You're forgiven for not thinking about Friday night's absolutely critical in every way (except for all of them) match against the Chicago Fire, which will eventually go down as The Game Where We Celebrated the Open Cup After We Won It in Utah. There's nothing on the line for D.C. United, and the Men in Red are on the outside of the playoff spots looking in. But we're nothing if not thorough here at Black and Red United, so we exchanged some questions with the guys over at our CF97-focused sister site Hot Time in Old Town, specifically Mark O'Rourke. Here's what ensued.
Questions for HTiOT:
1. The Fire are currently two points out of a playoff spot with four games left to play. How do you rate their chances of making it up to the right side of that cutoff, and is there a points number the team is targeting from these last few matches?
I think the Fire still have a pretty good chance at making the playoffs even though the odds are against them. Unfortunately, they are now in a position where they need results from other teams to go in their favor. Also, the Fire only have one more home game remaining and they do not travel very well
The reason I still believe this team has a chance is because they are more than capable of beating the opponents they face each week. The Fire just have a bad habit of beating themselves. Against Seattle, Houston and Montreal the Fire have dropped a total of 5 points in the standings by giving up a goal in the final 4 minutes of each match. The late goals they are giving up are preventable, but the team is incapable of focusing for a full 90 minutes. This season, the Fire have conceded nearly half of their goals (22 out of 45) in the final 30 minutes.
I don't think the team has publicly announced that they are targeting a number. My guess is that if you ask anyone on the team about it, they would probably just give the safe, standard issue answer that they are only focusing on the game that is ahead of them and not really thinking beyond that. In truth, they need to be targeting to get all 12 points in October. They might be able to make the playoffs without getting all 12, but at this point in the season, they can't leave anything to chance. They just need to win.
2. Mike Magee has been the most vital and most outstanding player for Chicago since his arrival from the Galaxy. Is he the league's MVP, and does the answer to that question turn at all on whether the Fire are a playoff team?
I think that Magee's MVP candidacy totally turns on whether the Fire make the playoffs, I'm of the group of people who think that an MVP is not the best player in the league, but a player that a team would significantly struggle without. If the Fire missed the playoffs this season, then all MIke Magee was able to do was to make the Fire a playoff contender. If the season ended today, the Fire would finish in 8th. I think the Fire could have finished in 8th this season without Magee; the only difference would be that the Fire's playoff dreams would have died in August or September instead of clinging to life support in October.
If the Fire make the playoffs, then Magee is a candidate, but, as badly as I want to be a homer here, I still think there are better choices for MVP in the league.
3. Frank Klopas has spent basically all of his relatively short tenure-to-date leading Chicago in the middle of the MLS table - finishing just outside the playoff spots in 2011 and falling in the wildcard game last year. Is that his ceiling as a coach, or is he the guy to take the Fire higher in the standings?
Strap on your hiking boots, Alice. We're going down a rabbit hole.
I believe in experience as being one of the most important factors in a coach's development. The only other coaching gig Frank has held was with the now defunct Chicago Storm of the MISL from 2004-06. Saying that Frank has reached his ceiling might be premature. As of right now, the only coaches in MLS who have equal or less coaching experience (as a head or assistant) are Olsen, Heaps, Petke, Vermes and Nelson. That includes the 3 interim coaches in the league right now. The two biggest coaching names in the MLS, Schmid and Arena, each have over 30 years of coaching. Even Caleb Porter is in his 13th year as a coach and his 8th year as a head coach.
With that said, if a coach doesn't learn from the experience, then the experience is wasted. Frank has made some missteps over his tenure and I think it still remains to be seen if he is learning from those missteps. One criticism of Frank is that he is too stubborn with his line up and doesn't make any changes even when needed. I think part of the reason for this is because he doesn't have confidence starting any other players on the team. He also seems to favor experienced veterans over youth. I think one explanation for all of this is that the Fire have been on the playoff threshold over the past two season and mistakes can make or break a team (like they are now). Frank might not want to put in a player who he thinks would be liability and could make a mistake that would ruin the Fire's playoff chances. Frank will play his best, most experienced XI players, even if it means playing them out of position.
It will be interesting to see what Frank does this next off-season. In 2011 and 2012, Frank and the Fire FO brought in unknown players from South America who did not really pan out in the MLS. None of those players stayed in the MLS for a full calendar year and the only successful one (Sebastian Grazzini) fought his way out of Chicago. In 2013, Frank brought in a bunch of seasoned MLS vets. A lot of Fire fans (myself included) were excited about this past off-season when we brought in Jeff Larentowicz, Maicon Santos and Joel Lindpere. In hindsight, those are three solid acquisitions if this was 2010. What is in store of 2014? Who knows. Maybe Frank will try his hand at bringing in mid-level talent from Europe like Robert Earnshaw in Toronto or half of the Montreal Impact roster not named Marco Di Viao or Allessandro Nesta.
There are some rumors that Frank might be on his way out, and, apparently, Jesse Marsch is saying that the job is his if he wants. But those are rumors, and I think Frank has one more season to show if he can hack it as a coach before the Fire move on without him.
So, in short: Too early - remains to be seen.
Projected Chicago lineup: The usual - Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba; Dilly Duka, Jeff Larentowicz, Arevalo Rios, Patrick Nyarko; Mike Magee, Juan Luis Anangono. However, I'm hoping that Frank surprises us and puts Alex in the center midfield. Doubt it will happen, though.
Questions for B&RU:
1. Congrats on the USOC win, does the cup win feel a little like what Wigan was able to do in the FA Cup this past season? How will it feel to be one of the worst MLS teams record wise and to be in the region's premier competition? (via Adam Merges)
Not gonna lie - in a year without any other semblances of joy, it feels pretty effing great. Hopefully the front office learns its lesson from last offseason and doesn't rest on its (wilted, decaying) laurels this winter. If they can keep the young core of the team together, renegotiate a few out-of-proportion salaries and finally hit the mark on an international signing, we could actually be something other than a curiosity next season. Remember, this is a team that, just about 11 months ago, had the third-best record in the league and was essentially one blown red card away from booking its ticket to MLS Cup. Things can change very quickly, and the team has... just about 11 months to get things on track before ConcaChamps play starts. I love symmetry.
2. Has winning the Cup taken some of the sting out of such a poor league campaign? Is Olsen's job safe? (via John Jenzeh)
It's definitely been somewhat of a soothing balm - more IcyHot than morphine - at least in the one day since we hoisted our 13th trophy. I mean, if you can't bask in the glow of a championship - whatever the other on-field circumstances - for at least a little while, than you're depriving yourself of the whole reason people love sports. Eventually - probably around the 12th minute or so on Friday - the glow will wear off and we'll remember that United is wholly incompetent in league play this year.
A lot of people will tell you that the win on Tuesday night saved Ben Olsen's job, and I don't doubt that if any of the people saying that were in Managing Partner Jason Levien or General Manager Dave Kasper's shoes, that would be the case. But I'm not convinced that he wouldn't be returning next year no matter the result in Sandy. Based on quotes from Olsen and Kasper over the last week or so, it sounds like their futures were decided a few weeks back after meetings with players and with Levien. My hunch is - and this may be reading more into the quotes than is prudent (but given rumors unearthed by Brian Straus and Charlie Boehm before the game on Tuesday that Kasper would be given a multi-year extension, maybe not) - that the midseason retooling that stopped the bleeding and brought in young, reasonably priced American talent like Jared Jeffrey, Conor Doyle and Luis Silva is the first plank of a new platform that Olsen and Kasper plan to build the team on going forward. Time will tell whether that's the right route, but it appears that, despite all the bad that could counterbalance the good from winning the Open Cup, Olsen and Kasper will be back in 2014.
3. The injury bug has not been kind to D.C. How much better do you think United would be if they had been able to stay healthy this season? Could a healthy D.C. United team be a playoff contender with everyone else not named Toronto FC? (via Mark O'Rourke)
It's honestly kind of tough to say. United let a lot of good pieces go over the last off-season, and it's easy to say with hindsight that the plan to replace them, both on the personnel side and the tactical side, was fatally flawed from the start. But it's pretty clear after watching the team both with and without guys like Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon that United are much better when their best players are actually on the field. Whether they'd be in contention for the playoffs or even on par with TFC is another, entirely less obvious question to answer.
4. Do you feel D.C. has a good core of players to work with for next year? Where does Ben Olsen need to make upgrades this off-season? Also, what does Dwayne De Rosario's future at D.C. look like? (via Mark O'Rourke)
I alluded to this above, but yeah, I do think United has a solid core to build around for the future. Young but established talents - Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon - are holdovers from last year's playoff run, and they're domestic players to boot. Add in the industry and underrated skill of Jared Jeffrey and Conor Doyle and the creativity of Luis Silva, and you've got yourself a good starting point. What the team needs to go to the next level, and quickly, is star quality at striker and center back, and depth. The 2012 version of D.C. United had substitutes and spot starters who made major contributions. The lack of goals scored and deluge of goals against testify to the former point. As to the latter: Due to injuries and poor roster choices, though, that's not nearly as true in 2013.
I think DeRo's situation is still open ended at this point. The team holds an option for next season, but given his age and declining ability as well as his DP-level salary, they'd be pretty crazy to exercise it. So the question becomes whether he'll agree to a lower salary to come back next year or whether he'll test the MLS Re-Entry Draft waters. I really don't know what's going to happen, but I wouldn't be surprised by any result up to and including DeRo becoming the highest paid NASL player, captaining the New York Cosmos next year.
5. Predict D.C.'s lineup.
This one is actually tricky. Will Olsen try to win as many of the last four, meaningless games as he can, or will he run out a more experimental lineup, trying to see what - and who - could work for next year? I think he probably goes with a bit of both, building on the system he used in the Open Cup final (which is really just a reprise of the system that helped United to an unbeaten run at the end of last season).
4-4-2: Bill Hamid; Chris Korb, Ethan White, Conor Shanosky, Dennis Iapichino; Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Jared Jeffrey, Chris Pontius; Luis Silva, Conor Doyle.
More from B&RU:
- D.C. United versus Chicago Fire lineup: Yes, Virginia, there are more games this season
- The Last Word On D.C. United's Improbable U.S. Open Cup Win
- D.C. United fans do the Open Cup right
- Highlights: Real Salt Lake 0-1 D.C. United - The Black-and-Red win Open Cup #3 and Trophy #13
- D.C. United are your 2013 U.S. Open Cup Champions