Once a Metro: Chicago head coach Frank Klopas is an impressive 24-15-15 since taking the reins last season. How much of the Fire's success do you think is attributable to his management and leadership?
Hot Time in Old Town: I would pin most of the success, if not all of it, on him. He was the main guy that brought in players as a Technical Director, and he has kept that personnel responsibility now that he is Head Coach too. While I would guess that most Head Coach are involved in building a team and bringing personnel in, a move doesn't happen that doesn't go by Frank first. So, in essence he still holds many TD duties, while also serving as head coach. In terms of his mark on the team, it is very evident. We have a good locker room with every member pulling in the same direction. Frank instills an ethic of hard work, tenacity, and playing the game the right way. It also helps that he is a former player and helped take the club to the 1998 MLS Cup in the Fire's inaugural season.
Really, so far in Frank's tenure we couldn't have asked for more. He is a top candidate (with Yallop) for Coach of the Year. He has put a good foundation in place and the team has gotten younger. The gaps we have had have been addressed for the most part, and he has brought in a more attacking, exciting style of soccer. I, along with most Fire fans, are excited to see what the future holds for Frank and the club.
Once a Metro: There were a couple of higher-profile roster changes for the Fire over the summer. What are the one or two changes that have impacted the club the most (either arrivals or departures)?
Hot Time in Old Town: There are 4 I want to highlight (2 outgoing and 2 incoming). Incoming would be Sherjill MacDonald and Alvaro "Flaco" Fernandez. Sherjill has been very good for us, providing a big body that is useful for many things, including wonderful hold up play as a striker. Although he needs to be more selfish sometimes and shoot rather than pass, overall he has been great for us. Flaco hasn't caught on as quickly as most of us would have thought, but the pedigree clearly is there. He is showing flashes of brilliance more and could have a handful of goals for the Fire already if not for a couple of missed sitters. The thing to keep in mind is that he is still adjusting to a new team and style of play. he is still learning where his teammates are on the pitch and how they play. And his teammates are still learning to play with him. I think he will continue to show good form the rest of this season. Given the fact that he will be with us for at least another year, I think he could be an integral part of the 2013 Fire.
The 2 outgoing players would be Sebastian Grazzini and Rafael Robayo. Grazzini leaving obviously hurt. Although Frank has done a wonderful job of filling his whole and even making the team better (our record post-Grazzini is quite impressive at a W-L-D record of 9-4-2 since Grazzini's last appearance on June 23rd). The writing was on the wall as Grazzini displayed a "Thanks Chicago" t shirt under his jersey as he came off the pitch in the 2nd half. It was an odd affair and the full story is still not known by anyone (beyond those directly involved). It ranks as one of the oddest situations I have seen as a sports fan, but it's over and the team has moved on. While I liked Grazzini and a player like that makes any team better, his departure has opened the door for an even better lineup. And that's what it is all about- fielding the best team that can take you the furthest. Sometimes that include making tough decisions like we had to do with Grazzini, but Frank is a coach that will not shy away from that.
In terms of Robayo, he never caught on and left an enemy of the fans, unlike Grazzini. He bashed the level of play and the league more than once, saying he felt he should be getting playing time in an "inferior league". The problem was he never earned it. When he did play, he did not impress, yet still expected to be handed playing time based on his name and past success. The fans wondered why he would be asking to go to a superior league when he couldn't even make the starting XI in MLS. Needless to say, everyone is glad that Rafael and his self pity party are gone. The team is much better off. Credit to Frank for making something happen. Who knows what damage would be done to team morale with him still sulking around the locker room.
Once a Metro: How hungry are Chicago Fans for a win over New York this weekend? Has this game been circled on your calendar all season or is the fact that both teams are in the hunt for the top of the Eastern Conference helping build some hype?
Hot Time in Old Town: Definitely the playoff hunt makes this big for Fire fans (and Red Bulls fans as well I am sure). Simon Borg recently put something on MLS' website about the big "rivalry". He used a couple of examples from a decade ago, and it didn't sit well with either set of fans according to the responses I saw. Personally, I wouldn't call this a rivalry game or full of bad blood at all. I think this is a matchup of two good, hungry teams looking to try to end the season in 1st and better help their playoff chances with some home matches. In the Fire's case, it's a chance to beat a top team in a place that hasn't always been friendly to us. These are the types of games that we have to find a way to win if we want to advance far in the playoffs. Given our improved attack and tweaked team, I definitely think we will give New York a very tough challenge Saturday on national tv. Plus the implications are huge for the playoffs. Everyone wants to host home matches (especially the Fire who haven't lost to an Eastern Conference team at home since 2010). The only way to do that is beat the contenders and finish above them.
Once a Metro: Chicago has been on fire (sorry, couldn't help myself) since August going 7-1-0 in league play up until a tough loss to Kansas City last weekend. Was the 2-0 road defeat a small blip on the radar or did it do some damage to Chicago's momentum?
Hot Time in Old Town: I think it was a blip on the radar. Sooner or later the team was due for a game where we struggled I think. And the KC game worked out to be the one we didn't play well in. It is always tough to play there, especially if you fall down a goal against their stout defense. We beat them in KC earlier this year (as well as winning at Toyota Park), so we took the series from them. That's certainly not bad but that is all thrown out the window if we meet them in the playoffs.
To be honest, I thought we just backed off too much in that match. A couple of the players even said we gave them too much respect and too much room. We corrected this in the 2nd half and played much better, but unfortunately it wasn't enough. I think the team will come out very hungry tonight against Philly and take care of business. A resounding home win on the night when the Fire are celebrating their 15th anniversary should be just what the doctor ordered heading into New York Saturday.
Once a Metro: Three games in eight days is never easy - do you expect Frank Klopas to do some roster shuffling on Saturday to avoid wearing down players this late in the season?
Hot Time in Old Town: It would be nice to get players like Patrick Nyarko some rest. However, there is too much on the line right now to rest very many players for any long period at all. I am hoping we get a comfortable lead tonight vs. Philly. That would be a better time to get the team some rest. It's definitely going to be a tough game Saturday coming off tonight's matchup. We may also be without Pavel Pardo, which really shows through in the defensive midfield side of things. Despite this, I am confident Frank will get things figured out. One of our writers, Gregg Mixdorf, has done a couple of articles comparing the teams performance early in the season vs. a certain team, and again later in the season (or even last year). One things he has noted in those pieces are that Frank has learned and evolved as a manager in the short time he has had that role full time. Gregg found that Frank has done better both with rotating players and especially with his substitutions. This bodes well heading into the twilight of the 2012 season. His decisions regarding rotation and rest could be the difference between crashing out of the playoffs early or making an MLS Cup run. I would count on seeing a prime starting XI Saturday. In any case it's nice for us to have some of the depth that we do to switch out pieces if need be and still be effective depending on what the game plan is.
Once a Metro: Who are a couple of lesser-known players you think New York fans should take note of heading into Saturday?
Hot Time in Old Town: Keep an eye on Alex. Our young Brazilian is starting to come into his role of a Grazzini replacement. Although he is filling in for injured Pavel Pardo in the DM role rather than his regular CAM role right now, he is still capable of a stellar play or two. He had quite the goal a couple of weeks ago, and I think he could have a pretty bright future with the Fire. If he stays disciplined and doesn't push up the pitch like he normally does in the CAM role (he did this in the KC game which created gaps), look for him to spring a nice attack or two with his service.
The other play I will mention is rookie CB Austin Berry. As a Rookie of the Year favorite you may be familiar with his name, but keep an eye on his work, especially against elite players like Thierry Henry. Austin truly plays beyond his years considering he doesn't even have a full MLS season under his belt yet. He is physical, good in the air, and a threat on set pieces offensively speaking. He has the added benefit of learning from German International Arne Friedrich. This invaluable experience will go with him through the rest of his career. Those two have formed quite the CB pairing this year. I think you will find Austin looks much more polished than a rookie CB has a right to be. We are pretty excited about his future here in Chicago to say the least. If Arne and Austin (or the A-Team as some are referring to them as) can put a lid on Henry and company, we have a chance to leave NY with 3 points. While that is not an easy task for any team or player, those two have the ability to get it done.
Once a Metro Bonus Question: What is your projected lineup and predicted outcome?
Hot Time in Old Town: Lineup: Johnson, Anibaba, Friedrich, Berry, Segares, Alex, Pause, Nyarko, Fernandez, Rolfe, MacDonald
Score: I will say 1-1. I personally think a draw would be a very good result but will be tough. Unless we can unleash multiple goals or put together a stellar defensive game, I just don't think the chances are high of us getting 3 points without Pavel Pardo. He is a huge key to stopping the other team and having him miss the game really hurts our chances at 3 points. Our defense is much less effective without Pardo.
Thanks to Ryan for taking the time to share some thoughts on the Chicago Fire, who the Red Bulls may very well face again in the playoffs. You can head over to Hot Time in Old Town to see some of our thoughts heading into the match on Saturday as well.