The Philadelphia Union are in Chicago tonight to take on the Fire at 8:30 P.M. on The Comcast Network. I talked to James Coston, a writer at Hot Time in Old Town, about the Union and the Fire ahead of the game.
James: The Union have shown some flashes of being a very talented side, but have really shot themselves in the foot in these first two matches. Do you think that's something that will get better as the season rolls on or will the blame game begin rather quickly if results don't turn around fast?
Scott: In terms of shooting themselves in the foot, it depends entirely on whether or not the backline and MacMath improve from game-to-game. MacMath has experienced some major growing pains since Faryd Mondragon left to return to Deportivo Cali in Colombia. His positioning has been fine, but his decision making has left a lot to be desired. Mistakes from the defense in front of him, namely Porfirio Lopez and Chris Albright, didn't help. If the team can't put together wins, or at least grab points, then the calls for head coach Piotr Nowak to be fired will grow. Not to stereotype the city like it has been nationally, but the fans here won't put up with failure after last year and will absolutely let it be known.
James: Great crowd at the home opener regardless; we'll see if that continues as well.
Scott: It'll be interesting to see if the crowds remain if the losing continues. The first year had that new car feel to it, so losing didn't matter. Now it does.
James: One of the bright spots on Sunday was Midfielder Roger Torres coming off the bench to deliver a great ball into the box for Colombian Forward Lionard Pajoy to cut the Rapids' lead in half. Right after Sebastien Le Toux was traded to Vancouver, the club announced the permanent transfer of Torres to soften the blow. As the season progresses, how do you hope Torres' role with the club grows?
Scott: Torres appears a perpetual off the bench option. There have been questions about his fitness levels in terms of stamina. He's incredibly influential when coming off the bench and in the past wasn't as influential when starting, which has led to the aforementioned speculation about his stamina. Torres has the potential to be one of the few true game changers in MLS. He can play like an old school no. 10 or as the playmaker of today's soccer (sometimes a false 9). It's yet to be seen if his transfer will add up to any more than an important late game player, but Torres has the skills to make him one of the most exciting players to watch in MLS.
James: Fantastic. Have there been any talks of the club acquiring a big-name player (DP) to replace Sebastien Le Toux?
Scott: Other than Michael Ballack saying that he's interested in the Union - among other teams - none at all.
James: Is that frustrating for the fans or can you see a long-term strategy in place?
Scott: Nowak has stated multiple times that he'd rather get three players for the price of one. I think it's something he sees, and the front office sees as a long-term strategy. Younger players can be raised cheaper and thus be sold for more profit.
James: Sure, I definitely understand that. Are you worried that this season could become somewhat lost in this rebuilding stage or can this club make a legitimate playoff run?
Scott: The team has said that this isn't a rebuilding year, but it has begun to feel like one, unfortunately. This team has the talent to make a playoff run, but the first two games haven't shown that they have the ability to put it all together to make that run happen - yet.
James: Interesting. So the Union are playing the Fire on Saturday in Chicago's home opener. Do you have a final score prediction?
Scott: I don't see a win for the Union. Starting left back Porfirio Lopez played in a friendly last night, so he'll probably be less than 100 percent and has been poor since joining the Union. Starting right back Sheanon Williams is now with the under-23 USMNT, meaning he won't be with the Union on Saturday. That doesn't weight well for the team.
1-1 is the best hope for the Union. I can't help but foresee another 2-1 or 3-1 loss.
James: Yeah, we've been lucky with call-ups for the most part. We'll be missing starting keeper Sean Johnson to U-23 duties as well, but former Inter Milan youth product Paolo Tornaghi did about as well as could be expected last week. The only goal he allowed was off a Davy Arnaud unmarked header and there was no way he was going to save that. It was interesting to see him get the start over former Vancouver keeper Jay Nolly, who certainly has more experience. It also doesn't appear likely that new defender Arne Friedrich will get his first appearance on Saturday as he only trained in Chicago for the first time this past Tuesday.
Scott: Has Sean Johnson improved from last year, or will Nolly be forced into the starting role this season, a la what happened to Johnson during his cold streak in '11?
James: Well that's a very good point. Johnson lost his starting spot in late April last year after a string of sub-par performances to start off the season.
Scott: Is there fear in Chicago that he might have problems again?
James: Well, he eventually returned in late May when we realized that then-backup Jon Conway was only serviceable at best. Johnson did fairly well for the rest of the season, but I think you're right in that the competition this year is MUCH stronger from both Nolly and Tornaghi. Plus with Johnson being away on U-23 duty, it certainly leaves open the chance of competition between the veteran Nolly and the young Italian Tornaghi. It does seem like coach Frank Klopas tipped his hand last week in selecting Tornaghi to start. I think he'll receive that opportunity this Saturday as well. But once SJ comes back, I think it's his job to lose. Plus, you look at the beginning of 2011 and the absurd amount of roster turnover from 2010 where only 43% of minutes from 2011 came from 2010 players, and it's a bit easier to forgive Johnson in hindsight.
but if he does have some...um...MacMath-esque blunders early, then yeah, that door could open quickly. And just for comparison on the carryover minutes, the Union had 61% to the Fire's 43%. Or on the flip side, if Johnson does really well, he could be plucked away by a European side. I think that's the biggest reason Klopas was willing to use an international slot on the "third-string" Tornaghi. Johnson also trained with Everton this offseason.
Scott: MacMath did as well.
James: I really hope we'll be able to manufacture some more goals this year though. Grazzini and Pappa are great at setting opportunities up, but we don't really have that one dominant striker who is active in the air. Oduro is good and is REALLY fast, and if he can keep creating opportunities though, that's huge. Hopefully last year wasn't a fluke for him. Judging by his start to the 2012 season in Montreal, things are looking up so far.
Scott: He seems a streaky striker no matter what, even last year.
James: Oh yeah, I remember the home game against D.C. United in particular, he had about three one-on-ones with the keeper in the first half alone, and couldn't convert any of them. It speaks to his ability to create opportunities that most can't, but his finishing can drive us nuts at times.
Scott: He's a very fast poacher. There is nothing wrong with that so long as he scores.
James: Now, the midfield is fairly stacked. In fact, it will be interesting to see how they get certain players enough playing time. They went with what was essentially a 4-3-1-2 against Montreal. But guys like midfielder Rafael Robayo, who came from Millonarios in Colombia in the offseason, aren't going to be content sitting on the bench all season.
Scott: They won't, but at some point they have to realize that playing time is earned no matter their previous history. Look at Freddy Adu, Torres and others on the Union. Lots of players are fighting for playing time.
James: Thanks for bringing up Adu. Has he had any attitude issues since joining the club or is he fighting for playing time simply because he hasn't earned a regular spot?
Scott: He's had perceived attitude problems, but he just got named by Porter's coaching staff as U23 USMNT captain.
James: I am not seeing anything addressing the Califf situation yet, which isn't particularly shocking.
Scott: He's listed as a probable starter still.
James: I mean, was there anything ahead of last Sunday that indicated any rift between him and Nowak?
Scott: The choice to drop him as captain last year and the playoff series against Houston, but nothing since that.
James: Go figure. Have you heard anything about any potential friendlies this season? We had Manchester United. and Chivas de Guadalajara last year and I've heard rumblings about a South American team this year.
Scott: Chelsea possible, Newcastle fell apart. Deportivo Saprissa a definite.
James: I'm assuming if it happens, Chelsea wouldn't happen at PPL?
Scott: Everton was last year, but it's quite possible that Chelsea could be the ASG opponent this year. Anything but more Manchester United bludgeoning...
James: Chelsea played the All-Stars in 2006 at Toyota Park and De Rosario scored the winner. It was a really fun match.
Scott: I think Chelsea would be a better game than United for the All-Stars.
James: I hope so. I mean, it's a fine line because you want to bring in a good club, but watching the best players in the league get massacred on National television doesn't help the league in my opinion.
Scott: Not at all. I'd rather see Porto, Dortmund, Napoli, CSKA Moskva, etc, but MLS would never go there.
James: I know folks like us would love that, but yeah, the casual fan has maybe only heard of Dortmund out of that group.
Scott: Recently they've become more well known.
James: Yeah, I think they'll stick to either English clubs or very well known international clubs. Or they could alternatively revert back to East v. West, but that could kill interest in the game itself.
Scott: Wouldn't mind that, actually.
James: Yeah, but I'd say they're still quite far away from being big enough to do that.
Scott: It may be better than getting slaughtered by a Manchester United.
James: Yeah that's true, but then the question is attendance.
Scott: And TV ratings.
James: Yep. Thanks for your time Scott!