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Chicago Fire vs. LA Galaxy - MLS #1 - Fireside Chat with LAG Confidential

I am so happy to be typing that tagline again. It means that a Fire game is near and this isn't just any game. It's the opening game of the season. Hopes for the upcoming season are fresh and this will be a tough early test for this team. I for one am very excited. Chicago Fire soccer is back!

Jonathan Daniel

To kick off the 2013 MLS season, I visited with Jocelyn Becker over at LAG Confidential. Starting off on the road against the defending MLS champs will be a very early litmus test for this Fire squad. Fortunately, the Men in Red are coming off a strong pre-season, and I look for them to be ready to roll.

Most of you should now the drill by now. I post their responses to our questions, followed by my answers to their queries. To kick off the season properly, I have an expanded 6 question exchange for your pleasure. Make sure you also check out our HTIOT prediction piece that just went up. We will have our match preview up tomorrow morning, and as always we ask you to join us Sunday for the gamethread. With that being said, off we go:

Hot Time In Old Town Asks LAG Confidential

1. When you consider the Galaxy's slow start last year, how much of an impact will not having Landon Donovan early in the season have? (via James Coston)

The problem with this logic is that the Galaxy started slow last season having both Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. What they didn't have was Omar Gonzalez, and that led to a revolving door of players starting with A.J. DeLaGarza at center back. So I'm not being glib when I say I don't think it'll have a negative impact the likes we saw last year. The regular back four will all be together, and Carlo Cudicini is a capable keeper for the demands of MLS.
What the Galaxy will miss in Donovan's absence is playmaking in the midfield. Colin Clark was picked up to give the Galaxy more width, but on the opposite wing you'll likely see Michael Stephens who was used more as a defensive replacement last year. Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas are more than capable passers, but the Galaxy won't have someone with Donovan's quickness and dribbling ability to make something out of nothing. So against better defenses it might be a rough go getting offensive opportunities.

2. With all the stars and well-known players the Galaxy have, are there any under-the-radar players that will likely play a big role this season? (via James Coston)

Michael Stephens will be called on to do a great deal while Donovan is still on sabbatical, but the Galaxy are also expecting a fair amount from Leonardo. He's been rehabbing from a season ending knee injury for essentially two years now, but when he went down he was the preferred partner for Omar Gonzalez with A.J. DeLaGarza either playing at right back or coming off the bench. It was the Leonardo injury that sprung DeLaGarza as a permanent starting lineup fixture, as before Leonardo it was Gregg Berhalter back there.

Between CCL/Open Cup and a few impacted weeks, the Galaxy are going to need to rely on their depth to get them through and Leonardo is one of the players who will be called on to relieve Gonzalez and DeLaGarza and not skip a beat.

3. David Beckham has left a hole in the Galaxy offense. How is the team planning to fill it for the 2013 season? (via Ryan Sealock)

Juninho is the short answer. With Donovan out Juninho has been taking all the free kicks and corner kicks, and anyone who watched MLS Cup last year knows Juninho can send in a mean cross. Juninho also plays a good amount of defense, which Beckham did more and more as he didn't have the pace to change zones.

The long answer is the Galaxy are going to have to change strategy as no one can fill the hole Beckham leaves, which is actually a good thing. When you have a player like Beckham on the pitch, there's pressure to adjust the offense to his strengths. So even when teams knew the Galaxy couldn't stretch wide and so played twenty two men in the box, Beckham would still send hopefully balls to Keane and Buddle. There were some matches within the ballpark of 15/2 cross to successful cross ratios.

Without Beckham LA will play the ball on the ground more, and will move faster up the pitch. Not San Jose who cares if the other team counters fast, but with less holding in the midfield.

4. Who will step up as the new starting GK after Josh Saunders' departure? Is Carlo Cudicini the answer? (via James Coston)

Carlo Cudicini. Yes he is the answer.

I really wanted to be glib and just leave that there alone but I pick posies in my free time and I can't be that cold. Saunders, like Ricketts before him is an average goalkeeper. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you see what happens when you put an average goalkeeper with a below average back line. There were some who wanted Perk to get a fair battle for the starting goalkeeper spot, but that was never going to happen. Cudicini was brought in to start and it's his position so long as he's healthy.

5. Repeating as champions in MLS is hard. Making it a 3 peat is an even loftier task. Realistically, do you think another Cup is in the cards for 2013? (via Ryan Sealock)

Yes. Seattle has a great club, but they lost Fredy Montero. Kansas City made good moves but are likely losing Kei Kamara for good, ditto with FC Dallas and Brek Shea. RSL fans are in front of the Riot crying "You maniacs! You blew it up!" while Chivas fans are joining in "Ah damn you! God damn you all to hell!"

So it'd be one thing if MLS went out and got a whole lot better, but on the whole this off-season seems an exercise in stasis. There's a reason Sports Illustrated's three person panel said little more by way of prediction than "Uh, I guess Galaxy and Houston again? And like, one of them will win the cup or whatever". It's because looking at the sum of the preseason moves, it's hard to point to the team that did significantly better than everyone else.

6. Give me an outsiders view of what your take is on the new look 2013 Fire team. (via Ryan Sealock)

I like Chicago, it's a fun town. The narrative on the Fire seems to be tough club, will give a good fight every match, but lacking that something that would make them truly great. Certainly Fire games are going to be ones I want to watch on MLS Live.

LAG Confidential Asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. The Fire finally broke through last year, only to meet MLS' hottest playoff team in the play-in round. Have the Fire done enough this off-season to get more national attention, or do you expect to fly under the radar again?

Right now we are definitely under the radar, and that's ok with me. It would seem Chicago gets ignored routinely by national media who tend to focus on NY, LA, and Seattle. We also don't have any big star names on the roster so a lot of people overlook the Fire for that reason as well. While media attention is nice, flying under the radar is nice because we can go about our business quietly and sneak up on teams who have their minds elsewhere and overlook our team.

We have certainly improved the roster this year and are a better team overall. We still don't have that big name jersey seller so I expect the lack of attention to continue somewhat, at least until the results come in. While the owner has stated the money is there to make a big name signing, it will only happen when the right player and situation is found. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet but just looking at how successful Cuauhtemoc Blanco was in his time in Chicago shows that the right player can make a big splash in the Windy City. Fans are hoping for that big signing soon. I look for the Fire to go deeper into the playoffs than last year to be sure.

2. Are there any players from last year's squad that you expect to have a breakout year?

Brazilian midfielder Alex would be an early pick of mine. He was with the team last year and has his moments, but wasn't consistent at times. He is normally thought of as a CAM, but has actually played a withdrawn striker role somewhat this off-season to very good success. That provides welcome depth at the striker position, and helps get him more minutes. He had a nice golazo last week in the Carolina Challenge Cup, and I look for him to have what could be called a breakout year this year.

3. Sherjill MacDonald isn't quite a household name yet in MLS. What will his role with the club be now with a full year ahead of him?

He will still be featured in the hold up striker role. I definitely think a full pre-season will help him get into gear much faster this year. He also has players like Chris Rolfe, Quincy Amarikwa, and Maicon Santos to play off him, so my hope is that he nets a good handful of assists. He can score as well and if he can give the Fire a solid 8 goals or so, I will consider it a very good year for him. He has shown a knack for goal at times, and missed some open chances at others. He would be my wild card pick this year. By that I mean he could either produce like I am hoping or have an up and down, rocky year. Fire fans hope it's the former and I think a full pre-season will help him achieve these goals.

4. Sean Johnson has been getting a solid look in the USMNT January camps. If he gets called up for Gold Cup work, do the Fire have a capable backup?

Fortunately, yes we do. He has only featured a couple of times (started the first couple of games in 2012 in lieu of SJ's absence). His name is Paolo Tornaghi, and he is a product of the Inter youth system, so he has some nice pedigree. The Fire are actually using an International Spot on him, so it says something about his ability when a backup GK takes up an International Spot. I have full confidence in Paolo being able to guide the team to victory in Sean's absence. He's athletic, distributes the ball well, and is able to organize the back line. Honestly, I think he is good enough to start for a handful of MLS teams, or at the very least make a strong case for a starting spot. It's nice to have depth like that in case of injuries, Gold Cup/Hex play for SJ, or just for US Open Cup play.

5. No new shirts for the Fire this year. Has it been encouraging to see adidas designing flag inspired and historical throwback shirts? Or just frustrating?

Frustrating to be sure so far for Fire fans. Supporters have long wanted a properly designed Chicago municipal flag jersey. While these requests have gone unheeded the past few season, the front office recently reached out to the fans and said this is an issue they are listening to, and want to get the fans involved in helping design it. So definitely some credit needs to be given to ownership in finally acting on one of the most requested products in Fire Nation. As they say, "better late than never."

I will say I like this new jersey initiative, and the Fire will be a part of it next year (hopefully with a Chicago flag jersey to announce). The new jersey week concept gets fans excited and helps spur sales. Plus some of the new designs have been pretty nice. It's good for the league to start showing some daring designs rather than the same boring templates year in and year out. Fans want to wear a jersey of their team proudly, and it helps when that jersey is well designed. And if you can tie it directly into the city itself, what could be better?

6. Be honest, do you think the Galaxy have a chance to three-peat? Or is it time to stick a fork in LA?

LA is still strong and yes I do think they have a legit chance to 3 peat. I am not picking them to do so, but they still field a very potent team lead by Robbie Keane and anchored by Omar Gonzalez. And you have to throw Landon Donovan into the mix in a month when he comes back. I look for the Galaxy to be a top 2 team in the West again this year. If things fall right they certainly could hoist a 3rd consecutive MLS Cup, but I am hoping a certain team from the East that plays in Chicago will be that team instead!