We had the privilege of exchanging questions with one of the real stalwarts of the fan-blog movement, Drew Epperley of Big D Soccer, in advance of tonight’s Brimstone Cup showdown at Toyota Park. Dig:
Hot Time: Mauro Diaz' knee injury cast a bit of a pall over the end of Dallas' epic 2016. How much does the side miss the lack of Diaz' puzzle-solving genius in the middle? And is there a chance that Diaz' return makes this team even better down the stretch?
Big D Soccer: Losing Mauro Diaz was never going to be an easy thing but I do have to give this club credit for making the most of out the situation without him. They did after all come inches away from advancing to a Champions League final without him this spring. Still, the offense hasn't exactly tore anyone up this season and his ability to pick apart a defense with a simple pass cannot be understated. The team has been creative enough so far this season in the attack but his addition to the field will improve it dramatically when he is healthy. A lot of us around Dallas are confident that when he is truly healthy, it will be towards the end of the season and that will be a perfect time to have him firing on all cylinders. I don't think teams down the stretch will want to deal with a 100% Diaz.
HT: Before this year, Maxi Urruti had a solid reputation as a defensive forward, a sort Argentinian version of Dirk Kuyt - and now he's finishing his chances! How important has Urruti been to Dallas' solid start this season?
BDS: Urruti has stepped up in ways we couldn't imagine a year ago. I think part of it has to do with him wanting to carry the load while Diaz recovers but also he is the type of player that wants to prove himself week in and week out. He's had a couple stops in MLS that teams pretty much gave up on him before he landed in Dallas. He will tell you how Dallas really wanted him and how Oscar Pareja was key in making sure he was able to improve his game. I would say that without his scoring to open the season, there is no way this group would have gone unbeaten as long as they did.
HT: FC Dallas has, by acclimation and on the table, the best academy system north of the Rio Grande. Who's the next wunderkind to come out of Dallas' youth program? (Make us sound smart when we repeat this over beers, please. Feel free to include recently-signed teenagers who haven't gotten first-team minutes yet.)
BDS: Picking out a player from the academy system or even a recently signed one is always a fun challenge for some of us here given the wealth of talent in that program. So I'll give you a couple just because I am really eager to see them on the field for FC Dallas. One easy one to get really excited about is Paxton Pomykal. Unfortunately he had a knee injury last week in training that will put him on the sideline for a few weeks here but he has the talent and ability to be really special in this league one day. The second one should sound familiar to those who know the league, and that is because this kid is the son of a former league MVP. Yes, I am talking about Jesus Ferreira, David Ferreira's kid. Jesus has all the ability to be a bigger deal than his father was in this league. He has already lead the club to some youth national titles and most recently he helped guide the team to their first ever Dallas Cup Super Group trophy (which is a huge deal on the youth soccer scene).
Predicted lineup: (4-2-3-1) Jesse Gonzalez, Atiba Harris, Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Guillen, Michael Barrios, Victor Ulloa, Carlos Gruezo, Carlos Cermeno, Tesho Akindele, Cristian Colman
BDS: Chicago has been one of the bigger surprises in MLS this season with six wins in the first 12 weeks. What has been the biggest turn around both on and off the field that you've seen? Has it been all Bastian Schweinsteiger addition or is it more than that?
HT: Yes, this is the biggest turnaround I've personally watched intently. DC's allocation-bonanza makeover in 2014 (i.e. the Andy Najar money-gusher) was a more dramatic one-year switch, imo, because the Chicago defense was really put together last year and is benefitting from that familiarity. The Fire's reconfiguration was essentially complete before Schweinsteiger fell into Chicago's lap in March, so it's certainly not all the German - Dax McCarty remains, in my opinion, the best defensive midfielder in the league, and Juninho has been instrumental in several dominant MLS midfield alignments. The improvement in central midfield has allowed everyone else on the field more freedom to do the things they're good at - with Dax et al snuffing out counters, it's a lot easier to feel comfortable trying things to unlock the defense.
BDS: Speaking of Schweinsteiger, how has Chicago responded to the addition of him on the team? Has it been a big boost to the gate numbers? Has he been worth the money so far?
HT: Chicago's response to Schweinsteiger has been great, but it's been dwarfed by Basti's response to Chicago - the guy's Instagram is a walking Chicago Chamber of Commerce ad, as he and his tennis superstar wife get used to the shock of being able to see the sights without causing outsized public distrubances. Also, the sense of 'oh my god we can go out like normal people' in those shots is as effective an advertisement as is imaginable for the charms of MLS life for elite players. He seems to truly love living in Chicago. That's cranked the already-positive fan and supporter reaction upward; that virtuous cycle is ongoing at this time.
It's early days to count ROI on this deal, and the early data is mixed. The Fire did sell out a Saturday prime-time game against Seattle, which hasn't happened in a few years, but the attendance after that 4-1 curb-stomping drooped to less than 11k for a midweek clash against an unsexy Colorado side. It's likely that the people evaluating this acquisition will use rubrics other than simple dollars in/out; the growth of the Fire's Q-rating in the Chicago market, its continued exclusion from top-line coverage in major metro sports sections, and associated problems are likely to be part of any scoring.
He's been best on the field, though. I thought he'd be very good, and I underestimated him considerably. In Dax and Basti the Fire have a central midfield of steel and stone, clever and fierce and neat-footed. The German looks rejuvenated, increasingly exuberant and affecting. It's exciting to watch.
BDS: What are some keys for the Fire on Thursday to remain unbeaten at home?
HT: Don't switch off: Dallas are mentally tough as nails, and won't be content to just ride out any deficit - marking and clearing set pieces will be crucial.
Don't let Dallas keep the ball: This will be a high-tempo, high-skill midfield scrum; it may not be possible to comprehensively win the midfield battle, but it is important not to lose it. Expect the center to become a maze of blood and bone.
David gonna David: Accam is still the Fire's X-factor, his pace an unanswerable problem when put into the right situations. If the Fire can isolate him, that will create chances for Nemanja Nikolic, with Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac working complimentary runs.
Lineup prediction: Velko Paunovic has stuck with a stable XI through the recent run of good form, and there's no reason to expect that to change.
4-2-3-1: Matt Lampson; Matt Polster, Johan Kappelhof, Joao Meira, Brandon Vincent; Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Luis Solignac, Michael de Leeuw, David Accam; Nemanja Nikolic.