Ah, hello there! Terribly sorry ... did I drool? These little transit naps are the worst. ... 20 days? Whaddaya mean, 20 days?
If momentum is really a thing - and there's at least some evidence to back up the idea that it's illusory, nothing more than a characteristic artifact of consciousness plus time - then this 20-day layoff couldn't have come at a worse time for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. The ill timing and lame justifications for the early-season siesta have been roundly derided; whatever the truth of momentum, it feels real.
The steady beat of game, game, game had seen the team's play trend up just as steadily; if the team staggers out of its long break, it will feel like yet another near-miss, a team just coalescing stumbling due to (insert one: Injury, hubris, ill fate). But there's another possibility, and it's one the technical staff are explicitly pitching right now: That this mini-training camp has allowed the team to find itself with all the pieces which weren't identified or available in preseason. Victor Perez can mesh. Shaun Maloney and Harry Shipp have a better idea how they fit together. David Accam and Joevin Jones can work out a division of labor on the left. And so on.
It's a compelling possibility, that the team can burst out of this little cocoon and take flight. It's hopeful. It's seasonally appropriate. Maybe, just maybe, this team can grow into football compelling enough to sell on its own merits. Because the Univision audience will tune in Friday to see a Toyota Park packed (hopefully) by the front office's ticket strategy - sell ‘em on the visitors. David Villa, Mix Diskerud and Vaporware Frank Lampard sold those tickets. The hope is that they'll like what they see from the Fire, and come back again, which at least makes some sense.
Chicago Fire SC (2-0-3) v New York City FC (1-3-3)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. CDT, Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Illinois
Television: Unimás, Univision Deportes, streaming at deportes.univision.com
The worry is that they'll see something else entirely - an organization being strangled by penury and ‘message control.' Gates opening late, or not at all, or without a working ticket checker. Concession lines snaking through the concourse as three people work a six-person station. Mike Ernst is a true credit to the organization, but even his passion cannot paper over what looks, to the untrained eye, like a gameday staff constrained by simple budget considerations. As badly as the soccer team needs a good performance to confirm the truth of its mini-camp, the operations folks need a smooth showing to change their narrative.
But it's the football which can truly save it. A winning team with crappy concessions, a thin-skinned owner half a continent away and a dustbowl parking lot are Scrappy Underdogs. They're punk rock. Sandinista! Solidarność! Take away the wins, and suddenly it's the Dust Bowl. It's a tire fire.
‘Momentum,' in sporting terms, may be a fiction, but ‘awareness' is not. If the last 30 years have taught us anything, it's that Americans have an almost limitless ability to tune out bad news. Here's to hoping the Fire continue to play well, lest they simply fade from view, football's Brigadoon.
The Fire have spent the better part of three weeks on ice, practicing bewitching new patterns and shadow-boxing, apparently to good effect. Since their rousing 3-2 pickaxe job on Toronto FC 20 days ago, the Men in Red have dealt Alex for Jason Johnson. They've practiced, like, eleventy-bajillion times. And they've surely grown weary of clowning each other. But they'd won two on the trot before the break, so the question arises: Momentum or variety? Is it better to be well-rested and tactically invested, or incandescent and full of the purest urgency? We're about to find out.
Every indication is that this will be the first large crowd of the season at Toyota Park. The front office's ‘sell ‘em on the visitors' approach really bears fruit in these situations where the opposition is both deep-pocketed and from the Five Boroughs. So we come to another of these nexuses (nexi?), big games in front of big home crowds, a situation in which the Fire have come up flat far too often in the last few years.
Fortunately, there's plenty of reason to expect Chicago to sparkle tonight. The team seemed to finally be finding a way for its better talents to amplify each other in the win against TFC. Accam's mind-blowing pace coming in off the left flank left the Reds unbalanced. Shipp and Maloney essentially switched places, Shipp coming deeper and functioning as a creative lever while Maloney operated closer to goal. When it was time to close up shop and play off the back foot, the movement and touches of the Men in Red's attackers had the visitors reeling; three goals hardly seems a sufficient haul for the number of chances the Fire created.
Doubts remain about the defense. Lovel Palmer has been exiled to the bench in favor of Eric Gehrig's safety-first approach, despite Gehrig being doused in kerosene and set ablaze by every half-fast left winger in the league so far. Adailton peers around the corner; his anticipation is needed because his partner at centerback, Jeff Larentowicz, strides into defensive midfield as if he were a career d-mid. (Oh, wait.)
Most of the questions about the Fire's lineup tonight revolve around players who haven't been available much this season. No, not Mike Magee or Patrick Nyarko, although their returns are starting to queue up just off the radar. The Men in Red dealt Alex partly because Victor Perez' presence meant there were no minutes for him; will Perez get a start in a reconfigured Chicago midfield? Similarly, Razvan Cocis' long tea-time of the soul, the result of plantar fascitis, could finally be over. The prospects for possession football at Toyota Park have seldom been brighter.
All of which is to discount the entirely creditable performance turned in by Matt Polster and Chris Ritter against Toronto. No, the SuperGreen D-Mid Duo didn't extinguish Giovinco's bright light, but their bite and occasional moments of vision gave a stable platform upon which the attacking trio of Shipp, Accam and Maloney were able to dance.
So, who starts? Shipp is a given, Accam, Maloney, Jones; Adailton, Larentowicz, and Sean Johnson in goal. Probably Gehrig at right back. Up top, it's still likely Quincy Amarikwa, whose grinding distracts the defense from the more creative trio just below him; expect to see Kennedy Igboananike as a sub. Central midfield is a muddle, with Perez, Polster, Ritter, and Cocis vying for two spots. Any lineup that puts Shipp in a position to set up chances for Accam and Maloney will be fun to watch.
The Fire sold a lot of tickets to tonight's game on the back of NYCFC's potential star-power - Frank Lampard, David Villa and Mix Diskerud bring the world's game to Chicago! Except Lampard's still in Manchester. And Villa's hamstrings are twitchier than a meth-addled squirrel. And Diskerud ... ehh, I can't say anything bad about Mix; had I my way, he'd be playing for the other side today.
Villa's absence leaves a void at the top of the Gotham formation. New York's roster is packed with guys who can keep the ball between the boxes - Diskerud, Ned Grabavoy, Seba Velasquez - but suffers a bit when it comes to players whose function is to place the ball across the goal line. Should his gimpy hamstring need more rest, Villa's cutting edge will be missed. If the Spaniard can't go, expect to see target man Adam Nemec or Hermann Trophy winner Patrick Mullins as the point of the spear. Rookie Khiry Shelton provides a threat off of either wing.
At the back, New York City has played well enough to stay in games, but they find themselves - as in attack - short some key performers. Keeper Josh Saunders has played lights-out for the Sky Blues over the first seven games, but will miss tonight due to a suspension from the Disciplinary Committee. Longtime MLS stalwart Jason Hernandez has been a steadying influence in the center of defense, but also will not be available.