Saturday night in Foxboro, the New England Revolution will renew their quest to end this losing streak as they welcome the Chicago Fire to Gillette Stadium. The Fire are ninth in the East, but given the Revs' recent free-fall, no opponents can be taken for granted.
We caught up with Sean Spence of Hot Time in Old Town, SB Nation's Chicago Fire blog.
TBM: I'll start simple: ten draws. Ten draws?! Honestly, for a ninth-placed team, this season doesn't even look all that bad for the Fire, but ten draws is the most in the league right now. It's only July, and there was a World Cup break, and the Fire are in double digits! What has lead to so many honors-even encounters with Chicago?
SS: The 2014 Fire are a team that hasn't quite grown into itself. The defensive overhaul in the offseason - which exacerbated rather than alleviating a tough salary-cap situation - has, for want of a kinder word, failed. The Fire are still searching for their first clean sheet of the year. But the offense, shorn of Chris Rolfe and DP striker Juan Luis Anangono, has been a delight, thanks largely to the growing influence of Harrison Shipp (whom I'll talk more about in the next question.) The Fire are just good enough to be very hard to beat, but not nearly good enough to dominate anyone. Ergo, draws.
TBM: Harrison Shipp is a name we've been hearing an awful lot about recently. It almost seems as though he's a shoe-in for the Rookie of the Year (though we're hoping Patrick Mullins gets back on the scoring wagon and takes that particular honor). What is it that he does so effectively, and what can we expect to see from him on Saturday?
SS: Shipp's game is, as I discussed in my essay "Harry the Hook" (link: http://www.hottimeinoldtown.com/2014/5/30/5764208/words-about-shapes-harry-the-hook), quite a bit different from that of a notional baseline "American attacking midfielder." Shipp's game is largely mental; he finds pockets of space, sees the runs all around him, and makes brilliant decisions at that point. But his technical game is great, too: It's doubtful there's a better provider of through-balls in the league than Shipp, and his service on dead pieces is fantastic.
Channel your inner scout and just watch Shipp for stretches in this game. His first touch can be absolutely world class, and he's learning every game how to keep himself involved even when the team isn't playing well. I was always hopeful for Harry; now I'm convinced.
TBM: Last time our two sites spoke, Quincy Amarikwa was on a hot streak and everyone was still going on and on about Mike Magee's "holdout." Both players are now level on goals. Is Amarikwa still getting it done, and has Magee thrown off that pre-season funk to be the deadly scorer of last season?
SS: It's a tricky question, so I'm going start by answering, then elaborate. Yes, Quincy is still getting it done; no, Magee has not thrown off his preseason funk.
In re: Quincy, he's shown that his early-season level wasn't some sort of fluke. I'm always leery of strikers whose game seems predicated on EFFORT!!! the way Quincy's is, but through 20 or so games (league & cup) this season, he's brought a palpable intensity every time. I'll say this: The center-backs around the league have to hate playing against him. He works so hard, and has such a great sense of leverage that he turns every possession into a vicious battle for position. Plus he finishes if given a chance.
Mike, though, is a different story. Magee has scored some goals, but has seemed out of sorts all season. It's a bad sign when he's more engaged with the officials than with the task of keeping or recovering the ball, and we've seen it happen again and again in the last several games. He's the same player he was last year, but the chances aren't falling to him in the same profusion, and he's not handling it well, in my opinion.
TBM: Tell us who you think the Fire fear most on the pitch for New England.
SS: Taylor Twellman? (I thank goodness he's not still playing.) From the current squad, I'd say Lee Nguyen stands out as someone I anticipate ill favors from; he seems to find a way to hurt us. Since Nguyen's suspended, I'll go one deeper and mention Diego Fagundez. Obviously the kid hasn't had things all his way this season, but his cleverness and quality - and the kind of outside-in runs from the left which are his bread and butter - are going to cause the Fire problems today.
TBM: Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
SS: Fire XI (4-2-3-1): Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Lovel Palmer; Jeff Larentowicz (c), Chris Ritter; Harrison Shipp, Mike Magee, Grant Ward; Quincy Amarikwa.
Notes: Alex is finally fit again, and could see a start in favor of either of the defensive midfielders.
Predicted scoreline: I'm imagining this one as a rollicking, entertaining DRAW, because FI-YERRRRRR are Teh Kings of Teh Draws. 2-2? 3-3? Something wacky like that.