D.C. United takes on the Chicago Fire tonight, and so to preview we talked to Sean Spence of Hot Time in Old Time. You can find his answers to my questions below, and my answers to his questions over on our sister site.
B&RU: D.C. United started the Chicago Fire's current three game losing streak; what has been the problem in the past three games?
HTiOT: Mis-management of the schedule aside, the biggest problem is that the Fire are a wildly inconsistent side with a bizarre penchant to fritter away their times in ascendance. Even before this international break (which has gutted the Chicago attack), these Men in Red had a puzzling hole at the heart of their striving - they've absolutely dominated long stretches of most games, but never put the matter out of reach. Is killer instinct really a thing, or is it an artifact of our narrative-brains responding to certain kinds of chance? If it's real, the Fire lack it so completely they have a hard time formulating that idea in words.
B&RU: Last time around we were talking about the possible return of Mike Magee; what has happened to him, and can anyone else help Harry Shipp out?
HTiOT: Magee is apparently looking sharp in practice now, and we should see him in the 18 Wednesday. His return to real minutes has been stalled by a niggling hamstring injury picked up in training. In any long-term rehab project like Magee's, soft-tissue injuries are always lurking as the player rebuilds a solid base of fitness, and this was one of those kind of injuries.
As for guys who can help Harry, I'd point out Kennedy Igboananike as a potential match-winner. The Nigerian's flat start to the season seems to be a thing of the past, and his pace and cleverness in combination can create chances in bunches. (Now, if only he'd finish them ... all unhappiness comes by way of comparison.) And Joevin Jones might the best left back in the league; if Nick DeLeon takes a mental nap, Jones will join the attack in an eye-blink.
B&RU: Chicago made a lot of changes in the offseason; do you think the team is on the right track despite the results so far, or is another wholesale change coming this offseason?
HTiOT: There's a lot of moving pieces in this assessment, and I don't want this answer to become a novella, so I'm limiting my answer to whether the roster changes were good ones, and questions branching off of that. In other words, I'm not going to get into the awful situation with the Village of Bridgeview, or anything to do with the ownership situation of the club, despite the fact that those issues color the outlook of everything around the club with a numbing completeness.
I do believe that the players added to the roster have been, in almost every case, good players. Something went very right in the scouting of David Accam and Joevin Jones, and Yallop's investment in Igboananike is at least defensible, if not an outright success at this point. Shaun Maloney has played well and been a model professional, if not a gasp-inducing game-changer. Adailton may have broken an MLS record with two own-goals against Orlando City, but he's been a steady presence for a backline that needed someone a little sleepy-eyed to balance a group of high-strung competitors. And the repatriation of Chicago boys Michael Stephens and Eric Gehrig is culturally significant for a club that increasingly features real local talent.
But the results in play, ay dios mio. Table don't lie: The Fire are looking up from the foot of MLS, begging for scraps. Despite playing stretches of really compelling attacking football, the poor results are starting to push the team into a mental wobble that is (sadly) terribly familiar to the Fire-afflicted. Already there are signs of panic from the technical side, as the team increasingly abandons the smart, opportunistic possession game they'd built over the first three months together for a bit of the old boot-and-run. Harry Shipp, after the Orlando City loss, hinted at the frustration: "... we played pretty well and got the goal and stopped playing. You look at a team like Barcelona, no matter what the score is they’re going to continue playing the same way, they have that identity ... and for us there’s so much fluctuation between playing long and keeping the ball and I think any time you’re switching it up in the course of a game it’s probably not going to go well for you."
Having said all that, the currents that drive the Good Ship Fire are deep. The ongoing difficulty of the Bridgeview situation, the uncertainty over Andell Holdings' long-term commitment to the club, and other non-football factors will have more to say about this offseason than anything that happens on the field. Worst is not good enough, but it may be all we get.
B&RU: Lineup and predictions?
HTiOT: Lineup: Let me just stipulate that here I'm picking this lineup for me, as if I were the boss. I have no idea what Frank Yallop will do. If there's two strikers and Harry Shipp manning a wing, don't blame me. Maloney is out a few weeks with a bulging disc, Accam has a hamstring tweak which should rule him out, and Matt Polster is out for yellow-card accumulation. So, the Fire will be missing their tactical X-factor, their big-name guy, and the best rookie in the league.
Chicago (4-2-3-1): Sean Johnson; Lovel Palmer, Adailton, Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Gehrig; Razvan Cocis, Michael Stephens; Joevin Jones, Harry Shipp, Jason Johnson; Kennedy Igboananike.
Prediction: 1-1 draw.