New England v. Chicago Preview (All Right, All Right; I’ll Do It)

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.

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4 Responses

  1. I just realised you support the two teams Fire fans hate most: FC Dallas and New England. You bastard.

    Anyway, your preview is tremendous. I’d like to add a buncha things, though. If I were you, I would feel really good about the Parkhurst vs. Rolfe matchup. The last handful of times they squared off (especially in the playoffs) Parkhurst has won out. Rolfe depends on his speed and unpredictability and Parkhurst can match his speed and is always in an optimal position to stop the attack. Furthermore, Parkhurst never fouls so he won’t be giving away any dangerous free kick opportunities to Blanco.

    Speaking of Blanco, the long stream of games without a break has been catching up to him so Larentowicz/Joseph shouldn’t have a terrible time of containing him. Of course, if they let up for a second Blanco is going to punish them with an incisive through ball, but if it’s to Barrett there’s a good chance it won’t be finished off; if it’s to Carr there’s an almost certain chance it won’t be finished off.

    While I’m on the subject of the Fire forwards, they’ve been playing better, but with the exception of Rolfe, I really don’t think they’ll strike fear in the Revolution backline. Barrett has been doing a very good Wayne Rooney impression lately, but I’m still not confident that he will make something happen when he gets the ball. During the game, I give Calen Carr so much crap always shouting, “DO SOMETHING RIGHT, CALEN” because he’s always screwing something up. That said, he’s a little ball of hustle that will be as much of a nuisance on the defensive end even though he will never win a strength contest with… anyone.

    If there’s something that you should be concerned about as a Revolution fan, it’s that Coach JCO will probably put out a line up that is completely different than anything he’s put out before. He’s done so every game recently and coaches really don’t know how to prepare for it. He’s done the 3-5-2 thing, he’s done the 4-4-2 diamond midfield thing, he’s done the Christmas Tree formation… and they’ve all worked rather well. Not only that, but he makes so many adjustments during the game which throws off the opposing team just when they start to catch on. I’ve always envisioned Osorio in his little Coach’s Locker Room with crazy white hair, glasses on the tips of his nose, and a white lab coat in a dark room with all sorts of rosters and formations on one of those clear marker boards with beakers bubbling, mortar and pestils scattered, and electricity buzzing.

    As for New England, I think your strike force (Twellman, Noonan, Christman) is more potent than ours (Rolfe, Barrett, Carr), your defensive midfielders (Larentowicz, Joseph) are more dangerous on the attack than ours (Armas, Gutierrez or Pause or Conde) and your keeper (Reis) has more experience than ours (Pickens).

    But you guys still have a number of things to look out for. I like our chances at the playmaking position (Blanco vs. Ralston). Don’t get me wrong, Ralston is undoubtedly one of the most underrated players in MLS ever and I think he’s dangerous at CAM, but I think he’s better at right mid where he can serve perfect crosses in. Also, you might be concerned with the back-3 match up (Robinson, Brown, Segares vs. John, Parkhurst, Heaps). CJ Brown is playing the best defense I can remember, Dasan Robinson is looking like a USMNT call up is inevitable, and Gonzalo Segares is finally slide tackling less and playing defense much smarter. Though the Revolution is still going to hold up very well with the MLS Defender of the Year anchoring. The point about attacking the wide defenders is good, but that’s depending on the formation Osorio goes with, the health of Justin Mapp, the flow of the game, and the wide midfield play.

    Speaking of which, I have no idea how that’s going to play out only because I have no idea what JCO wants to do with the outside/wide midfielders. It’s a safe bet that Nicol will go with the Smith/Thompson tandem because it has looked rather good recently, but I really don’t know what Osorio will do. Will he play defensive and put Gutierrez on the left and Pause on the right? Will he put Conde on the left and Carr on the right? Will he give Thorrington playing time on the right? Will he stick Rolfe on the right and push Carr up top? How about a back four with Segares on the left, Robinson on the right with three centre midfielders (Pause, Armas, Gutierrez) and one attacking mid (Blanco)? He will probably do a combination of all of them if he decides to bunker in or press forward for a goal. But until the game unfolds, we really have no idea what Chicago’s formation will look like.

    As for Wilman Conde…. Think about investing in a straight jacket and dog muzzle. Rumour has it that Chuck Norris named his legs Law and Order, but changed them to Wilman and Conde out of respect. Also, the super continent that was Pangea was broken apart with a Wilman Conde slide tackle. That’s just the word on the Chicago streets.

    As for the game itself, expect it to be ugly, defensive, and intensely physical. There’s always been some sort of altercation between these two teams. From the Razov groin stomp on Heaps in 2002, to the Barrett shove to the chest on Heaps in 2006 to the Joseph elbow to the neck on Guerrero in 2006 to the post-game altercations between Segares and Dempsey, Joseph and Thornton, and Nicol and Sarachan. Not only that, but there’s always been a deep history between these two teams from the 2002 Revolution series win to the 2003 Armas golden goal to the perfect Ralston volley in 2004 to send New England to the playoffs and keep Chicago out to the 2005 Dempsey winner and late disallowed Segares equaliser to the 2006 penalty kick conclusion.

    Revolution + Fire + Playoffs = intensity, history, and pain.

    May the best team advance.

  2. In answer to your conclusion, amen. And those are fine additions to the preview, all things to consider. I’ll add a few more.

    – Rolfe/Parkhurst: Provided he’s played “correctly,” I can see Rolfe gaining the upper hand. I think that’s the beauty of playing Barrett and Carr, streaky as either can be (well, streaky in Barrett’s case; the game against DC is the one time I saw Carr look pretty dang good): play them up top to pressure the outside backs and have Blanco and Rolfe work in essentially free roles behind. That should keep them away from Parkhurst; or, if he chooses to chase either Rolfe or Blanco, it will pull NE’s defense apart. Best case, for Chicago that is, this will keep Larentowicz, Joseph or both on top of the back three to cover the two “hole” offensive players, forcing Parkhurst to lay back to keep the back three’s shape. Anyway, that’s just a theory; it may play out totally differently – not least because JCO might play something funky.

    – Barrett/Carr: No, they’re not the best, though Barrett’s eight goals speaks pretty well of his progression. What worries me, though, are the kinds of goals they scored against DC – e.g. slipping into a seam facing goal with not enough between them and Reis.

    – The match-ups: I agree with you on all of those (e.g. Reis v. Pickens; Joseph/Larentowicz on offense v. Armas, Gutierrez, and Pause). But I think JCO can render the most meaningful of these, the central midfield thing, irrelevant.

    – The Ralston Conundrum: I didn’t address this one, but should have. Highly as I rate Ralston pretty highly, even in that central role, he’s not as comfortable in traffic. It’s not just the crosses, so much as the fact that, while Ralston can reliably beat one player, he’s not so good with taking on two, or even three – and I think he’ll be facing the equivalent of three all day. If I were Nicol I’d go all-Larentowicz in holding mid, use Joseph in the center and play Ralston and Smith/Thompson wide. Nicol has given no indication that he’ll do this, so we’ll have to see how it goes from there.

    Um…I think that’s it. As we get nearer game time, I’m getting excited about this one. It will be hard-fought if nothing else.

  3. Thought I’d get these in here:

    Chicago 1, NE 0
    Houston 2, Kansas City 1

    And FireJuve – does Wilman Conde have a name for his legs?

  4. I remembered the turf factor at work today and based on memory, it doesn’t look good for Chicago. We are 2-4 on turf with the only wins against Toronto and RSL and outscored 10-7.

    And, Breton, Wilman Conde’s legs do have names, but if he told you, he would have to slide tackle you.

    Game’s about to start. Later.

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