We ask, they answer
HT: Pablo Mastroeni's the manager, but clearly this Rapids roster was built by Oscar Pareja before he bolted for Dallas. How has Mastroeni's leadership changed things? What has he left undisturbed from OP?
BW: The tactics remain, for the most part, unchanged between Pablo and Oscar's Rapids teams. Pablo tried a few other looks for the team early in the season, but he seems to have settled on the same sort of width-based system of play that got Pareja to the playoffs in 2013. The biggest change for the Rapids has been a philosophy change where Pablo has been far more willing to use technical players than Pareja ever was. (Pareja was more interested in his attacking players being the MLS cliches of either really fast or really strong, and that hurt the team's ability to score a lot of the time.)
Pablo has also enjoyed quite a bit more squad rotation than Pareja seemed to want to employ back in 2013. All but one of our draft picks (Grant Van de Casteele, who has been injured) has gotten some decent minutes this year, and he's hit the reset button on guys like Kamani Hill, who has rewarded him with a pair of goals in the last two games. It has taken longer than we hoped for the team to get some cohesion because of said rotation, but the team clearly has boatloads of talent and as they continue to gel more and more, it looks better and better.
HT: If - and this is a big if, admittedly - one keeps Deshorn Brown from breaking in behind, can he still score? In my memory, his every goal highlight begins with him running onto a ball behind the defense.
BW: Last season, it certainly was the case that he could only ever score when there was a ball to be run into so he could craft a 1v1 chance. This year, however, he's starting to become a bit more of a complete forward. His off-the-ball movement has actually improved a lot, and his first goal against the Dynamo was a goal you would probably be expecting more from Conor Casey than Deshorn Brown, as he ghosted around in the box as the rest of the defense ball-watched, not making a run but instead waiting for the cross to come in. That's patience we hadn't seen from him before, and it's good to see him start scoring goals like that instead of the classic 'through ball that splits the center backs'-type goal that has defined his career so far.
That said, it's exceedingly difficult to stop him from getting behind the defense unless you double-cover him, and the Rapids now have so many other in-form options on attack that it's sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario. I remember last year when it was easy to pull that off when Deshorn was at center forward because Pareja would often play guys like Atiba Harris and Nick Labrocca as his secondary support wing-strikers. Kamani HIll and Dillon Serna are worlds better wing options there to score the goals when Brown is being swallowed up.
HT: What's the general opinion, among the Rapids faithful, of the Fire? Do folks know we exist?
BW: As far as I can tell, we feel a respect towards the Fire as much as any other team in the East. We know you guys share our dislike for both FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, and so many of our former players have gone through your ranks in the past few years that we've had a minor vested interest in keeping up with y'all. Basically, the same way most people in the league seem to feel about the Rapids; they really haven't done much to force any animosity, so we're all cool. On a more personal note, I hung out with Section 8 one time and y'all were cool, so I like you guys.
Starting XI prediction: Hahahahaha good goddamn luck with this. Even when it isn't a midweek game, Pablo loves to throw out surprises. (4-4-1-1) Clint Irwin; Chris Klute, Drew Moor, Jared Watts, Thomas Piermayr; Charles Eloundou, Nathan Sturgis, Jose Mari, Dillon Serna; Dillon Powers, Danny Mwanga
They ask, we answer
BW: So, I'm quite enjoying watching the Fire this season, if only because Harrison Shipp is mighty exciting. How high do you think the kid's ceiling is? How's his game right now, and what is he still working on as a youngster?
HT: I have described Harry as an American enganche; he's something quite a bit different from a standard-issue American attacking midfielder. His ability to think about the attacking game - find some space, see the runs, and deliver the right ball at the right time - is very good and growing almost visibly as he plays. He should be in the conversation for the All-Star game for years.
His 'ceiling' - like, will he become a full international - will likely depend on factors outside his control, though. Harry's small (5-8, 150) and he plays defense in the dutiful but uninspired manner of a born attacker - in other words, he can be a bit of a luxury player. He does the work, but it's clearly 'the work.'
For now, his focus has to be learning how to affect games while a focal point for the opposition. After his lights-out start to the season, he's started to see man-marking in the attacking zone - Columbus' Tony Tchani particularly made his life difficult. But the kid is a genius; he'll figure it out.
BW: We know our old friends Quincy Amarikwa and Jeff Larentowicz have both had big roles to play for the Fire this season, and I already mentioned Shipp. Past those three, who have the most important players for the Fire been through this campaign?
HT: Jhon Kennedy Hurtado has played every minute this season in the center of defense; he's been around some meltdowns, been involved in a few others, but has largely played better than the results have shown. He's durable, unflappable, and proud.
You'll be missing Patrick Nyarko - he has a knee problem, and used the time off that knock afforded him to have some bone spurs shaved off his ankle. The Fire will be missing him, too. Nyarko not only is a dynamic winger who plays both ways, but he's also the team's primary outlet against pressure - when he's out of the lineup, Chicago can struggle to clear the defensive zone against a high press.
BW: Both of our teams have gone through coaching changes this off-season, but our change didn't bring that much of a difference in tactics. Have there been any major differences between the two Franks in Chicago?
HT: This Frank seems to think tactics are a thing, where the previous Frank was very much a 'roll the ball out there and let's see what happens' kind of a guy. Both have favored the stability and flexible nature of the good old 4-4-2, but Yallop clearly sees the possibilities offered by different sets; for instance, against LA, the Fire came out in a compact, narrow 4-2-3-1 that thoroughly stifled the Galaxy.
Generally, it seems Yallop would like to see the team playing with the ball on the deck more than they now do; countering seems to be in the blood for some parts of the roster. It's a work in progress.
Starting XI prediction: This is an extremely tough game to predict - both teams played on Sunday, the game's at altitude - so take this XI well-salted. Johnson; Cochrane, Soumare, Hurtado, Palmer; Watson, Joya, Larentowicz, Duka; Shipp; Amarikwa.