The Brimstone Cup. One of the league's oldest rivalries, and one that wasn't shoved down our throats by the league either. I've always been a fan of starting off the year against a club that you're suppose to hate because the story-lines are easier to come up with right off the bat.
This is a new segment on Big D Soccer, a day or so before each game I will take a look at the club FC Dallas is set to square off with and give you a little scouting report about them. RIght off the bat I've been given an interesting challenge. Why? Because the Chicago Fire are a club right now that few can truly figure out.
Over the last two years, Carlos de los Cobos has seen a lot of quality players come and go in the Windy City. Last season, the Fire couldn’t put it together on offense and Designated Players Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo didn’t make much of an impact on the field. Defensively the club tended to give up late goals and conceded loads of possession.
The Fire for the most part are a club in flux. They'll either be a team in 2011 that contends in the Eastern Conference or one that will be battling it out for the second pick in the 2012 SuperDraft (expansion side Montreal owns the top pick for now). The club lost so many starters from a season ago and now have plenty of fresh faces in camp.
New Faces for 2011: Cory Gibbs (Re-Entry Stage 2), Daniel Paladini (Carolina Railhawks), Josep Mikulic (NK Zagreb), Jalil Anibaba (SuperDraft, #9), Davis Paul (SuperDraft, #51), Jon Conway (trade with TOR), Gaston Puerari (Montevideo Wanderers, Uruguay), Diego Cháves (Nacional, Uruguay), Alex Dufty (AC St. Louis), Orr Barrouch (loan from Tigres UNAL, Mexico).
Who's going to score for the Fire?
This is probably a question on everyone's mind in Chicago at the moment. Sure they have Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko but right now that is about it. We don't know yet is guys like Barrouch, Puerari, Chaves, or potential signee Gabriel Ferrari will be good enough off the bat to help carry the load offensively for the club. They'll be relying on their young midfielders to carry the load, which can be a tricky thing.
Most believe 25-year old Puerari will be the key guy to score. The Fire thinks pretty highly of him too. Fire GM Frank Klops believe he'll score between seven and 10 goals this season. Big expectations for a guy who only score eight goals over the last two season in Uruguay.
My firm belief is that it will fall more on Nyarko this season. The young star is a true X-Factor for this club. He had 10 assists a season ago but I see him stepping up to score more goals in 2011.
How will the defense shape up without Wilman Conde?
I look at the losses in the back that the Fire have had over the last two years and I wonder exactly how this club will respond to them. Well, the addition of Gibbs and rookie Anibaba certainly don't sure one bit. If you catch one minute of Anibaba you will realize exactly how special of a player he'll become soon enough in this league. But a rookie being dominate from day one in MLS is pretty unlikely and he is bound to stumble against quality clubs early on.
This group will have to come together quickly to make people in Chicago forget about Conde.
Will the 3-5-2 really work?
De Los Cobos loves him some 3-5-2 for some reason. To me its a weak formation that tends to expose your defense if it is fairly weak. The midfield could be clogged up a bit with five across the board but if players don't treck back on the wings, a speedy club on the outside could have a field day with sending balls into the mix. Last year the Fire used a formation similar to Dallas but flipping the switch on the new formation will either make or break their season.
Key Player: Marco Pappa
WIthout a doubt, the Fire goes as Pappa goes. Should the 23-year-old Guatemalan have an off-night on Saturday it will be tough to see the Fire having any sort of luck against a much more talented Dallas squad. We saw a few instances last season were Pappa was absolutely brillant in the attack. The All-Star must guide his team offensively until the newcomers get used to the physical play in MLS.
Young Star: Sean Johnson
Most who've read my work on WVHooligan (cheap plug) know that I've been a big fan of Johnson. I thought the slow and steady growth of his play last year was fun to watch. The Fire did a good job of not throwing him into the mix right away but by letting him earn his way into the starting role. Well, 2011 means the job is his to lose. The kid is talented but will have to come up with plenty of saves to bail out a defense that could be leaky.
Underrated Player to Watch: Bratislav Ristic
The veteran Serb wasn't used much last season but the few times he was called into action he held his own very nicely. He'll have a tall task though on Saturday of shutting down David Ferreria and company in the defensive side of the midfield.
Notes: Honestly this is a best guess lineup. FIre fans may be able to comment better than I can on their potential day-one lineup. But based on their preseason and those results, this is how I see their lineup shaping on on Saturday. The 3-5-2 in all it's glory. And yes I do believe two rookies make the starting XI as well. Paul has shown he can play and like I've mentioned before Anibaba is a total beast.
I think for Dallas controlling tempo infront of a potential sell-out crowd at Pizza Hut Park is key. Dallas always does well with possession and it should be no different against Chicago on Saturday. Pressuring the back three will be key and one thing Schellas Hyndman will want to stress. The wing play will be very important for Dallas to win too, getting Marvin Chavez involved early in the attack and finding Milton Rodriguez or Ruben Luna in the box will be vital for a win.
Controlling Pappa in the midfield will be the way to shutdown the Fire offense as well.
I see Dallas controlling the tempo of this game early and finding ways to score off the wings. The defense has shown in preseason that they are still as tough as last year's bunch and could be even better with Brek Shea back there. Sure the loss of Jair Benitez for this game could be rough but look for Zach Loyd to step in nicely back there.
Dallas should win 2-0.