I am well - very well, in fact - aware that Sporting Kansas City are set to open the country's finest soccer specific stadium this evening when they take on Chicago Fire. Yes, I know. You know. Osama bin Laden knows. LIVESTRONG Sporting Park is a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring venue. But, let's face it - there's still a game to be played.
For all the talk about the stadium opener - and rightly so - there has been a severe lack of talk about the game itself. Could those yay-hoo's from the Windy City really come into our beautiful, new building on our night - for which we have waited 15 long years - and ruin our grand show? It's possible, I suppose.
As is par for the course, (when I'm not out of town - yeah, sorry for that) I took the chance to exchange emails with one of my absolute favorite people in the MLS blog world. Tweed Thronton runs Hot Time In Old Town, SB Nation's Chicago Fire blog, and I thoroughly enjoy reading his analysis, and sometimes cunning perspective.
TDW: Do Chicago fans see the Sporting KC front office as trying to "manufacture" a rivalry between the two teams with the various promotions based on Chicago losses? (sub promotion, LIVESTRONG donations)
It really can't all be that easy, can it? Well, it's not. Tweed goes much deeper into the team, after the jump, and even elaborates on the one-word thriller
TDW: It seems like the only other team in the league keeping pace with KC's poor results this year is Chicago. Just what - in 150 words or less - has gone wrong in 2011?
My reputation for being long-winded precedes me, I see. Let's break this down into topics.
We thought Sean Johnson was more of a finished product than he has turned out to be. We thought the defense was finished gelling in pre-season. It turned out both needed a lot more work. The good news for Chicago is things have improved since they gave up 11 goals in the first 5 games. Johnson is back to looking good and being healthy. The defensive core has been sorted out and it shows with only 8 goals against in the last 7 games.
Lack of Initiative
Chicago did not have a lead in the entire month of May but managed to pull out 4 ties and only suffered 1 loss that resulted from a no-look-30-yards-outside-the-
box strike from Philly’s Carlos Ruiz. Chicago's offense seems incapable of punching without getting punched first.
Roster Size Increased
Lame excuse or part of the equation? Chicago only had 14 players return so while other teams used the 6 extra roster spots added in the off-season to tweak their roster and fill a hole or two, Chicago was just trying to find quality players to fill out a roster so they would have the 18 players necessary to fill out a bench.
Okay, so I went over 150 words. I think it's still succinct.
New head coach Frank Klopas has emphasized changing little details and not making too many big changes. That was apparent in Klopas’ first game last week when he started 10 of the 11 players that started Carlos de los Cobos’ last game as head coach. The only change was Corben Bone starting in Marco Pappa’s place and Pappa was out due to Guatemala calling him up for CONCACAF Gold Cup action. The formation was officially listed as being a 4-2-3-1 but it looked just like a 4-4-2 at times. de los Cobos would play a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1 formation this year. I highly doubt Klopas would ever use a 4-1-4-1 so there's that.
One significant change Sporting KC and the league peering in might recognize is the Fire being more consistent in pressing on the attack. de los Cobos preferred to have the team play the ball back and draw the opponents in. The game plan then called for the Fire to make quick counter strikes. Many fans have become upset with captain Logan Pause for sending 30 to 40 yard back passes to the goalie but he was just being a good captain and following coach’s orders. The interesting aspect is that you can’t really say the offense didn’t response to de los Cobos’ tactics because the team has been hovering around top 5 in the league in goals scored all season long. The defense that was put together just couldn’t handle the pressure forced upon them.
I did want to address the rivalry question in a little more detail too even though I already poked fun at Sporting KC back in April. I think that Sporting KC has attempted to manufacture a rivalry with the Fire (or dare I say 'fan the flames' of a lukewarm rivalry historically), but they are no different than other teams around the league. Look at the Houston Dynamo’s "Houston Two Times Better Than Dallas" billboard or even San Jose’s bizarre video response to get in on the act. The hashtag "#WeAllHateHouston"? Really?
The fact that all of this rolls out shortly after the Portland Timbers put up a billboard near Qwest Field last year makes the rivalry charged material ring hollow. You can just feel that there was a big conference or a big memo that went around and all MLS team marketing directors were informed that the Portland sign was a big success. MLS pointed out that the Portland and Seattle rivalry has made big news so everyone is encouraged to spice up the trash talk between teams. So Kansas City gives $500 to Livestrong for every goal against the Fire and some sub shop gives away free subs when the Fire lose? It was a member of Section 8 Chicago that said something along the lines of, ‘We are curing cancer and feeding the hungry. We’ve got to put an end to this travesty".
Rivalries are built based on play on the field, not gimmicky tricks by the front office. With that in mind, I look forward to the 40th MLS confrontation between these two teams taking place tonight.