This is it, we're finally here. While the season officially kicked off last month, today is the day we've all been really waiting for as we play host to the Chicago Fire, a team that has undergone such a radical change from the season prior that it's almost impossible to guess what tonight's outcome will be. Over the off-season the Chicago Fire acquired and dismissed around 16 players including both of their designated players: Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo. What we'll face tonight is a transformed team under the guidance of second year coach Carlos de los Cobos.
There's also something to be said for the Chicago Fire opening our stadium with us. I'm not sure if MLS had a hand in this or not, but the Chicago Fire and, more specifically, their supporters group Section 8 has had an unofficial partnership with the Timbers Army since our USL days. At the 2009 MLS Cup in Seattle the Timbers Army even went to the Seattle Sounders vs. Chicago Fire game to support Chicago. So for this to be merely a coincidence seems a little too convenient.
Anyway, let's dissect the team:
A Defeat in Seattle...
The Chicago Fire are coming off a weekend defeat against the Seattle Sounders, so it's fair to say they've probably got a bit of a chip on their shoulder leading into tonight's match up. I had a few questions leading up to this match up because of this. Thankfully, fellow SB Nation and Hot Time in Old Town blogger Tweed Thornton was able to answer.
Coming from a loss in Seattle, how important is it for the Chicago Fire to come to Portland and prove they play away from home against an inhospitable, rowdy crowd and win? What will Carlos de los Cobos change about this week's line up or tactics that didn't work against Seattle?
Chicago had a great deal of roster turnover between 2010 and 2011. Over half of the players on the roster were not here last year. In addition, technical director Frank Klopas did not bring in any big names. Expectations were set pretty low by the fan base. In response, the Fire are 1-1-1 in MLS regular season play and came out victorious in the U.S. Open Cup play-in game against the Colorado Rapids. I don't think it is very important for the team to come away with a win. They have already proven they are coming together well.
The other thing to take away from Thursday night's game is Portland is opening their stadium. That is a whole different atmosphere and situation from a regular away game. Frankly I'm getting a little tired of Chicago being scheduled for stadium openers (New York last year, Sporting KC later this year too) because of that dynamic. The fans, players, even the vendors are all on their best shape. As it couldn't get any better, Portland is coming off 12 days of rest while Chicago is on 5 days rest. The schedule is what it is but if Chicago loses, I'm not going to worry about this group's ability to play in front of noisy away crowds.
I think coach Carlos de los Cobos will run out a 4-4-2 just like last time. We'll play the same kind of game. Most Seattle fans felt they were fortunate to come away with 3 points on the back of a very strong performance from Kasey Keller. Seattle could have had a goal or two more themselves but Keller had three huge saves off strikes I thought surely were goals. With a game this Sunday against the Los Angeles Galaxy, some bench players like Marko Maric, Davis Paul, and Daniel Paladini might see some time. I hear Paladini has a little history with the Timbers Army...
Young Blood With Everything to Prove
Coming into the 2011 season, the Chicago Fire were largely expected to flop out the gate. Unfortunately for us said "flopping" never really occurred. While it'd be disingenuous to say they're setting the league on fire right now, at only three games played thus far (the same as us) they've got 1-1-1 record giving them a total of four points, three more than us.
The primary difference between this year's Fire team and last year's is the age. Chicago is currently brimming with young talent out to prove they're worthy of being on the team.
This year's team is almost all young guys with something to prove. Even Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko who are well known in MLS circles need to prove they belong in the MLS elite. Sean Johnson needs to prove that he belongs in the USMNT discussion. It is refreshing to see a team that is hungry and wants to play together versus last year's team where you had a lot of content veterans. As a fan, it is much more fun to root for anyone giving it their all.
In many respects this Chicago Fire team almost feels similar to our own, almost as if they were an expansion/promote side as well. It'll be interesting to see how the youths stack up next to each other tonight.
Who the Timbers Should Look Out For
Every team has that one or two players that should be kept on notice by the team as a whole. In my opinion, it would be the dynamic midfielder Marco Pappa, who was easily one of Chicago's stand out players last season.
Tweed Thornton, however, has a different opinion:
I'm sure the ESPN commentators will have a great deal to say about Diego Chaves. It is easy to talk about the guy who has scored 3 goals in 3 games. Chaves deserves the accolades but his fellow Uruguayan Gaston Puerari is more dynamic in my opinion. If Puerari is not one of the fastest players in the MLS, he is certainly one of the sneakiest. He'll be off the ball moving along and actually speed up when he gets the ball on his feet. His tiny 5'7 frame allows him to slip through defenses and the 'increased card consciousness' that seems to have taken over the MLS referee ranks has played in his favor. Puerari drew a red card against FC Dallas and Sporting KC. One of Chaves' goals came off the SKC red card. Chaves might drive in the proverbial nail in the coffin, but Puerari will be the one that got the timber together to build it.
In other words, it looks like we might have a couple floppers on our hands. The Portland backline should be careful with these two.
Tonight's game kicks off at 8:00 PM and beautiful Jeld-Wen Field. I'll have the match thread up in a few hours.