D.C. United takes on the Chicago Fire tonight, and we talked to Sean Spence of Hot Time in Old Town to get all of the necessary information about this game.
Questions for Hot Time in Old Town
B&RU: What has spurred on the Chicago Fire's somewhat ridiculous string of draws?
HTiOT: I titled last week's game story "The Almost Not-Quiteness," which is a shorthand description of the qualities which have produced 15 draws in 27 decisions. The Fire are a team that doesn't have much of a persona; are they hard men? Creative noodlers? Do they want to keep the ball, or not? Do they want to press high, or sit back? They've tried to do all of those things at various times - often switching approach mid-game - and none of it has been wholly convincing What they do have is a spine of hard-ass results-oriented professionals - Jeff Larentowicz, Lovel Palmer chief among them - which keep the team's performances from sagging into desperate flailing. In short, they're hard to beat, but not good enough to beat you.
B&RU: What happened to Harry Shipp, and why isn't Frank Yallop playing him right now?
HTiOT: Harry's devolution to super-sub happened in mid-summer. Shipp hit the rookie wall hard, which was hardly surprising - he wasn't a regular starter at Notre Dame until his senior year, and when he was, he was basically a trequartista, roaming free to find the game. Starting game-in, game-out at a defensively demanding wing spot for a first division team always seemed likely to grind the man down. That said, he looks fresher now, but Yallop seems determined to keep him coming off the wing. Harry's game is built upon finding space and exploiting it, which makes minding the pump on the left wing even more exhausting than usual. Of course, if they just started him in the middle, underneath a lone striker, he'd have all the freedom he needs with plenty of defensive help behind him, and could roam untethered to the left flank. I'm not the only observer who finds Shipp's continued absence for a team going nowhere infuriating. The last two games, Sanna Nyassi's started as a second striker instead of Shipp; he's hurt today, so hopefully we'll see Harry in the XI.
B&RU: Speaking of Yallop, what are the fans opinions of him and will he be back next season?
HTiOT: I think the sandbags of Excuse are holding to date. The extent of the team's salary-cap woes can never be confirmed, of course - heaven forfend any of us proles learn who's under contract until when, or where the allocation money is being spent! - but that story has not changed since Day One of the Yallop regime. These excuses will avail him little if we're hearing them in early 2015. There is a feeling that, for better or for worse, he's the guy we've got and we've got to make the best of it. Nothing good comes from changing management teams every year or two. Barring an utter collapse in 2015, I'd imagine the Yallop/Bliss group will still be here at the beginning of 2016, at least. It's also worth remembering that the coming offseason promises to be one of the wildest redistributions of talent the league has seen, possibly ever. Chivas USA will likely be subject to a dispersal draft, and there's two expansion teams to stock via an expansion draft (the rules for which haven't even been settled upon!). There's a looming CBA negotiation which could change the environment in unpredictable ways. Putting a new guy in charge before this offseason would be, in my opinion, a deeply crazy move.
HTiOT: Seems like Frank's settled on a shape he likes, which is your basic pub-team 4-4-2. It's not pretty or terribly interesting, but its flexibility and coverage remind one why the shape became the bog standard in the first place. For tonight, I'm guessing that we finally see Harry start below a lone striker, which will make it almost a 4-4-1-1. Predicted lineup (4-4-1-1): Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Jeff Larentowicz, Lovel Palmer; Alex, Matt Watson, Razvan Cocis, Grant Ward; Harry Shipp; Quincy Amarikwa.
Prediction: The Fire fall behind early but claw, claw back into a see-saw contest. 2-2 draw, with Fire goals from Ward and Shipp.
Questions for Black and Red United
HTiOT: DC United's got some actual fixture congestion going here, with CONCACAF Champion's League games and MLS games alternating every three days or so. How might Ben Olsen rotate the team against the Fire? Will we see your best XI or will some top guys get a rest?
B&RU: So far this season, Ben Olsen has been fielding a lineup of mostly reserves in the Concacaf Championes League, with two wins so far, and then starting his full-strength lineup in the league. However, due to suspension and injury, you will not see D.C. United's best lineup in this game. Former Chicago man Chris Rolfe is out with a broken arm and won't be back until the very end of the regular season, and Fabian Espindola is out with a red card. Other than those two players, however, Ben Olsen will run out what he thinks is his strongest available lineup.
HTiOT: How good does the Chris Rolfe deal look from your end now? We miss him! Who's stepping up in his absence?
B&RU: We love the Chris Rolfe deal, and no, you can't have him back. From the time that he got here until the time that he broke his arm in practice, he was probably the third most important player on the team, behind Espindola and Bobby Boswell. A number of players have been stepping up in his absence, including Espindola himself returning from an injury, Eddie Johnson, Luis Silva, and David Estrada. However, this game could be the first start in almost a year for Chris Pontius; he is the natural replacement on the team for Rolfe, and Rolfe was brought in partially because of Pontius' long-term injury. He hasn't had any magical moments yet, but one against the Fire could spark the team down the stretch.
HTiOT: In a mirror-image version of your final question - has this year's success burnished Olsen's reputation, which was darkened considerably by 2013's horror-show? How is he evolving as a manager?
B&RU: I think this past offseason is where Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper came into their own as leading the player acquisitions; Kevin Payne left in November of 2012, and so they had to learn a new power structure while trying to extend that team. I also think that Ben Olsen has continued to evolve his tactical acumen; the coach he is today is far better than the coach he was even just a year ago. He has had to deal with a slew of injuries and suspensions this season, but the players that he has chosen to fill the places of the absent have worked out surprisingly well.
B&RU: Ben Olsen will go with his first choice lineup, meaning Bill Hamid in goal; Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Taylor Kemp in defense; Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Chris Pontius in the midfield; and Eddie Johnson and Luis Silva as the forwards. I know that it is difficult to win in Bridgeview, but I think that United gets it done. 2-1, with Eddie Johnson scoring a brace.