I’m about to do something I almost never do: preview a game, namely, the Eastern Conference Final pitting the New England Revolution against the Chicago Fire. For the record, I blame the quality stuff other people are turning out. Even MLSnet.com’s typically tepid preview contains a vital information-nugget: Shalrie Joseph will have to sit out the final if he picks up a yellow in the semifinal. That’s pretty big, bigger than Taylor Twellman being in the same situation to be sure. I also learned that Kevin Stott will officiate…though I can’t remember whether I have an opinion on him or not.
Before getting to my thoughts, here are the other “inspirations” that got me thinking too much about tomorrow night’s game. Ives Galarcep turned in pre-game analysis for ESPN that hits plenty of useful highlights, most notably the potentially defining match-up between Joseph and Cuauhtemoc Blanco – more on this later from me. A couple people took up the rivalry thing: Blue Blooded Journo conducted a Q & A with himself in which he looks into everything from Chicago’s fans to the horror that is Blanco’s face…Chicago fans may want to skip that one. Finally, even though Luis Arroyave failed to get “bulletin board material” out of either side of the rivalry, he passed on an absolutely brilliant alleged quote from Clint Dempsey:
“Just last year, a scuffle nearly broke out in the Toyota Park tunnel with Fire defender Gonzalo Segares and ex-Revolution midfielder Clint Dempsey. Sources said Dempsey yelled ‘I don’t care–take me to jail’ as teammates tried to restrain him.”
I’ll be asking for a t-shirt for Christmas, along with another inspired by Britney Spears (credit to Ann Romano from the Portland Mercury): “Rehab Is Hard Y’all.”
Now, for my look ahead to Those Things That Will Loom Large in tomorrow night’s game.
Overall, I figure we all expect a tight game, if not a mother-lovin’ ugly one. If you really want to get nervous about staying awake, just read the Goal blog’s Q & A with Chicago’s Juan Carlos Osorio: Chicago’s not going to open up a can of pop, never mind the game. More significantly, I agree with Galarcep on the general narrative – i.e. this game pits a striding Chicago against a stumbling New England; Michael Parkhurst’s comments in MLSnet.com’s preview about the Revs’ defense being “back on track” must be measured against the quality of Red Bull, the team they shut out. It bears noting here that, no matter how fluky the goal, the Revs surrendered a late equalizer against Toronto FC in the final regular season game.
With tactics looking to loom large, it might be wise for Revs’ coach Steve Nicol to have Jeff Larentowicz match up with Cuauhtemoc Blanco rather than the card-imperiled Shalrie Joseph, an idea Galarcep hinted at in his preview. This goes beyond Galarcep’s notion of leaving Joseph available to spring the offense; the way I see it, Nicol should play this game as if he’s going to the final and he’s going to want Joseph for that. So sic Larentowicz on Blanco, but, for the love of the Buddha, make sure he stays out of card trouble – early at least; “Big Red” Larentowicz should shadow Blanco till he picks up on the ref’s vibe before going in for tackles. Past a certain point, however, Big Red should be able to separate a bit to help on the offensive side and cover mistakes with tackling; basically, do what he has to in order to keep Blanco under wraps – up to and including a late ejection, but only a late one. I’m not actually suggesting Big Red seek an ejection, mind, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world either – at least where the final is concerned. A Joseph/Andy Dorman central midfield set-up works just fine…hell, I bet the Welshman scores the winner.
That still leaves a couple problems on New England’s side of defense – in order of Danger Posed, Chris Rolfe, the relative speed of Chad Barrett and Calen Carr, and, for part of the game at least, Justin Mapp. If there’s a weakness in New England’s defense – and, yes, there is – it’s the wide defenders; and, if you’re talking speed, Jay Heaps in particular. I expect Chicago’s speedy li’l poopers (that’s Carr and Barrett) to run at him all night with Blanco looking to send them in. And, if Larentowicz doesn’t do his bit, I expect it will work at least once.
On the plus side, Michael Parkhurst should match up pretty well against Rolfe, who will never be mistaken for a big man. On the other hand, some combination-play with Blanco could get the better of 2007’s Defender of the Year, so Joseph will have defensive duties and probably significant ones. The main thing is that he keeps his nose clean.
Turning to the offense, it’s hard to say what can happen here – that’s mainly because I’ve got a bad feeling about what will happen. I’m expecting Nicol to (yet again) roll-out an alignment that features Steve Ralston in the middle and Khano Smith and Wells Thompson on the flanks. Smith is Smith, the kind of player who will pull something both unlikely and nice out of his ass once in a blue moon, but he’s not the kind of guy you rely on; I count him as the real “X-Factor” in this one. Turning to the other flank, as nice as Thompson looked in the second leg against Red Bull New York, I’m expecting him to get pegged back helping Heaps; in other words, watch the tape from leg one. Given this, I expect New England to use Smith to get the ball to Chicago’s defensive third, from which they’ll try to use Ralston to look for openings inside and from both flank players.
Let the record show, I’m not optimistic about this.
Assuming it works, however, both Pat Noonan and Twellman do well enough putting away goals; it’s just a question of service. If I were Steve Nicol, I’d be tempted to enter the School of Coaching Reaches and try to pair Cristman and Twellman; use those two to pressure the Fire’s back-line. This could be a first-half thing, something to (hopefully) unsettle Chicago’s defense; I’d get Noonan in there at the half, or by the 60th minute at the latest, because he’s got the skillz the other two lack for breaking down a defense.
And, horrible me, I have only hinted at what Chicago should do. Seeing as I’m barely qualified to comment, I’ll just wrap up the points littering the text above: 1) run at Jay Heaps, because he should be more exploitable, but switch it up to keep ’em guessing; 2) given this, I’d start both Carr and Barrett, with Rolfe and Blanco tucked in behind; 3) add at least one guy for width – and, again, they should switch it up – and that’s your offense; 4) keep tight on defense, but I don’t think Chicago needs to worry about shadowing any Revolution players; just keep the final ball from reaching Twellman/Noonan/Cristman and keep the rest of the players in front of you and Chicago should do fine – hell, they have done fine; finally, 5) if goals are needed, send in Mapp early enough to get up to speed – no later than the 60th minute.
Well, that’s all for me. To be perfectly clear, I am pulling for the Revs. I can’t help but pull for the Revs. It’s the nagging feelings that it’s not quite deserved that I can’t shake. At the same time, better than “those guys” is good enough: I’ll take the double, but it won’t enjoy the ideal, warm feelings that make for an entirely satisfying season.
I can handle that. And maybe I can evoke those feelings by recalling the disappointment of 2002…and 2005…oh, and 2006.
Filed under: Chad Barrett, Chicago Fire, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Major League Soccer, MLS, MLS playoffs, New England Revolution, Preview, tactics | Tagged: Adam Cristman, Calen Carr, Chris Rolfe, Clint Dempsey, Gonzalo Segares, Juan Carlos Osorio, Justin Mapp, Khano Smith, Pat Noonan, Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston, Taylor Twellman |