Scoreline and who scores:

2-1 for the Red Bulls. Henry and Cooper tally for New York. Oduro finds the back of the net late for Chicago to keep it close.

Once A Metro Asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. Chicago head coach Frank Klopas is an impressive 24-14-15 (pre-Philly) since taking the reins last season. How much of the Fire's success do you think is attributable to his management and leadership?

I would pin most of the success, if not all of it, on him. He was the main guy that brought in players as a Technical Director, and he has kept that personnel responsibility now that he is head coach too. While I would guess that most head coaches are involved in building a team and bringing personnel in, a move doesn't happen that doesn't go by Frank first. So, in essence he still holds many TD duties, while also serving as head coach. In terms of his mark on the team, it is very evident. We have a good locker room with every member pulling in the same direction. Frank instills an ethic of hard work, tenacity, and playing the game the right way. It also helps that he is a former player and helped take the club to the 1998 MLS Cup in the Fire's inaugural season.

Really, so far in Frank's tenure we couldn't have asked for more. He is a top candidate (with Yallop) for Coach of the Year. He has put a good foundation in place and the team has gotten younger. The gaps we had going in to this season have been addressed for the most part, and he has brought in a more attacking, exciting style of soccer. I, along with most Fire fans, are excited to see what the future holds for Frank and the club.

2. There were a couple of higher-profile roster changes for the Fire over the summer. What are the one or two changes that have impacted the club the most (either arrivals or departures)?

There are 4 I want to highlight (2 outgoing and 2 incoming). Incoming would be Sherjill MacDonald and Alvaro "Flaco" Fernandez. Sherjill has been very good for us, providing a big body that is useful for many things, including wonderful hold up play as a striker. Although he needs to be more selfish sometimes and shoot rather than pass, overall he has been great for us. Flaco hasn't caught on as quickly as most of us would have thought, but the pedigree clearly is there. He is showing flashes of brilliance more and could have a handful of goals for the Fire already if not for a couple of missed sitters. The thing to keep in mind is that he is still adjusting to a new team and style of play. He is still learning where his teammates are on the pitch and how they play. And his teammates are still learning to play with him. I think he will continue to show good form the rest of this season. Given the fact that he will be with us for at least another year, I think he could be an integral part of the 2013 Fire.

The 2 outgoing players would be Sebastian Grazzini and Rafael Robayo. Grazzini leaving obviously hurt. Although Frank has done a wonderful job of filling his whole and even making the team better (our record post-Grazzini is quite impressive at a W-L-D record of 9-4-2 since Grazzini's last appearance on June 23rd). The writing was on the wall as Grazzini displayed a "Thanks Chicago" t shirt under his jersey as he came off the pitch in the 2nd half. It was an odd affair and the full story is still not known by anyone (beyond those directly involved). It ranks as one of the oddest situations I have seen as a sports fan, but it's over and the team has moved on. While I liked Grazzini and a player like that makes any team better, his departure has opened the door for an even better lineup. And that's what it is all about- fielding the best team that can take you the furthest. Sometimes that include making tough decisions like we had to do with Grazzini, but Frank is a coach that will not shy away from that.

In terms of Robayo, he never caught on and left an enemy of the fans, unlike Grazzini. He bashed the level of play and the league more than once, saying he felt he should be getting playing time in an "inferior league". The problem was he never earned it. When he did play, he did not impress, yet still expected to be handed playing time based on his name and past success. The fans wondered why he would be asking to go to a superior league when he couldn't even make the starting XI in MLS. Needless to say, everyone is glad that Rafael and his self pity party are gone. The team is much better off. Credit to Frank for making something happen. Who knows what damage would be done to team morale with him still sulking around the locker room?

3. How hungry are Chicago Fans for a win over New York this weekend? Has this game been circled on your calendar all season or is the fact that both teams are in the hunt for the top of the Eastern Conference helping build some hype?

Definitely the playoff hunt makes this big for Fire fans (and Red Bulls fans as well I am sure). Simon Borg recently put something on MLS' website about the big "rivalry". He used a couple of examples from a decade ago, and it didn't sit well with either set of fans according to the responses I saw. Personally, I wouldn't call this a rivalry game or full of bad blood at all. I think this is a matchup of two good, hungry teams looking to try to end the season in 1st and better help their playoff chances with some home matches. In the Fire's case, it's a chance to beat a top team in a place that hasn't always been friendly to us. These are the types of games that we have to find a way to win if we want to advance far in the playoffs. Given our improved attack and tweaked team, I definitely think we will give New York a very tough challenge Saturday on national TV. Plus the implications are huge for the playoffs. Everyone wants to host home matches (especially the Fire who haven't lost to an Eastern Conference team at home since 2010). The only way to do that is beat the contenders and finish above them.

4. Chicago has been on fire (sorry, couldn't help myself) since August going 7-1-0 in league play up until a tough loss to Kansas City last weekend. Was the 2-0 road defeat a small blip on the radar or did it do some damage to Chicago's momentum?

I think it was a blip on the radar. Sooner or later the team was due for a game where we struggled I think. And the KC game worked out to be the one we didn't play well in. It is always tough to play there, especially if you fall down a goal against their stout defense. We beat them in KC earlier this year (as well as winning at Toyota Park), so we took the season series from them. That's certainly not bad but that is all thrown out the window if we meet them in the playoffs.

To be honest, I thought we just backed off too much in that match. A couple of the players even said we gave them too much respect and too much room. We corrected this in the 2nd half and played much better, but unfortunately it wasn't enough. I think the team will come out very hungry tonight against Philly and take care of business. A resounding home win on the night when the Fire are celebrating their 15th anniversary should be just what the doctor ordered heading into New York Saturday.

5. Three games in eight days is never easy - do you expect Frank Klopas to do some roster shuffling on Saturday to avoid wearing down players this late in the season?

It would be nice to get players like Patrick Nyarko some rest. However, there is too much on the line right now to rest very many players for any long period at all. I am hoping we get a comfortable lead tonight vs. Philly. That would be a better time to get the team some rest. It's definitely going to be a tough game Saturday coming off tonight's matchup. We may also be without Pavel Pardo, which really shows through in the defensive midfield side of things. Despite this, I am confident Frank will get things figured out. One of our writers, Gregg Mixdorf, has done a couple of articles comparing the teams performance early in the season vs. a certain team, and again later in the season (or even last year). One things he has noted in those pieces are that Frank has learned and evolved as a manager in the short time he has had that role full time. Gregg found that Frank has done better both with rotating players and especially with his substitutions. This bodes well heading into the twilight of the 2012 season. His decisions regarding rotation and rest could be the difference between crashing out of the playoffs early or making an MLS Cup run. I would count on seeing a prime starting XI Saturday. In any case it's nice for us to have some of the depth that we do to switch out pieces if need be and still be effective depending on what the game plan is.

6) Who are a couple of lesser-known players you think New York fans should take note of heading into Saturday?

Keep an eye on Alex. Our young Brazilian is starting to come into his role of a Grazzini replacement. Although he is filling in for injured Pavel Pardo in the DM role rather than his regular CAM role right now, he is still capable of a stellar play or two. He had quite the goal a couple of weeks ago, and I think he could have a pretty bright future with the Fire. If he stays disciplined and doesn't push up the pitch like he normally does in the CAM role (he did this in the KC game which created gaps), look for him to spring a nice attack or two with his service.

The other play I will mention is rookie CB Austin Berry. As a Rookie of the Year favorite you may be familiar with his name, but keep an eye on his work, especially against elite players like Thierry Henry. Austin truly plays beyond his years considering he doesn't even have a full MLS season under his belt yet. He is physical, good in the air, and a threat on set pieces offensively speaking. He has the added benefit of learning from German International Arne Friedrich. This invaluable experience will go with him through the rest of his career. Those two have formed quite the CB pairing this year. I think you will find Austin looks much more polished than a rookie CB has a right to be. We are pretty excited about his future here in Chicago to say the least. If Arne and Austin (or the A-Team as some are referring to them as) can put a lid on Henry and company, we have a chance to leave NY with 3 points. While that is not an easy task for any team or player, those two have the ability to get it done.

Bonus - projected lineup and predicted outcome??

Lineup: Johnson, Anibaba, Friedrich, Berry, Segares, Alex, Pause, Nyarko, Fernandez, Rolfe, MacDonald

Score: I will say 1-1. I personally think a draw would be a very good result but will be tough. Unless we can unleash multiple goals or put together a stellar defensive game, I just don't think the chances are high of us getting 3 points without Pavel Pardo. He is a huge key to stopping the other team and having him miss the game really hurts our chances at 3 points. Our defense is much less effective without Pardo.