After a harrowing - is harrowing the right word? predictable? - U.S. Open Cup win in penalty kicks over lower-league opposition on Tuesday, D.C. United return to league play Sunday afternoon, taking to the road to play the Chicago Fire. To help us preview this match between two bottom-half Eastern Conference clubs, we exchanged a few questions with the good folks at our Fire-flavored sister blog Hot Time in Old Town. My questions to their managing editor, Ryan Sealock, are first, and their staffers' questions for me are blow that.
Questions for HTIOT
1. Like United, the Fire were tabbed by some to make real noise in the Eastern Conference this year, building on a strong run at the end of last season. And like United, those predictions were completely off. Why haven't the results gone Chicago's way so far this year?
It's really a mixture of injuries, coaching, and player under-performance. Essentially one finger can't be pointed at a sole reason. It's more a perfect maelstrom of everything that can go wrong has at this point in the year. The Fire had a short stretch in April where we thought the team was turning the corner. Unfortunately our form dipped again, capped recently by two 1-0 crushing losses to the Union in back to back weeks.
Some of our new acquisitions this off-season, namely Jeff Larentowicz, Joel Lindpere, and Dilly Duka have just not shown up yet. Larentowicz has played the best out of the 3, but that's not saying much. A decently formidable strike crew last year in Sherjill MacDonald and Chris Rolfe has gone AWOL this year, and are yet to be seen (though Rolfe did score a goal in the Fire's 2-0 USOC win last night). MacDonald has been a complete bust this year, and many Fire fans are calling for his head.
2. And here I thought my Black-and-Red and your Fire would be competing for the Wooden Spoon this year, then you have to go off and reinforce your defense with Bakary Soumare and pull off the coup of the year by trading for Mike Magee. How did Chicago pull off that double-swoop, and what impact will it have on the team?
Rumors floated around on Soumare for awhile. The big stumbling block was his cost, especially the cap figure. The Fire are a bit tight right now financially. To make some moves this summer they are going to have to clear some room. Fortunately, in the end, it worked out for both parties. The Union ate some of his cost, and Soumare wanted to come back to Chicago. Considering Arne Friedrich looks likely to be out for the year (and also his career in Chicago ending), we were really smarting for some CB depth. While we are still thin at the position, Soumare's return is a huge boost to the defense.
In Magee's case, Fire fans were quite surprised when the news broke a few days ago. Most of us were of the idea that the Fire should go after Magee, but that would likely be too high of a price. I personally thought we would settle for some allocation money and a high draft pick or two. This ended up being a very happy ending for Chicago since Robbie Rogers wanted to come back to LA< and it ended up coming out that Mike Magee wanted to come home to Chicago. That gave the Fire much more leverage than any of us initially expected.
All in all, those 2 moves will be very big for the club. Magee bagged a goal last night in USOC play, so he is already getting on the score sheet. This team is still far from complete and must make another move or two during the window to try to salvage a playoff position. But the past week has brought a very bright spot to a dreary Fire season thus far.
3. There have been rumors recently that United and the Fire have discussed a trade of Lionard Pajoy for Sherjill MacDonald. As much as D.C. fans aren't crazy about Pajoy, a lot of us balked at a straight up swap for Chicago's DP striker. Were we wrong to look at the Dutchman sideways?
Honestly right now I would take that trade in a second. While MacDonald was the true hold up striker we needed last year, this year has been a train wreck. Like "train running off the tracks and falling into a ravine and exploding" wreck. We all thought a full pre-season would be a big boost for the Dutchman. Instead, he showed up out of shape and overweight.
The first 2 months of the season didn't go well either, and at one point he was subbed off in the 2nd half and had to be pulled off the pitch by captain Logan Pause. I think the writing is on the wall about his exit sooner rather than later. With Magee coming in, and the Fire hopefully bringing in a striker in the summer window, there won't be any room for MacDonald. And he won't take that well. At this point a loan or trade seems to be the most amicable way for him to leave Chicago. Fans are tired of his schtick, and want to move on. For a guy making over $500,000 per year, we are getting zilch in return on that investment.
Predicted Lineup: Tornaghi, Anibaba, Soumare, Berry, Segares, Larentowicz, Pause, Duka, Nyarko, Rolfe, Magee
Score Prediction: I think the new additions will give the Fire a nice boost. Although we haven't played well this year, we do better at home. Taking this into account, I will say we get a 2-0 win, with goals coming from Magee and Rolfe.
Questions for B&RU
1. On paper DC looks to have a very strong team, what do you think is the main reason why results aren't coming on the field? (via Adam Merges)
You're trying to make me cry at the outset, aren't you? There are several reasons, all of which are playing a role - failure to improve or even replace important departing pieces like Andy Najar or Branko Boskovic in the offseason, regression to the mean (and then some) after an overachieving end to 2012 - but the biggest reason is just a collection of individual failures by several players to play up to their potential. Chris Pontius has been less than a shadow of his 2012 MLS Best XI self. Dwayne De Rosario hasn't come close to replicating even his slow start from last year. Center backs Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic both regressed after impressive years last season. Some of this is attitude, but it's a little bit boggling to try and find a reason why so many players are playing so much worse than last year.
2. Where would you rank Bill Hamid on the USMNT goal keeping depth chart? And is there a reason for his inconsistent play over the course of the season so far? How high is his ceiling? (via Adam Merges)
To completely reverse the order of your questions: Bill Hamid's ceiling is unbelievably high - it's not even in sight yet. We saw him make a leap last season, cutting out many of the mistakes that plagued his first two years as a pro and somehow improving on his mind-bending pure shot-stopping ability. With the right coaching and more experience, the 22-year-old could grow into one of the best 'keepers the U.S. has produced.
That said, he's allowed some soft goals this year. I'm chalking it up to a kind of shell shock that we've only ever seen at Chivas USA: the defense in front of him is hanging him out to dry so often that even some of the simpler decisions are made more difficult. Like Dan Kennedy and Brad Guzan before him, though, I expect Hamid to shake off the cobwebs and regain his former trajectory sooner or later.
The USMNT depth chart is a tough one because it's so hard to read Jurgen Klinsmann and whether Nick Rimando has a full spot on the chart. Assuming his does, Hamid is in a battle with your own Sean Johnson for the fourth spot behind Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Rimando. Despite some strong recent performances by the Fire GK, I'd still take Hamid ahead of him, personally.
3. When I watch DeRo this season, the difference from last season physically is striking - he seems to have lost significant speed and explosiveness from last year. Is DeRo injured, or just old? And if time has finally caught up with him, has he shown signs of being able to adjust his game? (via Sean Spence)
Old. I think. Maybe injured, but probably just old. Last year, De Rosario started the season slowly as a goalscorer but was still helping the team win with assists and generally driving the attack. This year, he simply isn't. He's pushed off the ball too easily and hasn't been successful in taking players on 1v1. He's also been unlucky, hitting the post a few times and having shots improbably saved off the goal line (or from inside the goal) several others. I think some of it is losing his aura, which forced defenders to hesitate just enough for DeRo to slit their throats, but a lot of it is age doing its work on him. We've seen him try a few different things to adjust this season - playing deeper in midfield, playing as an out-and-out striker, drifting wider for larger stretches - but with the rest of the team performing so poorly, none of them have worked, yet.
4. While Ben Olsen has been lauded as a very talented young coach, how much of the disappointment this year is on his head? Do you think he is as good as he has been billed thus far, or are chinks starting to show in the armor? (via Ryan Sealock)
I think the lion's share of the disappointment is on the offseason failure to acquire any talent to improve the side. Some of that is on Olsen, but I'm putting more of it on GM Dave Kasper. That said, a lot of the blame has to also fall to Olsen in his capacity as head coach in the day-to-day. His team hasn't looked totally ready for games at the outset, which is one reason why United has allowed an inordinate number of goals in the first half hour of games. He has been over-reliant on some obviously underperforming players and reluctant to give others a look (Lionard Pajoy and Carlos Ruiz, respectively). I don't think anybody saw Olsen as a fully developed coach, even during the run last year. He may have deserved his MLS Coach of the Year consideration, but there were issues even then. I think whether Olsen lives up to the billing will be how he moves forward from this mess through the rest of this season, because I think he's unlikely to be fired before year's end.
Score Prediction: 2-2 draw.