We ask, they answer
HTiOT: Jim Curtain has recently seen the 'interim' tag removed as Union manager. What's the key to Curtain's success so far? How would you characterize the former Fire man as a manager?
BG: While the interim tag is still officially affixed according to Curtin, he has done his best to get that removed. He has brought a more professional attitude to the locker room and has started playing players where they belong in a system that really plays to the Union's strengths. I think his time with the Chicago Fire has gained him a lot of respect - he's been there and done that. He's won and he's lost at the MLS level, and unlike his predecessor, he's able to convey that to the men in the locker room. (So, whoops on the premise of this question. - Ed.)
HT: Andrew Wenger seems to be growing into a sort of target-winger role with the Union. How does his maturation change what the Union can do to the opposition?
BG: Andrew has definitely been a welcome addition to the club. He gives the offense another legitimate scoring threat, and one that was sorely needed on the left. His ability to score will help lighten the load on an overburdened Conor Casey.
HT: The Austin Berry deal left a bit of a sour taste in some Fire supporters' mouths - just more than a year removed from winning Rookie of the Year, Frank Yallop and Brian Bliss dealt him for some allocation money. But he hasn't seen much playing time at all, even watching a converted rookie target forward playing in front of him at one point. What's the deal with Berry, and does he have a future with the Union?
BG: Berry was the starting center back early this season for the Union, but didn't perform all that well before getting injured. This was at a time when the Union's only natural center backs were Berry and Ethan White. Former manager John Hackworth had a revolving door of center backs - Maurice Edu, Amobi Okugo, Sheanon Williams, and most (in)famously Aaron Wheeler - though none of them really seemed like the best fit. This was the Union's greatest weakness, and was one of the reasons the club was in the cellar going into the World Cup break (and helped contribute to John Hackworth's downfall and exit).
Since Jim Curtin has taken over, much has happened at center back. Carlos Valdés has returned from stints in Colombia and Argentina and has immediately been an anchor on the back line. Curtin also gave Ethan White a shot at starting and he's done admirably given the chance, although lately has been replaced by the Edu/Okugo tandem. So Berry is buried on the bench a bit, but I think he does have a future with the club. He's young, so for now he'll provide depth while learning the craft from guys like Valdés and Edu. As for the future, this offseason is going to be something else. Between the expansion draft and CBA negotiations, who knows what the roster will look like for First Kick 2015. I know personally I'd like to see Berry remain here. I think he's got a bright future wherever he winds up.
Predicted lineup: M'Bolhi; Gaddis, Valdés, Edu, Williams; Okugo, Nogueira, Maidana, Cruz, Wenger; Casey
Predicted score: I think both clubs will fall flat during the midweek game. 0-0 in a bore draw.
They ask, we answer
BG: Realistically, Chicago is eliminated from playoff contention, being ten points out with only five matches left. What is the mentality of the club and the fans going into this match?
HT: The mentality of the club is hard to pin down, and has been for much of the season, as Anthony Seymour's piece from Tuesday illustrates. One thing is clear: The 2014 season is effectively over as a sporting concern for the Chicago Fire. Will the players view Thursday's game as just another dead rubber, or (conversely) as a chance to trip up a playoff hopeful and, in so doing, burnish their reputations going into 2015? That's a great question, and one that is unlikely to be answered before kickoff.
The fans are very frustrated, understandably, but seem resigned to seeing what the front office of Frank Yallop and Brian Bliss in the offseason. The long-lamented salary-cap debacle should be sufficiently unwound that whatever team takes the field next year will be 100 percent on them. If the team starts poorly next season, prepare for a unceasing siren of complaint from the fans in the Windy City.
BG: Mike Magee only has seven goals this season. Why the steep decline from last year?
HT: We learned about a month ago that Magee was fighting a hip injury for much of the season, which (oddly) came as a relief. Magee's movement, finishing and anticipation in 2014 were nothing like his 2013 MVP form. Essentially, he's just played worse.
Magee's another example of someone who has a great deal to prove in 2015. His holdout in preseason would not be an issue if he'd been anything like the player we were expecting upon his return. Instead, he's been a poster child for the cardinal sin of Believing One's Hype, a whiny and out-of-sync shadow of the player that dragged the Fire up by their bootstraps in 2013.
BG: How has Bakary Soumare performed for the Fire this season? A lot of Union fans are wondering "what if" since depth at center back has been an issue for most of the season.
HT: Bakary Soumare is the kind of player who makes a magnificent prospect and a frustrating squad member. There's always this patina of 'if only' around Soumare - if only his concentration was better, if only he'd evaluate risk and reward better, he'd be Best XI material year-in and year-out. He's a physical specimen - huge, nimble and explosive - but seems to need a more-responsible minder alongside him to focus those gifts consistently. In stretches, he's been dominating; sadly, those stretches seldom last 90 minutes. That frustrating fact, added to his astonishingly high cap number, dictates that conventional wisdom among the Fire faithful is that Philadelphia got a good deal when they shuffled him off to Chicago.
Predicted lineup (4-4-1-1): Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Jeff Larentowicz, Lovel Palmer; Alex, Chris Ritter, Matt Watson, Grant Ward; Harrison Shipp; Quincy Amarikwa.
Sunday's lineup was experimental, in that the team played a 4-3-3 and started two players (Robert Earnshaw and Florent Sinama-Pongolle) who hadn't started previously. By which I mean: Take this prediction with a grain of salt. Yallop could decide to go with kids, or any other direction, unpredictably. Razvan Cocis left the Houston game with a concussion; his availability is up in the air.
Predicted score: Philadelphia's need trumps Chicago's hope, and the Union get a scrappy 2-1 win to keep their postseason dreams afloat.