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Chivas USA vs. Chicago Fire (7/2/11): Three Questions

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This week, The Goat Parade is inaugurating an SB Nation MLS blog tradition: the three question exchange. For our opening installment, we welcome Tweed Thornton of the Chicago Fire blog Hot Time in Old Town in advance of Saturday's game between Chivas and the Fire at the Home Depot Center (7 pm PT, Galavision). Let's check out Chicago's perspective, followed by Tweed's questions about Chivas and my responses.

The Goat Parade asks Hot Time in Old Town:

1. Chicago looks like they have shored up their defense in recent weeks, but they are still struggling on the offensive end. What accounts for this struggle, and who is the key attacking player for the Fire?

The Chicago Fire offense started all over when Frank Klopas took over.  Carlos de los Cobos had the team openly seeking out counterattacks by playing the ball from the back.  It made for some chaotic games where the Fire were actually scoring quite often.  Under de los Cobos, the Fire were only shutout once in 11 games.  Under Frank Klopas, the Fire have been shutout 3 times in 6 games. 

It's easy to point to Klopas' coaching style as the reason for the problem but there's a couple of other things to factor too.  Chicago's goal scoring leader is Marco Pappa (5 goals) and he missed almost all of June because he was playing in the Gold Cup for Guatemala.  The team also parted ways with Gaston Puerari and Puerari had started or subbed in every game prior to his transfer to Atlas on June 15th.  Puerari's departure bumped up Orr Barouch to being in the mix for starting minutes and bumped up Gabriel Ferrari to get some time as a sub.  These new rotations of course mean that players are getting used to their new roles and the regulars are getting used to working with new players.  Once a more regular pattern is established the waterworks might flow strong again and it could look like Chicago's last game against Chivas USA where the Fire won 4-1.      

2. Do you think the biggest issue this season has been the coaching turmoil or the quality of players on the squad?

I think most of it has been coaching turmoil.  Carlos de los Cobos showed once again that successful foreign coaches in Major League Soccer are the exception and not the rule.  He learned a great deal between his arrival and his departure but he was always playing catch up... and we prefer mustard in Chicago anyway.  Sorry, a little humor on a holiday weekend.  In all seriousness, Chicagoans hate ketchup on hot dogs and de los Cobos was unable to find that second gear he needed to in order to get the team to win.

The important story of the 2011 Chicago Fire team is the team isn't winning but they aren't losing that much either.  The Fire are tied for 4th in MLS in losses with 4.  They lead the league by a wide margin in ties with 11 overall.  This group of players doesn't include any superstars but the talent runs deep and I believe that is shown in the team's U.S. Open Cup run to date.  Chicago defeated Colorado 2-1, then advanced past San Jose after being down 2-0 in the second half, and a motley crew defeated Rochester this past Tuesday 1-0.  The regular season has included games where the Fire have been down several times and come back to earn a draw.  In fact  in every game the Fire have trailed this season, they have managed at least one goal in response.  Chivas USA faces an opponent they might beat, probably tie, and possibly lose to on Saturday but the Goats are definitely facing a team that won't roll over and will certainly put up a dogfight.

3. What are the ambitions for the Fire this year? Do you think their goals are realistic?

The goal of the Chicago Fire is to win the U.S. Open Cup every year.  Well perhaps it is to win every trophy they are eligible for but the U.S. Open Cup holds a special place in the team and fan base's collective heart.  I think this year's team is deep enough and the front office is focused on winning the USOC enough that it is very realistic Chicago will be hoisting that trophy on October 4th.

Hot Time in Old Town asks The Goat Parade:

1. Chivas USA seemed to be putting together a solid recovery from their poor 2010 season when they posted a 4-4-5 record in their first 13 games.  Then the club dropped three games in a row.  Is this just a bump in the road or a sign of real troubles?

At this point, it is difficult to tell. When Chivas went through a tough stretch earlier in the season when they played Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy, and New York Red Bulls three consecutive weeks, they finished that stretch with a victory over New York and two narrow 1-0 losses. At that point, it seemed Chivas were prepared to push for a playoff spot this season. But since then, their form has been really inconsistent, and their biggest problem has been that they cannot maintain a lead. Because of that, they have lost a vital 10 points. I think the next month or so will be really important in finding out what Chivas' proper level is this season.

2. Nick LaBrocca, Heath Pearce, and Zarek Valentin have all become an integral part of team after not being on the roster last year.  Is this a trio to add to the team's core or are any of them 'just wearing the jersey for now'?

I think all three are already part of the core of the team. Pearce has been key this season, as captain Jimmy Conrad went down with a concussion in the second game and has yet to return to the lineup. Pearce has played all across the backline, has chipped in assists on set pieces, and is a mentor to the younger players on the squad. Valentin is clearly the future of the squad. He was thrown into the lineup from the start of the season, and while he shows his inexperience at times and needs to bulk up a bit, he has played pretty well and looks like he will be a dependable MLS player. LaBrocca looks to have settled nicely at Chivas as well. He has bounced around the league, and I don't think a lot was expected of him when Chivas traded for him, but he has had some really great moments this season. I don't see any indication of him leaving anytime soon, but if Chivas did make a much-needed push for quality attacking players, I could see LaBrocca being marginalized more easily than Pearce or Valentin.

3.  Chicago Fire fans will always have a fondness in their hearts for Zach Thornton.  The man might be 37 years old but he had been successfully fighting off Dan Kennedy for the starting goaltender role for two years.  Now that Kennedy has 14 straight starts under his belt, does this signify that Thornton's time with Chivas USA and even his career is over?

For now, Kennedy has wrapped up the starting spot for Chivas. He has been playing very well this season, and I think he is underrated considering the amount of quality goalkeepers around the league. I give Thornton a lot of credit for being publicly positive about his demotion, as he continues to vocally support Chivas even though he is not seeing any playing time. I would not say definitively that Thornton's career is over, as Kennedy has a history of injuries, but if Kennedy makes it through the season and continues to play well, then Thornton's days at Chivas, and maybe even MLS, are probably numbered.