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Fireside Chat: Houston v Fire, MLS #29

Derek Stowers of Dynamo Theory helps us contemplate the possibilities inherent in an 8th-vs-9th matchup in late September

Alex can expect a lot of company on the Fire's left wing against Houston.
Alex can expect a lot of company on the Fire's left wing against Houston.
Jonathan Daniel

We ask, they answer

HTiOT: Are the Dynamo faithful still thinking playoffs this year? As a team who's only ever missed the playoffs once, how would the fanbase take that failure, in your opinion?

DT: I think many Dynamo fans have decided there will be no postseason this year, but are hoping to be proven wrong. Many of us still crack the line from Dumb and Dumber "so you’re telling me there’s a chance", even when the odds are stacked against a playoff picture. Considering how the season went, I don’t think many of us would take it as a failure when we’ve been hit with at least 3 concussions, 3 ACL tears, and international call-ups during the summer. Injuries haven’t been kind to our team this year and it’s hard to really blame the team for that. Some fans, on the other hand, are calling for a rebuild because we’re simply not used to having such a poor season.

HT: How has the addition of Luis Garrido changed the look of the Houston midfield?

DT: Luis Garrido is quickly becoming a fan favorite because of his aggressive defensive style in the central midfield. Since joining the league, he’s been one of the best tacklers and can really make things difficult for players going anywhere near him. He’s allowed Ricardo Clark, another defensive central midfielder, to get forward more which has opened up a lot more attacking possibilities that weren’t there before Garrido’s signing. The one thing he does better than anything else, in my opinion, is help cover for our central defenders. In our last match against the Philadelphia Union, Andrew Wenger beat center back David Horst and was on his way to goal when out of nowhere came Garrido to make a huge tackle on the ball which kept the game level. Those are the kinds of big plays he’s capable of and he lives up to his nickname, "La Fiera", translated "The Beast".

HT: The Dynamo have a beautiful new stadium in downtown Houston, yet the perception is the club still struggles with attendance a bit. Is this a case of MLS running into fans of futbol who aren't fans of the league? Is it just down to winning? Or are there some other factors?

DT: This is such a good question, and one I really want to know more about. I think it’s a combination of factors that all make getting "butts in seats", as we like to say, difficult. Houston sports fans are notoriously fickle. If you watch a Houston Rockets game, the Toyota Center won’t look very full until the 2nd quarter or so. Houston fans can also be jaded by a lack of positive results and turn their attention elsewhere. The city is also incredibly expansive which can make attending games quite a commute for some. Then there is the group that prefers futbol and supports their native teams rather than their local Dynamo. Our attendance is far from poor, but for a city as large as Houston, and with a soccer (or futbol) loving population that we have, we can do better. If we somehow make the playoffs, any playoff games at BBVA Compass Stadium will be sold out, but if we don’t the remaining home games may see too many empty orange chairs in the stands.

Predicted lineup: Deric; Beasley, Cochran, Horst, Sarkodie; Davis, Garrido, Clark, Driver; Barnes, Cummings

Predicted Score: 2-1 Dynamo. The Dynamo need wins and I think they’ll get this one at home.

They ask, we answer

DT: The Chicago Fire have struggled in recent years to make the playoffs with their last appearance coming in 2012 where they were knocked out of the wildcard or knockout round by the Houston Dynamo. How are the Fire poised to finish out the year, and what kinds of changes do you think the Fire Front Office will make to improve things for next year?

HT: I've written repeatedly over the last couple of weeks that the Fire are effectively playing an extended preseason for 2015 - even when they were just six points out of a playoff spot, there were so many teams ahead of them to leap-frog that prospects were dim. A pair of draws in the last two games at home seems to have sealed their fate - the Men in Red, who had only missed the postseason once ever before 2009, will watch from home in 2014 for the fourth time in five years.

Our front-office braintrust of Frank Yallop and Brian Bliss have gone on the record repeatedly to decry the horrid salary-cap situation they inherited; it's difficult to imagine that such an excuse would fly next year. I'd expect to see a lot of changes in the roster between now and next March, including (but not limited to) some players on large contracts going into the Re-Entry Draft. (Of course, the fact that MLS and the MLS Players' Association don't have a contract for 2015 complicates this - the new CBA could change the landscape in unpredictable ways.)

The team you'll see Sunday is already starting the rebuild. Strikers Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Robert Earnshaw have only recently been added to the roster, and are quite plainly playing to be part of the team next year.

DT: Mike Magee is obviously a pivotal player for this Fire club, how has his absence affected results and how have players tried to step into the reigning MVP's shoes?

HT: Mike's 2013 will doubtless go down as the best of his career, but 2014 has not been kind to the MVP. He's scored a few goals, but nearly half were on penalty kicks, and his movement and finishing were blunted, safe-for-kids versions of his razor-sharp form the previous year. It came as some relief to learn that Magee had been struggling with a hip injury and needed surgery; absent that, we'd just seen our beloved home-town MVP fall to pieces before our eyes.

Yallop has tried a few things to replace Magee. Most recently, he's played Sanna Nyassi at striker, hoping his speed would clear space for Quincy Amarikwa; that didn't work very well. A better option (on admittedly not a huge amount of evidence) is playing Harry Shipp underneath Quincy Amarikwa in a free trequartista role. Shipp is a natural in the position - something Magee seems not to be - and his astute use of space allowed Chicago to keep the ball against DC United, something the Men in Red have struggled with all season.

DT: The Fire have struggled earning wins as they've notched just 3 league wins since the beginning of July, but only 4 losses. The club has managed to draw games more than any other in the league. Why do you think the Fire have let so many points go by just getting the one point for the draw?

HT: In the first half of the season, the draws were often the result of mind-blowing let-downs in the last 10 minutes or so - leaving people unmarked on set pieces, botching penalty kicks, that sort of thing. The Fire probably deserved wins in three of their first seven draws. Then the weight of failure began to pull on the team, and doubt is a terrible thing in football. The defense, remade in the offseason, continued to struggle, which put strain on the midfield to cover, and so on.

Yallop remade the team in late July-early August, moving captain Jeff Larentowicz to centerback and benching Jhon Kennedy Hurtado while turning the center of midfield over to a box-to-box duo of Razvan Cocis and Matt Watson. (Hurtado has since been dealt to Chivas USA, the MLS equivalent of a security posting in Siberia.) The changes have helped - the team looks more stable and keeps the ball better now. But it's a work in progress that's taking place as other teams are building for the playoffs.

There's also the fact that this team lacks the kind of top-end talent that turns games on their head single-handedly. It's not a secret; even Yallop has spoken about it. Chicago will scratch and claw for 90 minutes, but there's a real dearth of guys who can create a half-chance out of nothing and finish it. This edition of the Men in Red are the almost, not-quite team, and their 16 draws (and counting!) are fair testament to that fact.

Predicted lineup (4-4-1-1): Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Patrick Ianni, Jeff Larentowicz, Logan Pause; Alex, Matt Watson, Razvan Cocis, Grant Ward; Harry Shipp; Quincy Amarikwa.

Right back is anyone's guess; Palmer has been a sure starter all season, but is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. We could even see some kinda crazy thing, like Patrick Nyarko playing right back. Bakary Soumare is suspended for stomping on Michael Seaton last week, which means Ianni will likely get the call.

Score prediction: This matchup of the eighth- and ninth-best teams in the East looks it. Somehow all the goals seem against the run of play. The Fire drag Houston out of the playoff race, bucket-of-crabs style, and set a new MLS record with their 17th draw: 1-1.