The Chicago Fire are transitioning from a team with significant issues to one with some hope of the playoffs. There move last year to have Frank Klopas as an interim coach and technical director is now permanent. While the rebuild isn't complete this fairly unique in MLS structure means that one man is purely in charge. For the Fire it has meant that their personel are playing in the system that the man who selects them foresaw them in. Their diamond 4-4-2 is dependent on the speed of the forwards with many balls being played either over the top by passing the midfield or as throughballs coming through the crafty passing of Sebastian Grazzini.
In Chicagoland they also just got back one of their heroes - Chris Rolfe. Unfortunately/fortunately for Seattle Sounders fans they will not get to see the Fire forward's return from his European adventure as he's injured. Still the excitement of his choosing to come back to MLS at the tail end of his prime years (if prime is 27-30) is notable in Illinois. Our three questions start with Tweed from Hot Time In Old Town addressing Rolfe's return and then moving into the factors that will help determine victory in the Saturday 5:30 PM Pacific time match you can watch on KONG 6/16 with radio on KIRO & La Gran D.
SaH: Chris Rolfe. Wait, I should ask something. What type of player is he? What does it mean to the fanbase to bring him back? Will he play?
HTiOT: Chris Rolfe is not the most athletic player nor is he the fastest player. He's certainly not an overbearing player at 5'8 and under 150 lbs. Rolfe makes up for these flaws by possessing a great soccer mind, a great team attitude, and two fantastically powerful feet. The highlight video the team rolled out the other day does not even include the goal he scored against AC Milan in an exhibition.
Rolfe has adapted to playing on the wing during his career but he is a striker. Chicago Fire head coach Frank Klopas made it clear he'll play Rolfe up top. Seattle fans will miss the homecoming though. The 29-year old striker from Ohio has been ruled for Saturday out with an ankle injury. Injuries have not been uncommon throughout his career but this is a minor injury. Rolfe played a full match as recently as late March and was serving a red card suspension in April before being re-signed by Chicago.The signing in itself means a lot to the fanbase because #17 (now #18) was very popular before he left. Rolfe is the second leading goal scorer in club history with 36. He also provides a link to the Fire's championship past given he was part of the 2006 U.S. Open Cup team.
That said, this is no nostalgia move. Rolfe is 29 years old and seemingly has the ‘European bug' out of his system. He's the legit striker to play alongside Dominic Oduro that the fanbase has been clamoring for. As a domestic player with deep roots to Chicago, Rolfe figures to be a big part of the Fire's future for at least a couple of years to come.
SaH: How important has Sebastian Grazzini been to the Fire's offense?
HTiOT: Here's a snapshot in language Seattle fans should quickly understand. Mauro Rosales has 18 goals/assists in 1,949 regular season minutes. Sebastian Grazzini has 11 goals/assists in 1,179 regular season minutes. The former Argentine is averaging a goal or assist every 108 minutes while the latter Argentine is averaging a goal or assist every 107 minutes. Grazzini's footprint on the stat sheet is virtually identical to Rosales'.
The issue for Chicago is that they haven't displayed the depth Seattle has and Klopas hasn't come close to demonstrating the tactical wisdom of Sigi Schmid. Grazzini plays the ‘1' in the 4-3-1-2 formation. No one on the team can score, pass, and push the ball into the attacking third like he does in one package. There have been attempts to use Marco Pappa and Corben Bone in this role but it just doesn't work the same way. The Fire are a much less dangerous team without Grazzini. Opposing teams tend to focus their game plan on shutting him down. Look for the Sounders to do that on Saturday. Grazzini is the straw that stirs this drink.
SaH: Besides the two game absence of Gibbs Chicago's defense has been consistent this year, are they still gelling or is their 1.20 Goals Against Average what's to be expected on the season?
HTiOT: This same basic group of players (Johnson, Segares, Anibaba, Gargan, Pardo, Pause, Pappa, Grazzini, Nyarko, Oduro) have been a gelled team since August 13th of last year. Between then and now, the Fire have outscored their opponents 29-21 in 17 games. To put that into context, 58 goals in 34 games would have led MLS last year but 42 goals against would have left the Fire right smack dab in the middle. I see this squad finishing right around the middle of the defensive pack in 2012.
Cory Gibbs' injury does not initially concern me because he is replaced by the arguably superior Arne Friedrich. The German international is settling in well and bringing his world class experience to the Fire's benefit. Like most players of his stature that arrive in MLS (read David Beckham), he sometimes underestimates his teammates and his opponents to his own detriment but he is rapidly learning. Center back Jalil Anibaba already seems comfortable playing with Friedrich. That's not surprising after Anibaba started alongside three different center backs in 2011. Gonzalo Segares and Dan Gargan provide serviceable if not exemplary defense on the wings.
The main defensive issue facing Chicago is goaltender Sean Johnson. He punches the ball away instead of grabbing it on far too many occasions. The punches often seem like Johnson isn't putting much thought into the direction of the ball. This of course means the Fire are highly vulnerable to giving up goals via the rebound. It also means Johnson is not grabbing the ball and leading counter attacks. Fire fans have overlooked this part of Johnson's game because he is still a young keeper (turns 23 on May 31st) but this is his third year as a starting MLS goalkeeper. The stakes are higher. He needs to start fine tuning his athleticism with experience. It's time Sean Johnson goes from being a promising prospect to a rising star.
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HTiOT: Eddie Johnson. Wait, I should ask something. What type of player has he returned as? What does it mean to the Seattle fanbase to lose two players so Seattle can finally have a player with a high ceiling to play alongside Fredy Montero at forward? Will Johnson play?
SaH: It's really hard to judge what EJ is now. Not only has he played infrequently due to injury his few times with the ball show a lot of flash, but with no result - yet. Currently he looks like a great FIFA Street type player. Sounders fans though still have a lot of unanswered questions. It isn't that the club gave away two fan favorites (my personal favorite was one of them), but it seems to be a trade of two guys who could be MLS starters or at least highly used rotational players for one who has a higher peak. If he hits that peak the Sounders offense will be extraordinary. If not Seattle gave up a little depth for a chance at Playoffs success. Johnson will start and go at least 70 minutes.
HTiOT: How important have Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez been to Seattle's offense? Will either play?
SaH: Alvaro Fernandez is out. His short passing, half-wide/half-center midfield and decent far post heading skills will be missed. Mauro Rosales is the engine. He wears the 10, plays like a 10, but starts from a very wide right position. His effective crosses force defenders to close on him, but his burst speed and dribbling can be used to by pass that man, enter open space and slot it the Sounder left open by the help defense. He is nearly certainly going to start.
HTiOT: Jeff Parke has gone back to starting at center back so some Fire fans will think he never lost his job at all. What exactly were the issues that saw him on the bench in the first place? Do you want him to continue to start?
SaH: Parke lost his starting job due to a tactical change to get Patrick Ianni on the field against his former team - the Houston Dynamo. While he isn't the short passer that Ianni is, and is prone to boot it up field when pressured, there was no moment when outside observers would say that he deserved to lose a starting job. If all three CBs are healthy Jeff Parke has the slowest lateral movement, so this week may be one where he wouldn't start, but Ianni and Hurtado both have recent injuries. My preferred pairing at this time is Parke and Ianni