Sean Spence of Hot Time in Old Town provided some insight into the Chicago Fire and what we can expect in this matchup which could see the Dynamo still alive in the playoff hunt with a win, or very much out of lifelines with a loss.
Dynamo Theory: 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 is 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?
Hot Time in Old Town: 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?
HTiOT: 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 1
point for the draw?
HTiOT: 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. Chicago will scratch and claw for 90 minutes, but there's a real dearth of guys who can create a half-chance out of nowhere 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 and set a new MLS record with their 17th draw: 1-1.
For my answers to Sean's questions head on over to Hot Time in Old Town and check them out (they're very good questions).