Not only is it Rivalry Week in Major League Soccer, but this Saturday is also the home opener for Sporting Kansas City. Semi-rival Chicago Fire come to town to open the 2013 campaign at Sporting Park, so we're stepping up the preview coverage just a bit this week for what will surely prove to be a big game.
We got in touch with SB Nation's Chicago Fire blog, Hot Time In Old Town - one of the better MLS blogs out there, by the way - and exchanged a handful of questions about either blog's club. Check their site in the coming days to see what they wanted to know about Sporting KC, but here is what interested us about the Fire, and what their man Ryan Sealock had to say.
Mike McGrew: Novelist Nelson Agren once quipped, "Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring." How are Chicago Fire fans reacting to the slow start? Do they sense an oncoming season of heartbreak, or do they feel this team is still set for another playoff run?
Ryan Sealock: There has been a bit of panic so far, which is to be expected with any team that has high aspirations for the coming season. It's not a 162 game season like baseball, so even a handful of bad games can put a team behind the 8 ball, so to speak. Now that the dust has settled, most of the fanbase has settled down as well. While it's not an ideal start obviously, we have new players still meshing with each other and learning the system. It would be one thing if we were playing up to our potential and still getting beat. Right now we know we are playing well below the level we can play. Once everything starts coming together, this team will start looking like a legit contender, as it should.
We also have the summer transfer window to work with as well. Should the offense continue to struggle to net goals, we may add a big piece this summer. That's putting the cart before the horse though. We have players in Lindpere, Larentowicz, and Duka that can play soccer. We all know that, it's just going to take a bit longer to get there than we had hoped. For now, personally I am not too worried. This team has too much talent to continue to play like they have. I look for that signature breakout performance to get them going soon. That happening in KC would be even nicer.
MM: It took a perfect pass from Kelyn Rowe to Jerry Bengtson's head to score on the Fire last week. Do you think the defense is starting to adjust to the loss of Arne Friedrich, or do you think they need an outside signing as soon as possible?
RS: The defense is still the same people minus Friedrich, which is admittedly a huge loss. It looks like he should only (knock on wood) be out another 2-3 weeks. While we certainly could use a bit more depth on the back line, I don't see us signing a huge name defender. Keep in mind that beside Arne is 2012 Rookie of the Year Austin Berry. Against LA, instead of pairing Berry and Jalil Anibaba at CB, Steve Kinney (who hadn't seen regular season MLS action since 2010 due to a serious Achilles injury) was slotted at CB. Unfortunately, Kinney just doesn't seem back up to full speed MLS play yet, and that's certainly to be expected after being out that long. Last game, Jalil slotted into his true position at CB beside Austin. And the defense looked and played much better. Jalil and Austin are more familiar beside each other, and I would expect to see that CB tandem this weekend in KC.
The goal against the Revs was a nice play by both Rowe and Bengtson. The defense fell asleep once and paid for it. Our offense had 3-4 legit scoring chances and couldn't put any of them away. On another night we take away 3 points, but it wasn't to be last weekend. We still have a strong defense, but losing a player like Arne would hurt any team. I look for us to try to add a bit of back line depth but nothing beyond that.
MM: The Fire's attack has yet to score this year. How does Chicago create goal scoring opportunities against Sporting KC's defense?
RS: Well, once the midfield starts playing like they can we have a lot of dynamic players that can combine speed, ball handling, toughness, and good passing. I am hoping that they play much better this weekend. That being said, KC does have a very tough defense. I look for us to try to strike on the counter a little bit more. With Arne still out, I can see us playing a little bit deeper to help the defense guard against players like Bieler, etc. Unfortunately, this compresses the midfield even more, but also gives us chances to spring counters, especially down the wings. You know how fast Nyarko is, and Dilly Duka looks like he could be settling into the LW role nicely. If we can spring some counters up the flanks, combined with Joel Lindpere pushing forward in his box to box role, then we should be able to get some chances for Rolfe and Maicon Santos (who I see starting ahead of Sherjill MacDonald).
MM: It's Rivalry Week, but there is growing consensus between both fanbases that KC-Chicago is not a rivalry. Still, there is enough history between both teams that a Fire-Sporting feels bigger than just another regular season game. Does this game merit rivalry status? If not, what is it?
RS: It's not a rivalry in my eyes either. To me, it's a front office marketing scheme by the SKC suits. A real rivalry is created on the field by the players. I will say that the feelings between the two teams is starting to really gain some friction, so a rivalry could indeed happen someday. But it should be allowed to build naturally with supporters and players rather than pushed down everyone's throats. To me, it has always seemed to be a big brother (Chicago), little brother (KC) syndrome. With KC really improving the past few years, it's now up to the Fire to start pushing back when the two teams play. While I will say we have held our own for the most part the past few years, this team is trying to get back to the top. The club is used to being a top MLS side in the past and is climbing back up that mountain. It's time for us to start winning trophies again like in the days of yore.
I look at this is a big name not for who we are playing per se, but because we need to get back on track. With KC looking a little shaky so far too, I am sure the feeling is the same on your side. Every game is important, so whether that 3 points comes against KC or FC Dallas, that's what is most important in my book. While there are teams I view as rivals and want to beat no matter what (and hate when we lose to them), I don't view KC as one personally. That being said, this weekend should be a chippy, tense affair as usual.
Predicted scoreline: I will go with a 1-1 draw. While my confidence right now would say a loss, this team should have a Fire (pun intended) lit under their asses after the first 2 weeks. I will say Bieler and Rolfe goals will bring home a point for both teams and help right the Fire ship a bit.
Thoughts on the Fire, folks? Are they a rival, or just a team that's fun to hate because their players roll around outside of the playing field and crawl back in the field of play to stall the game and time waste (Chris Rolfe)? Are you worried about them pulling off the upset?