The New England Revolution are headed into hostile territory on Saturday night as they travel to Bridgeview, Illinois and Toyota Park to take on the Chicago Fire. The Revs are locked into their worst stretch of the 2012 season, going six games without a win, including three consecutive losses. Chicago, meanwhile, just trounced Philadelphia 3-1 at PPL Park last week, and sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand on all three clubs ahead of them.
Chicago's defense has been fairly resolute in 2012. German veteran Arne Friedrich marshal's a back line that includes promising young defender Jalil Anibaba and old hands Dan Gargan and Gonzalo Segares, backstopped by USA international Sean Johnson. The Revolution offense will have severe difficulties breaking down this defense; intelligent movement will be the key to scoring any goals. Saer Sene especially will have use his speed and size to get in a remotely decent scoring position as he searches for his 10th goal of the season.
Offensively, Chicago can bring incredible speed to bear in the form of Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko, something the Revs have traditionally had difficulty dealing with. In addition, the quality of guys like Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald will provide the finishing and the intelligence to create chances, and with Sebastian Grazzini pulling the strings, the Revs defense will have its hands full. This is especially a concern for the fullbacks; Chris Tierney could find himself pinned back by Chicago's flank play, unable to play in any crosses, while Kevin Alston will deal better with the speed but could get destroyed if he allows himself to wander out of position as he often does.
Today's Q&A is with Ryan Sealock of Hot Time in Old Town, SB Nation's Chicago Fire blog. You can read our last Q&A with Ryan from the 2-0 win way back in early June, also our answers to Ryan's questions over his way.
TBM: It's been a while since the last time we talked and the last time these two teams faced each other. Honestly, it looks like our two respective clubs are trending in different directions, and both are essentially different teams now. I know there's a lot to look at, but what would you say is the single biggest difference between today's Fire and the Fire of two months ago?
RS: One big reason for the improvement has been our defense. Arne Friedrich has played on the top of his game and his international pedigree has shone through. Austin Berry has stepped up into a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. Dan Gargan, Gonzalo Segares, and Jalil Anibaba have all played good as well. And Sean Johnson has been locked into great form for the past month and a half at least. When you combine all of this, we have a defense that is rolling and keeping balls out of the net.
Although it has happened more recently, the other big factor has been the addition of Alvaro "Flaco" Fernandez and Sherjill MacDonald. Most MLS fans know what Flaco can do, and he brings tools we definitely can use in our attack. His arrival is also nice depth for when Marco Pappa leaves at the end of this season. His addition to the midfield should really help kick start the offense. Sherjill MacDonald will help too, and I will address him in question 2.
TBM: Chris Rolfe was a massive, massive re-acquisition. Arne Friedrich earlier in the season was a big get. Now there's Alvaro Fernandez, another enormous grab. But I'm curious about one guy in particular: Sherjill MacDonald. Didn't know a whole lot about the guy as he came in, or why he deserves a DP contract. What does he bring to the table, and are you excited about the addition? He had a nice assist last week.
RS: Sherjill has only had a few appearances with the team, but he is already showing signs of being a very good signing. He brings something that we haven't had in a while with our target forwards: size, and the ability to hold the ball up and play with his back to the goal. He has looked very good when you take into account the fact that he is not even fully fit yet. His assist last weekend was nice, and he has come dangerously close to scoring a few times already. He is primed for a huge, breakout game and fans are hoping it will happen soon. Pairing Sherjill up top with Chris Rolfe or Dominic Oduro should really pay dividends in the near future. Things are definitely looking up right now if Fire country.
TBM: So Marco Pappa just signed a pre-contract agreement to leave for Heerenveen. Do you think this move works for the team? More importantly, will it now be a distraction for the rest of the season?
RS: I think this move is good for both parties. The Fire have done a lot for Marco, and realized his dream is to play in Europe. They did not stand in the way. Marco has continued to play hard in return the last 2 seasons, even with rumors of him leaving swirling around. Honestly, he has earned his shot, and the club and fans are happy for him. I think that helps his leaving go more smoothly than if there was animosity in the move. Fortunately there is not. Some fans are questioning how hard he will work now that the contract is signed. I think he will continue to work hard. Obviously making a good impression on his new team the rest of this season is important, despite already having a contract. Plus Marco to me seems like the kind of guy that will work hard until his last game with the Fire is over. I don't see him packing it in.
As I mentioned earlier, the arrival of Flaco will help fill the gap created by his departure. We also have a Homegrown Player that the Fire signed by the name of Victor Pineda. Head Coach Frank Klopas has said he will see late season minutes. He can play a few different positions, and can help fill Marco's role next year. He is young and still learning, but has been doing very well with the US U20 National Team.
TBM: Like we said, both teams have changed a lot since the last match. Who do you think the Fire fear most on the pitch for New England nowadays?
RS: Despite his dropoff in goals, I would still say Sene or new arrival Bengtson. Although our defense has been in fine form, it's always a good idea to take extra special attention for players that can score. If our defense continues to do their job I am confident the offense will do theirs.
TBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
RS: Johnson, Anibaba (though I think Gargan should be starting at RB but probably won't), Berry, Friedrich, Segares, Pardo, Paladini, Fernandez, Pappa, Rolfe, MacDonald
I will go 2-0 Fire. The Revs have seemed to really struggle scoring lately, and our defense has been hot. I will say Sherjill and Rolfe will net for us.