Prime Your Fire Pump: Chicago vs. Houston Dynamo

Boniek and the boys are coming... (photo: aol.sportingnews.com)

Boniek and the boys are coming… (photo: aol.sportingnews.com)

Chicago looks to regroup after an awful performance in the nation’s capital.

DC United Recap

It was the stuff nightmares are made of. I can still see Gonzalo Segares huff, puff and watch balls slowly float, roll, bounce, and blow Sean Johnson’s house down. Andy Najar is running rampant on the RFK pitch. Old man Dwayne De Rosario is making rookie phenom Austin Berry look like, well, a rookie. And of course, my bad dreams didn’t feature Marco Pappa because he wasn’t really there anyway. The Fire’s last match at DC United was so ugly, so unpalatable, that the Chicago Fire interwebs and tweetosphere went surprisingly silent the day after – unless of course it was party talk…

Anibaba: “If only I looked this good on the pitch.” (Image clip: chicago-fire.com)

Now I understand that there was an important event to prepare for the night after the DC match. All the Cinderellas had to get ready for the big white ball. But maybe Jalil Anibaba, for one, should have been watching game film instead of worrying about couture shopping before heading to RFK. Hey, hey whooooa. I know, it was for a good cause and I could tell from all the social media noise that everyone had a blast at the Chicago Fire Foundation’s White Party. And let’s get something straight: I’m not some anti-social curmudgeon. But again, it was as if everyone associated with the Fire wanted to forget that the team’s performance made them the subject of laughter and ridicule around the league just days after the media was finally taking notice of Chicago’s recent success on the pitch. Okay, that’s enough ranting. Let’s move on, shall we?

Although my predict-o-meter registered a paltry 25% after the match (hubris, remember?), Fire defender Gonzalo Segares confirmed what I feared before the Fire decided to take a dump on the RFK pitch: Chicago’s defense found itself stretched by long balls pumped out of the midfield and into DC’s attacking third. So are Chicago’s problems tactical in nature? Well, Frank Klopas thinks perhaps what ails the Men in Red is a failure to practice sound sporting fundamentals such as awareness, focus, vision, and movement – you know,  “the little things” that can make or break a result. But as I said in On The Fire‘s last “What We Learned” piece, Chicago’s problems are multifaceted. The Men in Red need to improve both fundamentally and tactically if they are to have a shot at being a competitive playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The match vs. Houston will certainly measure whether Frankie and the boys are up to the task. After an atrocious, embarrassing performance ten days ago, the Fire have a lot to prove on Sunday night – not only to the fans at Toyota Park but also to themselves. Chicago vaulted themselves into playoff contention on the backs of the weak. Now they must prove that they are truly one of the strong.

Chris Pontus: The Babe Ruth of MLS? (Photo: mlssoccer.com)

Before we put the DC match to bed for good (you’re welcome), the guys over at MLS Extra Time Radio had some insightful, if brief comments about the disaster that was August 22nd. My man, the always exasperated Simon Borg, in one of his (always entertaining) rhetorical flourishes, likened Chris Pontius to Babe Ruth. Really. Before the match, DC’s attacking midfielder (correctly) called the Fire defense “complacent”. Borg’s logic follows that because Pontius made his statement before the match, it was akin to Babe Ruth’s “called shot” home run. Now, while the analogy is a bit far-fetched, it works because United proceeded to pump four into Chicago’s net that night. Indeed, host Nick Firchau and analyst Andrew Wiebe agreed with Borg that the Fire had “fallen asleep” on the pitch at RFK.

The Past Ten Days

A little more R&R for this man please. (Photo: chicago-fire.com)

Astonishingly, Frank Klopas did not rule out a return to the lineup Sunday for the injured Logan Pause, who began light training on Monday. To say that Frank’s comment is overly optimistic is an understatement. While we at On The Fire want the Fire captain (who is no mere mortal) to return to the pitch asap, the man suffered two broken ribs and a punctured lung a mere three weeks ago. With plenty of time left this season and depth in the midfield, there’s no need to rush Logan Pause back into uniform. Doing so would be an act of poor judgment by Klopas and a sign that he is desperate and out of tactical ideas.

Oh, won’t you please stay? (Photo: augsburger-allgemeine.de)

Arne Friedrich is so enamoured by Chitown that he may want to stay for another year. All I have to say to that is BITTE!  Arne’s really taken to the Windy City. He loves Lincoln Park, the lakefront, the restaurants, Chicago sports, etc. But, he’s got a long distance relationship issue to deal with folks. So what do we have to do to keep Ze German around longer? Well, how about a letter writing campaign to convince his girlfriend in Berlin to come to Chitown? Any readers out there fluent in German willing to translate?

While the Eastern Conference results last weekend were favorable for the idle Fire, the Crew’s divine luck at Philly on Wednesday night shifted the overall assessment during Chicago’s time off from favorable to mixed. Essentially, Philly gifted Columbus two additional points after the bearded one Eddie Gavin put one in the back of the net during stoppage time while the Crew were down a man. The win moved Columbus within two points of the Fire and the last playoff spot. But, Chicago took solace in New York’s comeback draw vs. DC, leaving a point on the table and preventing United from moving ahead of Chicago on points. More on the Eastern Conference playoff race in a bit.

Houston saw additional work this week as the CONCACAF Champions league participants headed down to Tegucigalpa, Honduras to take on Club Deportivo Olimpia on Thursday night. Sunday’s match at Toyota Park will be the Dynamo’s fifth match in the last fifteen days. Including this Sunday night, three of the five are away matches, with two played in El Salvador and Honduras, respectively. Let’s hope a tired and weary Houston squad shows up on the Toyota Park pitch as a result.

Rumors swirled throughout the Tweet-o-sphere that USMNT and Rangers defender Carlos Bocanegra might take a walk down memory lane and return to the Chicago Fire. The question is, if this gossip actually has legs, what will it take to get Boca back to Chitown –  i.e., what would the Fire conceivably have to give up to Toronto FC to secure the first allocation spot from them? I agree with the fans who said Anibaba and some cash. If Boca does come back to the Fire, what will this mean for the back four? Will Austin Berry sit? Can Arne Friedrich play right back? Austin Berry will not sit. And yes, Arne Friedrich has experience on the right. However, the most sensible solution would be to keep the “A-Team” intact in the middle, shift Sega over to right back, and play Boca at left back – something he’s more than capable of doing. That said, all of this conjecture is based in rumor so take it for what it’s worth at this point – nothing. But even if this story has legs, does Chicago really need another defender? Getting Boca would be a huge P.R. move for the club and put more butts in the seats, but would it make sense tactically? Can CFSC even afford a player like Carlos Bocanegra?

Sorry Fire fans, but this image is a thing of the past. (Photo: usatoday.com)

UPDATE: Surprise, surprise. Carlos Bocanegra will not once again ply his trade in the back with the Chicago Fire. Big Boca’s going to Spain. But, Frank Klopas made it clear this week that Chicago is looking to add another player before the September 15th roster freeze deadline, so stay tuned.

Now all that aside, unquestionably the biggest news during the Fire’s time off was the sooner than expected departure of midfielder Marco Pappa to Dutch side SC Herrenveen. The team with the little red hearts (or kidney beans?) on their jersey upped the ante to get Marco over to Abe Lenstra Stadium sooner rather than later. The result? Chicago gets a transfer fee but loses the MLS rights to Pappa should he decide to come back to the league. And although MLS policy dicates that salaries aren’t made public, it is likely that Chicago needs the cash to keep the current squad intact next year. Practically speaking, letting Pappa go now is a shrewd move by the CFSC front office worthy of praise. Who cares if the Fire relinquish Pappa’s MLS rights? Trust me, if this kid is looking to come back to MLS in a few years (in his late twenties), no club will be chomping at the bit to acquire him. So again, kudos to the Fire front office for a sound short- and long-term economic decision. And here’s a warning for all of you Marco Pappa fans out there: skip ahead to the next section if you don’t want to read a contrarian opinion on the young Guatemalan.

Adios muchacho. (Photo: mlssoccer.com website)

Marco Pappa was quickly becoming dead weight for a squad in the midst of a serious playoff run. Just look at his last performance wearing the Fire badge and perhaps you’ll see my point. And yes, Twitterland erupted with a bunch of lovey-dovey feel good blather about Marco and what he meant to the club and how everyone will miss him. Blah, blah, blah. Frankly, I could care less about all the sentimental instant nostalgia. I don’t know about you dear reader, but I want to win NOW. And getting rid of Pappa – even without bringing in another player – increases the Fire’s chances to do so. I acknowledge Marco’s athleticism, talent, and technical skill – that is, when he decides he wants to use it. But champions are mentally strong. Champions are focused. Champions give it all they’ve got every time they step on the pitch. Marco Pappa never helped Chicago win anything of significance. Why? Because Marco Pappa is not a champion. Mark my words: this kid is in for a rude awakening once he steps onto Marco Van Basten’s pitch in Holland. In the long run, Fire fans will forget about Marco Pappa. He’s just a guy who happened to score a few (sometimes electrifying) goals here and there, but never could bring himself to honor the badge by caring enough to give it everything he had for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club night in and night out.

This Week’s MLS Power Rankings: Aggregate = 7.2 ( down 1.4 from last week)

Goal.com #6 – “With a victory over Houston on Sunday night, the Fire would leapfrog the Dynamo in the Eastern Conference pecking order.” Masters of the obvious.

ESPN FC #6 – “The Fire hadn’t given up more than two goals in a league game all season. Then they shipped four against D.C. United, with goalkeeper Sean Johnson among those looking suspect.” Harsh but fair.

NBC Sports Pro Soccer Talk  #7 – “The off-week saw Chicago hold its place at fourth in the East while the teams on either side failed to take full points. So, that part worked out pretty well. This week’s visit by Houston? Yeah, check the box on “big match” for this one.” Truth.

SB Nation #7 – “Got thumped in midweek, but maybe they deserved to move up anyway since their ranking seemed artificially low up until now.” Finally these guys start talking sense.

MLSsoccer.com #8 – “Everything that had been going right for the Fire went wrong in that midweek pasting by D.C. They’ll need to put it behind them quickly, because the upcoming schedule is packed with six-pointers.” Tough love.

Soccer by Ives #9 – No comment of any substance was made, so I’ll make one for them: “We here at SBI decided to commit sports journalism malpractice against the Chicago Fire.” 

How They Stand In The East

If there was ever a time to start watching the table, it’s now. After taking a look at Mark O’ Rourke’s Eastern Conference standings analysis this week, Hot Time In Old Town‘s Ryan Sealock said it best: The Fire have little room for error from here on out.

Leaders Sporting KC (47 pts.) cling to a one point lead over second place New York Red Bulls (46), but should increase their lead to four points after hosting Toronto FC on Saturday. New York is idle this weekend.

As we know, Houston (42) sits at third along with DC United (42). DC takes on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto on Saturday night and must work hard to get a result there. A win at Toyota Park for the fifth place Fire (41) will put them in sole possession of third place with one game in hand on Houston and DC going into next week. Big match at Toyota Park on Sunday folks. Big match.

But what’s perhaps more interesting than the action among the top five in the East is what’s going on down at six and seven

Beware the Crew? (Image: kingkennyskop.wordpress.com)

After they were essentially gifted three points by Philly on Wednesday night, the team to watch out for now is Columbus. If the Crew can get a win at home against Montreal on Saturday, the Fire will be looking over their shoulders even more than they already are at this point. But, if Montreal takes home three points, the Fire, even if they drop points at home on Sunday, won’t have to worry too much about the Impact as they will have three games in hand on Montreal going into next week. However, if Columbus and Montreal draw and Chicago draws, the East will truly start to shape up as a six team race, with Columbus remaining even on points with Montreal with three games in hand. That said, if Columbus wins at home and Chicago loses, the Crew will knock the Fire out of the fifth and final playoff spot in the East even if DC don’t get a result at Salt Lake because United has the tiebreaker advantage on Chicago (goals scored). Whew! Did you get all that?

So aside from the Houston v. Chicago, the most important match to watch this weekend for Fire fans is Montreal at Columbus. Bottom line: Chicago needs the Impact to get a result at Crew stadium. At first glance, a draw might be the desired result. However, Chicago supporters should root for Montreal to take all three points because this will put the brakes on a surging Columbus squad. And again, the Fire will have three games in hand on our neighbors to the north going into next week. So get out your fleur-de-lis and tune in to MLS Live at 6:30 CST. Both teams will go for it and fight hard for the points. It’ll be a good one.

WOOF?! (Photo: chicago-fire.com)

Sparky’s Sizzling Questions

#1 Will the Fire and the Dynamo do their usual dance and draw on Sunday?

In a word, no. I’ll soon tell you why not.

#2 Will Dan Gargan get the start at right fullback over Jalil Anibaba?

Lord, hear my prayer. Apparently, both players scrimmaged with the starters on Thursday, so there’s at least a chance that the “Kraken” will be released upon Houston at Toyota Park. After recent shaky play from Anibaba, it makes sense for Klopas to give veteran Gargan the nod on Sunday against a formidable opponent. However, Fire tactical guru “Irish” Steve Piggott disagrees and believes Chicago will need Anibaba’s height to help defend against a Dynamo squad that is ever dangerous on set pieces. I think the Fire need Gargan in there so either Nyarko or Fernandez will not have to worry so much about defending Mac Kandji on the wing.

#3 Will Marco Pappa’s absence from the pitch make a difference for the Fire on Sunday?

No. And neither will it ever for the reasons stated above.

#4 Will Dom Kinnear take a page from Ben Olson’s playbook and pack the midfield?

Hot Cast In Old Town‘s Gregg Mixdorf certainly thinks so. After all, Olson’s tactics all but neutralized Chris Rolfe last time out and prevented Chicago from getting the ball up top to Sherjill MacDonald.

Predictions

  • Houston will sit back, let the Fire come to them, and try to counterattack. Trust me, after the schedule Dom Kinnear’s had over the past fifteen days, along with his club’s one point lead over the Fire in the Eastern Conference standings, the Houston head coach will be more than happy to go home with a draw on Sunday night.
  • Dan Gargan will get the starting call and look better than Jalil Anibaba at right fullback.
  • Alex Monteiro de Lima will hit the pitch as a sub in the midfield and make Fire fans quickly forget about Marco Pablo Pappa Ponce.
  • Patrick Nyarko will use his speed and quickness on the wing to get by the lumberjacks in Houston’s back line and cross one to Chris Rolfe for a goal. Alex will come off the bench to surprise everyone and bag the match winner. A rested young Will Bruin puts one in the back of the net for the Dynamo off service from Boniek Garcia.
  • A hungry Fire squad come out of the gate strong at home to win 2-1 over a gassed and travel-weary Houston Dynamo.
  • Chicago goes into next week in sole possession of third place in the Eastern Conference.

**Chicago Fire vs. Houston Dynamo – 6:00pm CST on NBC NonStop 5.2 and Galavision – This is Big Time Soccer. Don’t miss it!**

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