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Chicago Fire vs. Columbus Crew - MLS #7 - Fireside Chat With Massive Report

As the saying goes, "better late than never". For those of you that look forward to the weekly Fireside Chat, I apologize for the delay. But, it's here now and that is what matters

Jonathan Daniel

I worked with Matt Bernhardt over at Massive Report to gather some info ahead of tonight's match. I want to thank Matt for his input. Enjoy, and we'll see you in an hour when the gamethread posts. Let's go Fire!

Massive Report Asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. As a longtime observer, I find it somewhat disorienting to see Chicago and DC propping up the Eastern Conference while Montreal is pacing Houston and Kansas City. What should Crew fans understand about the Fire's troubles? Was last year's playoff berth that much of an aberration?

The playoff appearance wasn't an aberration. The Fire do have some quality in the team. While there has been turnover form last season, most Fire fans thought that it was a net gain rather than a net loss when the season began. Unfortunately, due to some injuries to key players and other players still not finding a groove, the team has been struggling.

The last 2 weeks have seen better play however, as the Men in Red won their first game of the 2013 season against New York. They followed that up with a courageous effort in Houston that fell a bit short due to a couple of mental lapses. While the team isn't anywhere near where fans want or thought it should be at this point, we have been trending in the right direction for 2 weeks. A win tonight should really help this team get going and back on track.

2. Through six games, the Fire have the worst defense in the league - conceding a goal on average every 45 minutes. How much danger is Sean Johnson in of losing his position?

Absolutely no danger at all. In fact, other than the gaffe on Brad Davis' 2nd goal last week, Sean Johnson has been stellar so far between the sticks. His game seems to be improving with each passing week, and his ball distribution (a sore point in seasons past) has been on the incline.

Honestly, the biggest reason for all the goals allowed is the absence of our German International, Arne Friedrich. Last year, he teamed with rookie Austin berry to shut down opposing teams. This year, he has been hurt and Austin has had to learn the knocks of MLS the hard way. The Fire have also struggled due to no natural RB even being on the roster. As I mentioned above, the defense has been better the past two weeks. They are still prone to some pretty catastrophic lapses at times, but it's a unit that will get better as they play more together. They haven't had that luxury of cohesion yet though due to all the injuries.

3. In addition to Duka, one other offseason acquisition was Maicon Santos - who has now played for three of the Crew's traditional rivals. What sort of impression has he made this season?

Well, Maicon has been Maicon. Absent from games at times, and lighting the league on Fire (pun intended) at other times. For example, he came in and had a brace against the Red Bulls to bring home 3 points. He has also come into the lineup and been pretty much invisible.

I liken him to Dominic Oduro (who of course goes to the Crew and starts off hot). Maicon is that streaky goal scorer that we had in Oduro for a couple of seasons. When he is on, he tears it up. When he is off, we are calling for his substitution. While he is normally thought of as a substitute to bring good depth off the bench, he is also trying to fight for a starting spot. Sherjill MacDonald has gotten a bit better of late but largely has not gotten it done yet this year. So some fans are calling for a Santos start. Make no mistake, his role is clearly defined. He is not a striker that will carry the team into the playoffs. It's good to have him available off the bench, but he won't score double digit goals this year.

4. There is a vocal contingent of fans in Columbus who ask for Warzycha to be fired at almost every opportunity. Is Frank Klopas facing a similar chorus in Chicago? Do you think his job is actually in jeopardy?

While the sack Frank Klopas group has been quieted the past few weeks, there is definitely some pressure in Chicago. Fans have been a bit frustrated with a rather inflexible tactical outlook. It doesn't help that Klopas really hasn't had a choice XI to work with yet either.

Personally, I still think Frank can get it done. He definitely will be given the rest of the season to prove it at the very least. Certainly our track record with signings the past couple of years hasn't been stellar. But part of that comes from the financial means that he is given from ownership. If the Fire continue to struggle, I think he will look to make a splash this summer. His job isn't in jeopardy at all this year in my opinion. If the Fire miss the playoffs, then we are looking at a different story. But Frank took a team that was fractured by Carlos de los Cobos and crafted them into a playoff team last year. There are pieces missing, but the team is better off than say, in 2011 when he took over. Frank has taken a team to the playoffs. Now he has to 1 up that to quiet down those calling for his job.

Hot Time In Old Town Asks Massive Report

1. Are the Crew becoming too one dimensional by relying on Higuain? Who steps up when Higuain gets marked out? (via Adam Merges and Sean Spence)

I don't think there is much danger to the Crew becoming too reliant upon Higuain. For one thing, teams seem to have adapted to covering him relatively well already, so the players cannot simply get the ball to him and let him work his magic. Columbus is fortunate that two of their recent additions can relieve this pressure. Ben Speas, a homegrown player signed midway through last season, has muscled his way into the lineup with some very strong performances (more on him below). Tyson Wahl has also shown some ability in dead ball situations, particularly on the right flank, which gives the team two credible options to keep teams honest.

2. I've seen Dom listed both as striker and right winger in the Crew lineup, which makes me wonder - how has he played on the wing? Can he pitch in defensively? (via Sean Spence)

Dominic Oduro started the season on the right wing, but lately has been used as the advance forward in front of Higuain. At first this was to compensate for Jairo Arrieta being away with Costa Rica, but has continued now thanks to strong performances from Oduro and Speas (who was inserted into the midfield when Oduro moved up top).

Given that Oduro hasn't consistently played on the wing it is a bit hard to talk about his defensive commitment - but he has been creditable enough. Warzycha's system helps here a bit, because the two holding midfielders (Agustin Viana and Danny O'Rourke) can provide a bit of cover.

Overall however, Oduro on the right flank (ahead of O'Rourke and Josh Williams) has been less of a target for exploitation than the left flank - where Agustin Viana and Tyson Wahl are deployed, and lately Ben Speas as well.

3. New Fire midfielder Dilly Duka has been a bit of a bust so far. Do you think he'll be able to snap out of it? Or did the Crew just totally own this deal? (via James Coston)

Certainly the early signs are that the Crew fleeced Chicago on this trade; Duka has yet to even be on the field when the Fire have scored. I haven't watched the Fire closely enough to see whether Duka has been deployed centrally or on the flank (I believe he's been on the wing) - but he never seemed to fit well outside in Columbus. Unfortunately, he was also caught in a numbers game for the Crew, second best to Robbie Rogers out wide and Emmanuel Ekpo in the middle. If he can gain confidence out wide, or convince Frank Klopas to try him centrally, he could yet salvage the trade. I'm not optimistic, however.

4. After missing the playoffs last year, what would a successful 2013 season look like in your opinion? (via James Coston)

The Crew need to qualify for the playoffs. While of course the team and fans will say that they expect a championship, and anything less would be a disappointment, I believe a postseason berth would be enough. If they can grab a high seed and advance, that would be a bonus. A deep run in the Open Cup would also be helpful, but won't really change how the season is judged in the long run.

5. The Crew only have one player that is age 30 (Andy Gruenebaum). With a fairly young roster, do you think this team has the experience and fortitude to turn this season into something memorable? (via Ryan Sealock)

While they may only have one "senior" player, it should be remembered that they have two players with more than 20,000 minutes played - Eddie Gaven (still only 26 years old) and Chad Marshall (28). Add the international experience of Higuain (28) and Glabuer (29), and the team actually has a pretty deep well of experience from which to draw.
I should also mention Ben Speas here. While he is one of the youngest players on the team at 22, a comparison that has been growing in my head is to DaMarcus Beasley. While the two players have very different styles, there is a fearless quality to Speas' play that reminds me of Beasley when he first emerged on the national scene. Some players are able to overcome a lack of experience through daring and savvy play, almost as if they don't know enough to be intimidated. If Speas can continue playing this way, while learning what lessons he can from older players like Higuain and Gaven, then yes - I believe the Crew could produce a season to remember.