The Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire are old rivals that appear to be moving in different directions before this evening's game at Crew Stadium. Chicago are unbeaten in four games (six including the Open Cup), while the Crew have suffered a slip in form and now sit outside the playoff race after winning only two of their last seven league games.
In order to get some perspective on these two teams, I sat down with Hot Time in Old Town's Ryan Sealock to trade questions and perspectives on the Crew and Fire.
The last time we talked, the loss of Arne Friedrich was identified as a cause of the Fire's troubles - but he is still out, and the Fire have gone unbeaten in six games. Has the arrival of Magee been the only change, or is there something else that has happened to spur the turnaround?
Certainly the arrival of Mike Magee and Baky Soumare's return to Chicago have been the biggest catalyst for our recent run. With Arne still out, and most likely will be for the rest of the season, getting Soumare helped fill a huge gap at CB. And Magee has not only scored goals, something the Fire hadn't had, but he has been a vocal leader as well. These qualities have helped lift the Fire out of the doldrums, so to speak.
We have also been getting some key contributions from players like Daniel Paladini, Alex, and even Dilly Duka seems to be coming around a bit. Frank Klopas can be stubborn at times, but he has benched under performing players like Sherjill MacDonald and Joel Lindpere. He has shown willingness to tinker around with the lineup in the past month, and I think he is finally starting to hit on a look that works.
Attendance figures are inspected closely in Crew fandom, particularly with sporadic calls from outsiders to relocate the team to (more fashionable city here). While the Crew don't pack their stadium, the Fire seem to similarly struggle at the gate - along with other older franchises like New England and DC. Is this a fair assessment of the Fire's attendance? Is this the fate of any franchise as it ages, and any semblance of novelty wears off? What is the Fire (or the fans) doing to pack Toyota Park like the fans in Kansas City, Portland and Seattle are doing?
Attendance certainly has been a problem in the Windy City. I don't think it's due to the team's age at all. It really is a combination of location, team performance, and some various other factors. there are also many major sports to compete with in Chicago (Blackhawks, Cubs, Bulls, White Sox, Bears). Thus, the Fire have to create a unique niche for themselves to draw casual fans out to the stadium. I feel one of the big things lacking in terms of marketing is getting the Fire brand out and about in downtown Chicago and other areas. In credit to the Fire staff, there are some new programs and ideas rolling out to try to do just that.
The location of Toyota Park is also a sore thumb for many fans. It's in a spot that keeps the casual fan away, especially for midweek or early afternoon games. While the diehards will travel anywhere for the team, part of the idea is to fill the stadium with casuals and try to turn them into diehards. Going along with this idea, the team has not done well in recent years. When the team is winning and doing well, TP fills up. When it's not, attendance falls. So the best cure for getting butts in the seats is to win. And the past handful of years have been lean indeed in terms of silverware for the Men in Red.
With the arrival of Mike Magee, it would appear that Sherjill McDonald is now surplus to requirements, second choice to Magee and Chris Rolfe. Do you think the Fire would look to move him, and what area of the roster do you think they would look to strengthen?
We will definitely look to move him in the window- if we can. He has a contract that runs through the end of this year, with a club option for another 2 years. While the option will be declined, I think the team will look into a loan for him. There isn't any MLS team in their right mind that would trade for a player making over 500k and giving absolutely no production. If we can't line up a loan as we did with Flaco, he will just have to ride the bench, collect his money, and get out of town at the end of the season.
In terms of the transfer window, the Fire will look to be active. While Mike Magee is banging goals in, we can't count on him to carry the whole team the rest of the season. He needs some help, and the front office seems to be putting a striker on their list as the top priority. Owner Andrew Hauptman said he has a list of transfer names that he looks at daily. One recent rumor is that the Fire are making a hard push for EPL veteran Carlton Cole.
Apart from striker, we also really need a true CAM in the center of the pitch. We haven't had this since Sebastian Grazzini left town. A true playmaker could really help production with some of the other players on the roster too. And we are still thin depth wise at every position on the back line, so the club should be looking at options here too. It's safe to say the summer window should be full of action for Fire fans in the very near future.
One of the visuals that most struck me from the recent World Cup Qualifiers was the scenes from Grant Park of fans watching on outdoor screens. We are used to this for the World Cup itself, or outside a sold-out stadium, but this is the first time I can remember an American city doing this for a qualifier. Who organized this event, and do you expect it to be repeated for other games?
The Grant Park event was a centennial celebration event organized by US Soccer itself. Chris Rolfe, Logan Pause, and Frank Klopas were at the event to get some Fire players and branding out in public. It was a great idea, went over very well, and I think that it will hopefully set the stage for future events like this. By now most of us have seen the compilation video from Landon Donovan's goal vs. Algeria in the last World Cup depicting wild celebrations at bars and watch parties the world over. Simply put, it's a great feeling to get together with a group of people, watch the team you support together, and go nuts and celebrate when said team scores/wins.
Hopefully the atmosphere of the watch party will help get some of those that attended out to Toyota Park to experience the same thing in person at Fire games. I would like to see public watch parties done for Fire games in the future too. Something like a USOC Final or (hopefully soon) an MLS Cup Final would look great in Grant Park.
Crew Stadium is well known for being the first soccer specific stadium built for a professional US team. Has there been any talk of updating Crew Stadium to make it more state of art and modern? (via Adam Merges)
The Crew have actually done a fair bit of renovating here and there over the years, and there are plans to do even more. The introduction of the stage was seen as a step backwards at the time, but it also forced the various supporters groups into a more concentrated area and allowed the Nordecke to form. The team put a great deal of work into the locker rooms over several years, and last season improved the fan concourses with some banners and other painting that - in my opinion - did a great deal to ground the stadium experience in the city's soccer history.
As someone who spent many game days crawling under the stands to drag banners and flags out of storage in the early years, these behind the scenes changes are easy to miss, but have allowed the team to improve its game day experience via better infrastructure.
Now, that isn't to say that the stadium isn't showing its age - the fire in the scoreboard earlier this year hopefully added some impetus to replace it sooner rather than later, and the team is finally converting some more benches to individual seats. The big facility improvements, though, will come more quickly to the team's training facility - which has been the subject of renewed interest by some central Ohio communities.
While I don't think the team will execute any flashy renovations, I do expect them to continue to make careful, prudent (if conservative) improvements each year.
How have the Crew adjusted to life without Eddie Gaven? How many players does it take to replace the human Swiss Army knife? (via Sean Spence)
Gaven's loss has seriously impacted the Crew's midfield, but his loss is bigger in terms of Gaven's experience than his flank play. Bernardo Anor has returned to the active roster from a long-term injury, giving the team a wide option that will help offensively. Anor also likes to tuck inside, similar to Gaven. No player in midfield, however, has the playing experience in MLS. The team can turn to players like Higuain for soccer experience, however - so the club is hardly bereft of leadership.
It is worth noting here that Higuain was named captain this season, an acknowledgement that his voice carries weight in the locker room.
Beyond Anor, in terms of positional coverage, Ben Speas and Justin Metal are also seeing more significant minutes.
Tell me about Glauber's injury: Disaster or hiccup? (via Sean Spence)
Glauber's injury falls into a lesser category than Gaven's - at least so far. Josh Williams and Eric Gehrig have both had creditable outings in the heart of the back line. Kievan George - seen as buried down the depth charge a few months ago - also turned in some good minutes in recent games.
Ultimately, though, the loss of Glauber hurts less than Gaven because the Crew still have Chad Marshall in the back. So long as Marshall can stay healthy, Glauber's loss will only be seen as unfortunate, rather than disastrous.
Let's re-visit the Oduro/Duka/Roger's rights trade. Obviously the Crew had no idea at the time that Rogers would be coming back to MLS and that his rights would net a player like Mike Magee. How did the Crew make out on their end of the trade taking the Magee transaction into account now? How has the beloved ex- Fire player fit into the Crew's team strategy and locker room? (via Anthony Seymour)
It is natural to want to revisit trades when moves like this happen, but I don't think that's fair. For one thing, the Crew were never going to end up with Mike Magee even if they had hung onto Duka and Rogers' rights - that move was specific to Chicago. What would they have received for the rights to Rogers? No one can say - and speculation is fruitless.
As for the known quantities in that trade, Dominic Oduro has by all accounts been a credit to the team - there has been no indication that I've heard of his presence being problematic, and his goal output has been a needed boon for a team whose other scoring threats (Jairo Arrieta, Justin Meram, etc) have struggled. Meanwhile, even though Duka has begun playing more often since the team's last league meeting, the two players' output still seems very heavily skewed in the Crew's favor.
Predicted Lineups and Scores
Gruenebaum, Barson, Marshall, Williams, Wahl, Tchani, Sanchez, Oduruo, Speas, Higuain, Arrieta
Johnson, Anibaba, Soumare, Berry, Segares, Pause, Lindpere, Alex, Nyarko, MacDonald, Magee
The score will probably favor the Fire - something like 2-1. The Crew have traditionally struggled against Chicago, and the Fire's recent form will likely be too strong to overcome. If the Crew do pull a result, it will either be through a revenge-for-recent-loss emotional play, or the Fire's surge subsiding.
This is a bit tough to call. The Fire traditionally have done well the past few years in Columbus. Frank Klopas will be rotating the roster however as the Fire are in the middle of a 3 game stretch in 7 days (win this past Wednesday against the Rapids, the Crew tomorrow, and a USOC game next Wednesday). The lineup will get juggled a bit, hence Lindpere and MacDonald playing to get some traditional starters a rest. I think the fortunes of the Men in Red continue at Crew Stadium. I will go with a 3-1 Fire win. Magee will grab a brace and Alex will add a 3rd. Oduro will net for the Crew.