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Chicago Fire vs. Vancouver Whitecaps - MLS #19 - Six Questions

Who's house?  SEAN'S HOUSE!!  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Who's house? SEAN'S HOUSE!! (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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Heading into a VERY big rebound game for the Fire against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night, I visited with Benjamin Massey over at Eighty Six Forever. Benjamin declined to submit any questions for me to answer, but he was gracious enough to answer extra questions that I submitted. So, the format will be similar to other one way question exchanges, with the first question below and the other 5 after the break.

Tomorrow night is going to be a big statement game for the Men in Red. Coming off of a disappointing performance at home against the LA Galaxy, the Fire really need to get back on track. Especially with a vital tilt against New York next Wednesday, which will be a crucial game in the Eastern Conference standings. The Fire must focus on the task at hand and not look ahead to the Red Bulls game prematurely. Vancouver is a good team this year, and they certainly have the ability to put up a good fight and pull out a win if the Fire are not on top of their game. I know the fans at Toyota Park would love to see the Fire atone for the LA game. I am sure the players are eager to scrub the bad taste of LA out of their mouths as well.

Keep an eye out for Stephen Piggott's tactical preview coming up soon, and as always we invite you to join in on the gamethread we will have up tomorrow night. Until then, enjoy the questions and get ready for tomorrow night.

Hot Time In Old Town Asks Eighty Six Forever

1. The Whitecaps are tied with Seattle for 3rd place in the Western Conference (Seattle does hold the edge in goal differential). Despite the lofty points total, Vancouver has only scored 19 goals on the season. Two of the Whitecaps big striking names, Eric Hassli and Sebastien Le Toux, have 2 and 4 goals, respectively. Why do you think their goal totals are low and do you think they will have a stronger 2nd half of the season? (via Nick Fedora)

There are two main reasons the Whitecaps score relatively infrequently, and it's a combination of system and personnel. The first is a defensive outlook. When the Whitecaps get their nose in front, Martin Rennie much prefers to sit on the lead rather than go for insurance. I've lost track of the number of games this year where Vancouver got a goal and just tried to cling to it; it can honestly be infuriating soccer to watch from a neutral perspective, but on the other hand it's getting the Whitecaps pretty decent results.

The other factor is that the offense, for all its big names, isn't really clicking. Last year's leading scorer, Camilo, is a phenomenal talent but can't really play with anybody. Sebastien Le Toux has been playing out wide, and for his legendary work rate he isn't getting a lot of success either shooting or passing. As for Hassli, he's been playing a more withdrawn role this year than last, has turned the physical play way down to avoid getting sent off every 90 minutes (it hasn't wholly worked as he's got the worst thing an MLS player can get: a reputation) and has also been plain unlucky, unable to get the ball in the box and with a surprising percentage of his shots managing to miss the target compared to last year.

I can't imagine those factors resolving themselves in the second half of the year. Obviously new Designated Player Barry Robson was brought in to help the attack, and hopefully he will, but even if Robson meets expectations we're unlikely to see a complete offensive turnaround.

2. Whitecaps defender Jay Demerit has some Chicago ties, playing at local college University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and for the Chicago Fire Premier side. Talk about how he's done for the Whitecaps since joining from Watford in England and how he managed to be selected to the MLS All-Star Game First XI. (via James Coston)

Speaking about DeMerit purely as a defender, he hasn't always lived up to expectations. I think fans expected a bit more from a player of DeMerit's pedigree, and I daresay that he's expected more of himself. Last year was a serious disappointment due to injury, and this year while he's been very good there's no question his All-Star First XI selection was down to his name more than his play. DeMerit isn't even clearly the Whitecaps' best centre-back this season: I'd vote for Martin Bonjour.

Still, no real complaints. DeMerit sometimes tries to do too much but he's ironed out a lot of bad habits a year and a half into his MLS career. He remains a high-quality starting centre back and a major part of the reason the Whitecaps are so difficult to break down defending a lead. In the community he's also hugely positive, representing the Whitecaps with obvious pride to fans and to the public. He's been shushing all doubters in proving a worthy successor to Canadian legend Martin Nash as Whitecaps captain.

3. After a rocky inaugural season, the Whitecaps have played much better in their second season and currently sit 4th in the Western Conference. Why do you think the club hasn't endured a sophomore slump like the Portland Timbers, your expansion colleagues, have? (via James Coston)

The difference between Portland and Vancouver is pretty clear. Portland, last year, had a decent team with some obvious problems. They did nothing to solve the obvious problems, instead moving a proven professional scorer who'd been stuck in a slump (Kenny Cooper) for magic beans. They won a lot of games off the energy of their home crowd and some smoke and mirrors, then figured it would carry into a second season. Maybe people are surprised at how uninspired the Timbers are looking but I don't think anybody outside Portland really marked them to improve on last year; they just didn't do anything to earn it.

Vancouver, on the other hand, stank to high heaven and everybody knew it. The Whitecaps didn't tear down the entire building, but they did replace the architect and he certainly made some changes to the structure. Martin Rennie gave another chance to proven players who didn't quite deliver the goods last year (DeMerit, Davide Chiumiento, even Joe Cannon) and the results speak for themselves. The Whitecaps aren't exactly competing for the MLS Cup but they're a good team that could get better.

Basically, the Whitecaps were operating under no illusions about where they stood in the league at the end of 2011. The same can't be said for Portland.

4. The Whitecaps selected Darren Mattocks with the second overall pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. In his rookie season, Mattocks has already scored six goals (including an incredible header the other night against Toronto FC). Talk about how he's been able to make an immediate impact. (via James Coston)

Darren Mattocks has brought a speed dimension that the Whitecaps' offense has lacked since Randy Edwini-Bonsu left at the end of 2010. For the most part the Vancouver attack relies on low long balls and tricky build-up from the likes of Davide Chiumiento; what Mattocks gives is the ability to just throw the ball over the top and force opposing defenses to respect the fact that he might just burst through and make their lives hell.

We'll see what happens when MLS defenses are used to him a bit: when Drew Moor botched a clearance to give Mattocks the winning goal in Colorado last Wednesday the reaction seemed to be "really?" Soon he'll stop being such a surprise. And, while that Colorado finish was a hell of a poaching job, this is still a man who is as raw as a dead cow and missed more chances in a game against Seattle than some forwards get in a season. I don't want to bash Mattocks, who's clearly covering the bet as a second overall pick: merely to temper expectations. He's lightning but he's not entirely in the bottle yet.

5. Tell me about Martin Rennie's tenure so far in Vancouver. It would seem he has the team heading in a good direction and on a successful level. Is this the general feeling amongst Vancouver fans? (via Ryan Sealock)

Everyone has quibbles with every coach and Vancouver fans have quibbles with Martin Rennie. I'd like to see him show more aggression and play wide more often. He's not perfect and there's by no means a cult of personality around him. I would say that Vancouver fans are willing to forgive his mistakes since he is a 37-year-old in only his sixth season of professional coaching at any level, but at the same time they acknowledge those mistakes are there.

Having led with the negative, of course that's the general feeling among Vancouver fans! Rennie has been a hugely hands-on coach who's transformed a team that finished rock-bottom last season into one that's already recorded their best ever MLS campaign in mid-July. We hoped, almost against hope, that we'd be securely in the playoff race at this time of year and that's exactly what's happening. The team has managed to avoid any catastrophic runs of form. Aside from the now-departed Long Tan, the players seem happy here and Rennie has a good rapport with both the fans and the press. There won't be many Whitecaps fans voting Rennie for coach of the year but there's a definite feeling that next season, he might be it.

6. What do you expect out of Barry Robson? Coming over from Middlesbrough, the Scottish midfielder should bring loads of experience to Vancouver. How do you think he will fit into the team and what goals do you hope he accomplishes in the second half of this MLS season? (via Ryan Sealock)

That is so hard to predict that I've been reluctant to put myself on the record.

On the one hand, Robson brings some skills the Whitecaps need on paper: he's quality from set pieces, shoots from long range, is a vocal midfield general, and can deliver accurate passes at a variety of distances. This past season in the English Championship he was Middlesborough's most valuable player, which darned well ought to suggest he can be a first-class contributor in Major League Soccer.

On the other hand, MLS is a weird league. The referees are difficult, the play is rough even by Championship standards, and of course there's the travel. Robson's already been politely bewildered by North America's media culture, as the sheer level of access given to hacks and the demands upon his time by an insistent press actually got him to voice his disbelief his first week here. He's thrown his arms up a couple of times in shock already at some of the things players and referees get away with on the field around here, and frankly he was always a bit of a discipline case even in England. Eric Hassli was remarkably less effective after the first half of last season because he had to tone down his devil-may-care playing style to suit MLS's capricious officiating. Barry Robson may have to do the same thing.

So far, Robson has been good for the Whitecaps but that's it. He's still trying to find the speed and his role in the team hasn't been entirely cleared up yet: against Chivas USA he spent way more time than a player of his calibre should standing around waiting for the ball because the team's tactics just weren't set up to get him the right touches. He's the sort of player who might absolutely hammer this league for two or three seasons, or he might be brought up in "Top 10 Worst MLS DP Signings" slideshows for the next decade. It could really go either way.