After an almost three week hiatus from league play, the New York Red Bulls are set to take on the Chicago Fire this Sunday at Toyota Park. So to mark the occasion, we traded three questions with Chicago Fire blog Hot Time in Old Town. Special thanks to Ryan Sealock for giving us some insight on the Fire's recent form, early exit from the Open Cup, and the state of the roster heading into the summer transfer window. You can see our answers to Hot Time's questions here.
1) Chicago is currently on a three game losing streak including a defeat to the Michigan Bucks in Open Cup play. How seriously did the club take the tournament this year and what has led to the recent string of losses?
The Fire have a reputation of holding the Open Cup in very high regards. Having won 4 Cups, it is a competition that is held in high esteem by fans. And that makes this year's shocking exit even worse. We are used to either winning the tournament or at least going very deep. To lose to a 4th level team was a punch in the gut to be honest. I think all fans were shocked at how the team played. Furthermore, some of the depth we thought we had built in the offseason was woefully absent in the game. There really isn't a silver lining to take away from the loss, but one thing that was highlighted was the need to further improve the team. I know I was very confident of the additions we made this offseason, but that confidence has turned into a concern for me. The USOC loss showed the holes we need to fill depth wise, and now it is on Frank Klopas and the rest of the Front Office to fortify the team where we need it this summer. We already had a midfielder by the name of Alex signed and waiting to join the team on June 27th. He should hopefully be able to give us a boost.
2) How has Sean Johnson recovered after a disastrous early exit with the National Team during Olympic Qualifying?
Up and down really. He has looked better as of late despite the recent string of losses, but he still has a lot to work on. One thing some people forget is that he is still very young and learning, as any goalkeeper at his age is. Since the Olympics fiasco, his confidence has seemed to slowly come back but I don't think it is all the way back yet. Some plays he will make a stellar save, and then a few minutes later he will make a bad mistake. He still has things to work on, namely taking possession of the ball rather than punching it out (he has a tendancy to do this). His ball distribution, especially on goal kicks has gotten better but it is still a long ways off from good. He did have a training stint at Everton in the offseason so hopefully he learned some good techniques from Tim Howard and becomes better at employing these. All in all I think he still has the ability to be a top goalkeeper. What will determine this is if he can fully get over the Olympics failure. Although it was terribly disappointing, it could be a blessing in disguise if he can overcome a hurdle like that at such a young age. It could make him a better, stronger player for the future. Only time will tell if this happens or not.
3) If the playoffs were tomorrow (luckily they're not since DC is currently in first place), Chicago would be right on the edge of qualifying. What does the team need to address both on the field and through possible player additions during the summer transfer window to compete for the top of the Eastern Conference?
Our two biggest needs are a striker to pair with Dominic Oduro up top, and possible reinforcements on the backline or even midfield. This team is too one dimensional right now, with Oduro being our only main scoring threat. Many Fire fans are calling for a big name, splashy signing. This would likely come in the form of a DP. While Fire owner Andrew Hauptman has stated money is there for a "Robbie Keane" type of signing, the club has also made it clear that we won't sign a DP just to sign a DP. I completely agree with this line of thinking. We have already had DP flops in Nery Castillo and now seemingly with Federico Puppo as well. If we are going to drop a large amount of money on someone, they have to be a good fit with the team and the formation we employ. This summer window will be very interesting as a striker is a must if the Fire want to make a deep playoff run in my opinion. Chris Rolfe is finally fit and ready to help out, so he should provide a legit scoring threat but we may need more than that.
The backline has been dealt a blow with the extended absence of veteran Cory Gibbs. German international Arne Friedrich was signed in the offseason, and he has done well so far. The problem is that he got hurt as well, but should be back for the NYRB game. These injuries caused us to field a second year player in Jalil Anibaba and a rookie in Austin Berry as our CB tandem. While they started off well, the backline has really struggled the past few games. I am very concerned how they will handle scoring threats like Thierry Henry or a rejuvenated Kenny Cooper. Even with Friedrich in the mix, the club may need to get a reinforcement if the youngsters continue to struggle.
The Fire do seem to have a glut of midfielders, but one thing we don't have is another Sebastian Grazzini. He pulls the strings in midfield and when he is not playing, then our offense suffers A LOT (see Fire team in 2011 pre-Grazzini). The problem is that Grazzini's Fire contract is pretty much up. Unless the Fire extend him soon, he could leave mid season which would be a disaster if we don't have a replacement for him. Many fans thought Rafael Robayo could fill that role, but he has shown that he is not a Grazzini type of player. Newcomer Alex may be able to, but we won't know that for awhile. If we lose our main playmaking CAM that helps link the attack up, we could be in big trouble. Head coach Frank Klopas is on a scouting trip as we speak, so hopefully a signing or two is not far off.