On Saturday the Chicago Fire will take on the English Premiere League Tottenham Hospur Football Club in a high profile summer friendly - kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. at Toyota Park. Chronically just outside of the top of the Premier league table, Tottenham should pose some interesting challenges for the Men in Red. As the Fire prepare to take on the north London club that boast a deep and rich history in England, they must come prepared and ready for battle.
In preparation for the match the Hot Time in Old Town team spoke with Dustin George-Miller at SB Nation's Cartilage Free Captain Tottenham Hotspur blog. Dustin provided terrific information on the incoming challengers and what can be expected as the Fire try to turn up the heat on the Spurs. In return Hot Time in Old Town answers questions for Cartilage Free Captain. HTIOT Editor-In Chief Sean Spence fielded the questions.
We ask, they answer
Hot Time: Fire Head Coach and Director of Soccer has a well known relationship with the Spurs front office. With the recent loan of Grant Ward to the Fire and the connection made with this summer friendly, do you think there is the makings of a club partnership with the Fire? What are your thoughts from a Spurs perspective? (From Anthony Seymour)
Cartilage Free Captain: As an American Spurs supporter I get the sense that the Tottenham brass has noticed the huge expanding market for soccer in the United States. It’s one reason, I think, why Spurs have done three pre-season tours in the USA in the past five years (although the jersey manufacturing deal with Baltimore’s Under Armor certainly helps too, I’d imagine). In this particular tour, Spurs are taking advantage of existing links to particular MLS clubs — Seattle (former Spurs player Clint Dempsey), Toronto (former player Jermain Defoe), and Chicago (Spurs loanee Grant Ward).
I know in the past Spurs had a more or less stable relationship with the San Jose Earthquakes, but I don’t know the status of that partnership at present. While I think it’s too soon to say whether there’s any chance of a long-term partnership with any one particular MLS club like the Fire, so long as the clubs are able to arrange mutually beneficial deals and loans for players I think you’ll find a willingness to see Spurs continue these relationships. It’s good for the club to increase exposure in the American market, and it’s great for American soccer fans to have a chance to see a team like Tottenham play on American soil.
HT: What is it going to take to get Spurs to leap frog over their north London neighbors? When will it happen if ever? (From Adam Merges)
CFC: This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? The English Premier League is really, really good, and every year there are usually six or seven teams that are competing for four Champions League spots. The reality is that once you get into a Champions League position, the financial windfall that you receive from participation and the allure of competing in such a prestigious tournament makes it that much easier to get better players and stay in one of those top four positions. Arsenal is one of those teams that has built upon its prior success in the Champions League to stay in the top four. It makes it extremely difficult for teams on the margins like Tottenham to get over that hump. It’s a Sisyphean task, quite honestly. Spurs can improve and improve and improve (and they have) but the challenges inherent to leap-frogging over an entrenched team like Arsenal are difficult to overcome.
But to directly answer your question, it may sound trite but finishing ahead of Arsenal comes down essentially to winning as many games as you can and hoping that Arsenal has a down year. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but we keep hoping.
HT: What is the status of White Hart Lane? Is expansion possible or do Spurs need to start building a new stadium elsewhere in London? What do the fans prefer? (From John Jenzeh)
CFC: Spurs need a new stadium, and indeed, they are in the process of building one. One of the financial obstacles Spurs faces is that it has the smallest stadium of any club in the top 5, putting it at a disadvantage because it usually cannot afford to throw big-time money at the best players to entice them to come. White Hart Lane is an old stadium with a lot of history, but it’s smallish and there’s a huge wait list for season tickets. More seats = more money, and the cold, hard reality is that more money means a better chance of Champions League football. It’s hugely important.
This is a timely question though, as there was recently a breakthrough in the Northumberland Development Project, a works project which will not only result in a new stadium for Spurs but also hopefully spark a revitalization in that part of Tottenham, one of the more underserved parts of London. Spurs recently won a ruling from the UK government which will allow it to purchase the last parcel of land needed to break ground on a new home in north London. If all goes well, Spurs hope to move in time for the 2016-17 season.
CFC: One of the biggest takeaways that the writing staff took from last season is that coaching matters. Andre Villas-Boas came in with some big ideas but ultimately failed in implementing his vision for how the team was supposed to play. In fact, he gave up on his initial tactics midway through the season and the team fell apart right about the same time. Tim Sherwood… well, I don’t think he ever actually had a tactical plan apart from "do well enough so I can keep my job." By the end, the players looked like they had no idea what they were doing out there. It’s a wonder we finished sixth.
Pochettino, by contrast, has a clear tactical system that he likes, that demonstrably worked at Southampton, and that on paper seems to fit the current personnel at Tottenham very, very well. Poch’s teams are offensively-minded, play vertically, press relentlessly in midfield and defense, and aim to disrupt opposition passing. His Southampton teams had a fluidity of movement and in attack that served them very well, and he was able to get the most out of players like Adam Lallana (now at Liverpool), Morgan Schneiderlin, and Rickie Lambert.
The system is in theory not hugely different than what Villas-Boas was trying to implement at Spurs the past two seasons. The difference is, we hope, that Pochettino has the tactical nous to fully implement his system, and to have a back-up plan if things aren’t going well. We don’t know what kind of team he’ll field in Chicago, but I’ll be watching carefully to see how he sets up against a Fire team in mid-season form.
HT: Roberto Soldado was brought in last season as a talented option at striker for the Spurs but under performed in the 2013/14 season. What do you expect from him this season? Will we see him in Saturday's match? (From Anthony Seymour)
CFC: While all players take time to settle with a new team and especially in a new league, nobody expected Roberto Soldado to struggle like he did last season. It’s not clear if he wasn’t getting the right kind of service, if he was being misplayed by his managers, or if he really just doesn’t fit in well in English football. Maybe it’s a little of all three. Myself, I have high hopes for Soldado this season and think he can turn it around. You look at a player like Luis Suarez, who really struggled in his first season at Liverpool, and think there might be hope for a player like Roberto, with a new manager and a fresh tactical start. I’m not ready to say he’s going to bang in 30 goals this season, but I think people will see a noticeable improvement from Soldado this season. There’s no way he’s as bad as what he showed last year.
HT: The Spurs had significant representation in the 2014 World Cup including: Hugo Lloris (France), Jan Vertonghen (Belgium), Nacer Chadli (Belgium), Nabil Bentaleb (Algeria) and Paulinho (Brazil). How does their participation affect their preparation with the Spurs as they prep for the season? What might we see from these players against the Fire? (From Anthony Seymour)
CFC: Right now, all the Spurs players who participated in the World Cup are getting a well-deserved break and are not with the club during their American tour. Which is a bit of a bummer for fans like me who would like nothing more than to see these same players on the field in Chicago, but they’ve earned their rest. All of the players you mentioned should feature in Spurs’ season to some degree, and the experience they gained in the World Cup should serve them well in the upcoming season. I also think of a player like Nabil Bentaleb, who was a youth player for Spurs at the start of last season and not only made it into the first team but started almost every World Cup game for Algeria. That kind of experience is invaluable, and hopefully he can take it and channel that into positive performances for Spurs. Paulinho, by contrast, had a nightmare Cup (following up a distinctly underwhelming Spurs campaign) and we just hope that he’s not broken.
The nice thing about having players in the World Cup is that, while they’ll be tired for a little while, they won’t need as much time to get back up to EPL-level form as some players who took two months off. You have to be careful that you don’t overwork them, though.
HT: Last season was a major transfer/acquisition year for the Spurs with the transfer of Gareth Bale and the addition of many new faces such as Soldado, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Paulinho. With minutes under their belts will these players play with more cohesion than last season? Are there still weaknesses for the Fire to exploit? (From Anthony Seymour)
CFC: That’s the hope. There’s this zombie meme going around about how Spurs "wasted" the Gareth Bale money because the players they purchased didn’t all turn out to be world-beaters. And while there’s no denying that Spurs had a disappointing season overall, I think it’s an unfair characterization. I expect improvement from all of our key signings from last year. I’m particularly interested in seeing what happens with Erik Lamela, which the English media has labeled a "flop" but who in truth had battled a serious back injury all last season and barely played. He’s healthy now, is motivated to do well, and we have high expectations for him this year.
This is also one reason why I don’t think you’ll see too many major signings this summer for Spurs. The club is due to announce the signing of Swansea players Ben Davies and goalkeeper Michel Vorm any time now, but I’d be very surprised if we see a lot of turnover at the club. The pieces are mostly there; offseason moves are probably going to be in areas of need only.
With regards to the Fire match, however, I don’t think you’ll see all of them on the field, at least not at the same time. Spurs are using this match primarily for fitness and player evaluation purposes, and so I wouldn’t expect a super-strong team of all first-team players. If the Seattle game is any indication we’ll get a hodge-podgey mix of first-teamers and youth players who are hoping to impress their new manager, and consequently mistakes will be made. It wouldn’t shock me at all if an in-form Fire team can score a few goals against this Spurs team, or even come away with a draw or victory. The goal here isn’t to wipe the floor with the Chicago Fire, it’s to get fitness and match experience, ease the players back into game situations, and make sure nobody gets injured. Do all that, and it’s a win-win situation, no matter what the final score.
They ask, we answer
(Questions answered by Sean Spence, except where noted)
CFC: The Fire have one of Tottenham’s youngsters, Grant Ward, this season on loan. What are your impressions of Ward as a player? How has he integrated himself into the Fire’s squad, and does he look like the kind of player who could develop into an MLS or Premier League star?
HT: Grant is a modern two-way winger, fleet and crafty enough to create problems going forward and hard-working enough to contribute without the ball. He's still young, still prone to have stretches where it's clear he's not sure how to affect the game, but in a few short months we've seen enough growth to think the problem is merely lack of top-flight experience, not lack of ability.
He sort of burst onto the scene with the Fire, playing very well with a younger group in preseason and scoring an absolute golazo in a match in Arizona. He seems to be a good teammate, and the other players seem to like the kid.
As an MLS prospect, I could see him developing into a Best XI-level winger; he will get mountains of playing time here that he wouldn't get in the Prem. He still has a lot of room to grow, technically and especially mentally, and he's young enough to get where he needs to be. He struggles to come up with ideas in the run of play at times; his best moments are when the game opens up and he can focus on beating a guy and getting a shot or cross in.
At the Premier League level, I'd probably be converting him to a right wingback. Pochettino surely loves a good wingback. In that position, he'd be more technical than average and more creative than average, rather than on the negative side of those ledgers, and his pace and work rate would do him more credit.
CFC: American cities like Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles get the lion’s share of the attention in MLS due to the strength of their fan base. How does Chicago fare as a "soccer city" — has the city embraced the beautiful game? Is there more that needs to be done to increase fan support and soccer culture in the Windy City?
HT: Chicago is a soccer city, full-stop, but most of it exists below the radar. There are a huge number of youth programs, of course, but there are also a truly staggering number of adult leagues in the city, mostly organized around the old neighborhood structure of ethnicity - there's Croatian teams, and Mexican teams, Poles, Guatemalans, you name it.
The ongoing tragedy of the Chicago Fire is that most of the soccer fans in the city ignore the team, choosing to experience the world's game either personally in a park somewhere, or from arms length via television.
"Why?" is the (several) million dollar question. Here's a few reasons: The club has not always done a good job building bridges to those existing soccer communities in the city, so they don't turn out, focusing instead on their city leagues and news from the old country. The club plays in Bridgeview, a town on the outskirts of the Chicago metro area that is not well-served by mass transit; this blocks the effort to recruit the hipster hordes that pack Seattle and Portland. And the general trend for the club on the field in recent years has been depressing; we were one of the league's elite from our founding in 1998, but have been mediocre at best for the last five years or so.
CFC: Where does Chicago fall in the hierarchy of MLS teams right now? Are they performing at more or less where you expect them to be at the moment?
HT: Man, you're not making this easy, are you? I think I'm going to do some yoga for a minute to calm down.
Sadly, we are near the bottom of the MLS hierarchy at the moment. In the off-season, the club fired basically the entire front office; we are still waiting to see whether the new group can produce better results. But just a quick eyeballing of our roster shows you that we're not spending the money on payroll that most teams are. We do not feature a Designated Player. We are leaning heavily on a 22-year-old homegrown player (Harry Shipp) to produce moments of inspiration going forward. Manager Frank Yallop and his crew have some leeway, as he's clearly been brought on to rebuild, but the early returns are not good.
CFC: Sure, it’s a preseason friendly, but it sometimes feels as though MLS teams that play major European teams take it a little more seriously than other clubs. What do you expect out of the Fire in this match? Will we see a full-strength starting lineup, or a rotated side? Is it about bragging rights? Is it about trying to raise MLS’s profile abroad? Or is it really just a friendly?
HT: We just had a league match on Wednesday, and have another next Wednesday. If we don't see a rotated side for this friendly, I might have an aneurysm. That said, I've got medical staff on call, because there's only so much rotating we can do at the moment.
I'd like to say this is about raising MLS' profile, or whatever, but for us it's not. It's a chance to have a nice night out at the park and see some guys play who make more than our entire roster. Manchester United just nuked the LA Galaxy from orbit; my guess is that Spurs will want to do likewise, just to show the folks back home that they're not off the pace already.
Many of the more hardcore Fire supporters feel that this friendly is an ill-timed cash grab for a team that needs fewer gimmicks and more quality footballers. Your mileage may vary.
CFC: Sean Johnson, Mike Magee, and Jeff Larentowicz might be the three most recognizable Chicago Fire players right now. For the benefit of our non-American readers and those who don’t follow the MLS closely, who else on the Fire roster should Spurs fans watch closely during the match?
HT: Our centerback tandem of Bakary Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado have a distinctly 'little-girl-with-the-curl' vibe to them - when they're good they're very good, but when they're bad they're awful. If they have a good outing, Tottenham will find this to be a surprisingly difficult matchup. Soumare is the usual culprit either way; he's huge, aggressive, and has good feet, but is prone to switching off at the most astounding times.
Quincy Amarikwa is a striker whose specialty is leverage - he's not very big, but he's tremendously strong. He's a handful.
Of course Harry Shipp, whom I'll discuss below. Another homegrown player signed this season is Chris Ritter, a defensive midfielder who played at Northwestern University. Ritter passes the ball well from deep midfield.
CFC: I’ve been hearing a lot about Harry Shipp lately… not least because I live in northern Indiana and often tracked the Notre Dame soccer team during Shipp’s tenure there. He’s playing well right now — how high is his ceiling, and could he turn into a player with international club or national team ambitions?
HT: Harry Shipp's ceiling is very high, but he's a very different player than the usual American attacking mid. I'd propose that Landon Donovan is the prototype USA attacker - good enough touch and vision boosted by (in his prime) truly startling acceleration and pace. Harry inverts that equation, as he's a good enough athlete, boosted by truly startling touch and vision. I wrote about Harry's difference a couple of months ago, saying his proper role was as an enganche.
He's only 22, in his first season as a pro, but I've seen enough to say that Shipp should at least get a look from Klinsmann and the USA. Can his game continue to grow? I'd like to think so. At the highest level, the question may become is he the kind of player who can fit into modern tactical structures? Or can he produce enough chances to dictate his place?
CFC: Chicago Spurs has a large presence in the Windy City, and are preparing to welcome what feels like a large number of American Spurs fans in the region and beyond to Chicago for this weekend’s match. Overall, how popular are Spurs locally in Chicago compared to fans of other major European clubs?
HT (Anthony Seymour): Most of the major EPL clubs have significant followings in Chicago. I would not want to diminish the commitment of any other club's supporters in the region. Many of the of the Spurs supporters are also Fire supporters who participate in a very rich soccer culture in Chicago, mingling with supporters from many other EPL clubs. That being said, the Spurs do have a very organized and committed following in Chicago that could rival any other club's following. The Chicago Spurs are an official supporters group of the Tottenham Hotspurs and have gotten frequent recognition from the club and even photo features in the Spurs game day programs. The group currently meets at the Atlantic Bar and Grill in Lincoln Square and boasts a game day attendance that drifts into the hundreds for major matches such as when they play Arsenal (even at 6 in the morning!). There is even a group that travels up by bus for major matches from the small suburb of Crystal Lake. I attend many Spurs matches at the Atlantic and the group is known for maintaining passion throughout the match singing supporters songs throughout the watch party.
Chicago Spurs fans would boast that a large part of Tottenham choosing Chicago to compete in for the summer friendly is the organized efforts of the Spurs supporters culture in the city. It is undeniable that they have helped the Spurs plan a quality event for this friendly including: a Q&A session with Spurs legends, a charity toy drive and a supporters game with our own Fire supporters. Spurs fans from Chicago and around the US will be seen this weekend at the Cubs game when Spurs players throw out the first pitch, the open practice at Toyota Park, Downtown at ceremonial bell-ringing at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and in force at Toyota Park for match day. As a Spurs fan you, along with other fans from around the US should feel very welcome indeed. Fire fans will need to come out strong to show equal support to counter efforts.
CFC: Final question: Let’s say Mauricio Pochettino will allow Chicago Fire to keep any one Tottenham Hotspur player on loan for one season. If you’re the manager of the Fire, which player do you pick, and why?
HTIOT: Uh, wow. Off the top of my head, I'd probably say Emmanuel Adebayor, because we've got three strikers on the roster, and one of them is Matt Fondy. Or Jan Vertonghen to solidify the backline. Those are pure fantasy, of course, as neither of them's going anywhere.
If you're looking for a more realistic loan, maybe Lewis Holtby - he'd certainly get a lot of games for us. I'd love to see the Fire roll out an old-school Brazilian-style 4-2-2-2 with Shipp and Holtby in the attacking-mid band, given freedom to roam around and look for space. That'd be fun.