Over the summer, we presented 15 memorable games and goals from the club’s first 15 seasons. We also asked you the fans who the top 15 players in club history were.
The tallies are in and with October 8 looming now less than a month away, we’re set to begin unveiling the “#Fire15” in a new five-segment video series presented by TrueCar.
To be clear, you won’t see numbers ranking the players. That’s because this isn’t a countdown but rather a series to honor 15 great players in Fire history.
Our first three honorees are Jesse Marsch, Logan Pause and Chris Rolfe.
Jesse Marsch – While never flashy, Marsch was a near constant cleaning up messes in the Fire midfield from 1998-2005. Coming to the club after spending his first two MLS seasons with reigning champions D.C. United, Marsch would go on to appear in 259 competitive matches (fifth all-time) while tallying 23 goals and 32 assists in his eight seasons with the Fire.
As Tom Soehn points out in the video, Jesse’s lasting legacy with the Men in Red stem from the five domestic titles he won during his time in Chicago.
Logan Pause – Now into his 10th season as a member of the Chicago Fire, Logan Pause has long credited the likes of Marsch and Chris Armas as players he modeled his game after. The current Fire captain is the second longest tenured member of the club behind C.J. Brown and with 295 career appearances sits behind only the 13-year veteran (372) in games played for the club.
Not that he needed to prove he belonged on such a list but the captain’s ability to play through two broken ribs and a collapsed lungs at Philadelphia on August 12 was heroic. It was only bested by the fact that he returned to the field to help the Fire win 3-1 over Houston exactly three weeks later.
No more explanation necessary here…
Chris Rolfe – Perhaps the closest thing the Fire have had as an answer to Ante Razov, Chris Rolfe stands behind the former U.S. international at second on the club’s all-time scoring list with 45 goals across all competitions.
Rolfe would definitely have more in a Fire shirt if not for often being played on the wing during his first tenure in Chicago. There was also the two and a half years he spent away in Denmark that have his goal tally a bit lower than you would think.
However, Rolfe’s return to the club back in April was one of the most welcome acquisitions the club has made in recent years and now a few years older, the striker will look to continue to chip away at Razov’s goal record.
Stay tuned to Chicago-Fire.com as we name the rest of the #Fire15 players in the month leading up to the club's Anniversary match on Wednesday, October 3 vs. Philadelphia (TICKETS) and 15th Anniversary Party to be held Monday, October 8 at the Chicago History Museum. (TICKETS).
After a massive home win against Houston and a morale boosting come-from-behind draw against Santos Laguna in an exhibition match, the Fire travel to Toronto full of confidence for Wednesday night's game at BMO Field. In contrast, Toronto are missing some key players through a combination of injury, suspension and international call-ups. Here are a few things to look out for in Wednesday night's match:
Terry Dunfield - how to replace a missing captain
The Fire lost captain fantastic Logan Pause due to lung and rib injuries against Philadelphia on August 12. Fortunately, the Fire had strength in depth with Alvaro Fernandez and Daniel Paladini filling the central role in Logan’s absence. Toronto do not have the luxury of a Paladini or Fernandez to replace their missing captain Terry Dunfield who, like Pause, is the heart and soul of the team.
Dunfield, like Pavel Pardo covers a lot of ground in the center of midfield and is essential to breaking up opponents attacks but also starting them for TFC. He has also scored some big goals this season including one in a recent away draw with Houston. Dunfield's absence is good news for Chris Rolfe who will look to exploit the more inexperienced potential replacements for Dunfield, namely Aaron Maund and Matt Stinson.
Long balls - TFC's bread and butter
Toronto have found some success in the long ball tactic, often bypassing the midfield altogether and looking for a flick on or knock down from Ryan Johnson and co. Johnson will be missing on Wednesday night but this will not stop TFC looking to kick it long at every possible opportunity.
The Fire back line will need to keep a close eye on TFC striker Eric Hassli who is always on the shoulder of the last defender looking for a ball over the top or a flick on. The long ball tactic also put a heavy emphasis on winning second balls. Stopping TFC from getting scoring chances from second balls is essential.
Possession - looking for more of the ball vs. TFC
In the Fire’s last game against Houston, their opponents had more than double the amount of possession. Though the Fire set up to play that way, I think we will see a much different game plan Wednesday night. The Fire will look to possess the ball for long stretches, looking do draw out TFC and create space for the attacking players to move into.
Kansas City held over 70% of the possession against TFC on September 1 and eventually broke them down, coming behind to win 2-1. The Fire will need to be patient, but their constant pressure should lead to goals.
When broken into 15 minute intervals, TFC have allowed the most goals this season from the 75th to 90th minute - another reason for the Fire to stay patient on Wednesday night.
Darren O'Dea - potential weak link in the back
In an interview on Monday night, TFC center back Darren O'Dea looked exhausted, and who could blame him? O'Dea had just returned from Kazakhstan where he played the full 90 minutes for the Republic of Ireland in their 2-1 victory on Friday. O'Dea also admitted that he was battling a cold but said he would be ready for Wednesday night.
Though very good in the air, O'Dea lacks pace and his partnership with Richard Eckersley is in its infancy. The Fire should be looking to get in 1v1 situations with O'Dea as often as possible bearing in mind his transatlantic excursions and illness. The Fire have managed to do this in the recent past, most notably when Sherjill MacDonald was able to turn Bakary Soumare and set up Chris Rolfe for an easy finish against Philadelphia.
The TFC coaching staff have been singing the praises of O'Dea since he joined the team but Wednesday's match is a potential banana skin for the Irishman .
Prediction: If the Fire stay patient, the goals will inevitably come. 2-0 Fire with goals from Chris Rolfe and Austin Berry.
Stopping Dynamo midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia is one key to three points Sunday vs. Houston
Having had over ten days to ponder the loss to DC, the Fire take to the field Sunday night at Toyota Park against the Houston Dynamo. (NBC 5.2/Galavision 6:00pm CT) Houston have had their own slips of late but will be looking to take away some points in a massive Eastern Conference match up. Here are a few things to look out for tactically.
Right back starter: Jalil Anibaba or Dan Gargan?
In the past few games, Jalil Anibaba has started over Dan Gargan at right back. Though not playing in his natural position, Jalil has used his athleticism and speed to make the transition to the outside. After a tough game against DC, some fans were calling for the return of Gargan but, against Houston, Anibaba’s aerial abilities will be needed.
Everyone knows that Dominic Kinnear’s team makes its living on scoring from set pieces. The Dynamo are a big side and Anibaba's height will be needed to deal with the likes of Will Bruin and Macoumba Kandji
WATCH: Fire vs. Dynamo Preview
Double team in the left: Neutralize Kandji
In Houston's last two league matches, Kandji had two completely different performances. Against Toronto, especially in the first half, he was excellent, running at the defenders, latching on to long balls over the top and also bringing the ball inside to link up with his strike partners and advancing play makers.
The week before against Columbus, Kandji was effectively shut out of the game by being double teamed. Columbus also didn't allow him any room to operate out wide which made him a non-factor in the game. If the Fire continue their favored formation, either Patrick Nyarko or Alvaro Fernandez will need to drop to support Anibaba and prevent Kandji from getting in 1v1 situations.
Stop Davis and Garcia: plugging the middle
Against DC last week, Chris Rolfe was unable to operate because United packed the midfield. I can see the Fire deploying the same technique against Houston and their two deep lying play makers: Brad Davis (if healthy) and Boniek Garcia. Both are given license to roam, and do so eagerly knowing that recently returned midfielder Ricardo Clark is staying behind to protect the back four.
The movement and passing ability of Davis and Garcia is Houston's biggest threat and if the Fire can stop both players from creating, it will cut off the supply line to the attacking three. The outside midfielders, especially Fernandez who has experience playing in the middle, will need to tuck in as much as possible to help out Pavel Pardo and Daniel Paladini.
This, of course, leaves a lot of space out wide for the outside backs to move into but it is a worthwhile risk if it prevents Davis and Garcia from linking with the attacking three.
Biggest strength and biggest weakness: midfield
For all the talk of Houston's attacking talents from midfield, the weakness of the 4-3-3 system is that it only contains one defensive midfielder. Ricardo Clark may be one of the best holding midfielders in the league but he can easily be exploited if the Fire can transition quickly from defensive to attack.
Columbus did this to perfection against the Dynamo in their recent 2-2 draw. Houston's center backs like to come forward to help Clark out in an attempt to cut off balls into the target forward (in the Fire’s case, Sherjill MacDonald) and this creates gaps that someone like Chris Rolfe can move into.
In this formation, Rolfe should have more room to create and we all saw how effective that was against New England. Because Houston is playing away from home, they won't be as inclined to attack as the would be at home but on the occasions that they do get men forward, the Fire must be ready to pounce.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 1, Houston Dynamo 1 with Sherjill MacDonald bagging his second goal for the Fire.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
The Fire face yet another Eastern Conference foe at home this week: New England. The clubs appear to be heading in opposite directions with Frank Klopas’ side only losing one of their last five while the Revs have lost four out of five but the Men in Red can’t overlook this one. Here are a few things to watch out for from a tactical standpoint.
Who will replace the captain? Logan out 4-6 weeks
Last week’s 3-1 win in Philly was very costly, namely because of the injury to captain Logan Pause who, to date, has had yet another stellar year. With Logan out for at least a month, two major questions arise – who should replace him in the lineup and should his injury force the Fire to change their tactics? The answer to the second question is almost certainly no. The tactic of two holding midfielders has served the Fire well this season and there is no need to change it.
Replacing Logan is a difficult task but the Fire certainly to have options. Fernandez slotted in for Logan in the second half against Philly but players like Corben Bone, Mike Videira, Daniel Paladini and Victor Pineda can all play in the center of midfield.
Having this many options is a luxury for coach Klopas but the obvious candidate in my eyes is Fernandez. He is the most experienced MLS midfielder and did a fine job in that position last week. Fernandez also didn’t play in Wednesday’s reserve game which could be another indication that he will be getting the start alongside Pardo.
Shots from Distance: Be Wary
Though New England haven't scored too many goals of late, its not for lack of trying. Midfielders, Lee Nguyen, Saër Sène (sometimes a striker) and Benny Feilhaber are all not afraid to pull the trigger from distance. Just a few weeks ago, Sène scored an absolutely brilliant goal against the Union, cutting in from the right before blasting it past Zack MacMath.
PREVIEW: Fire vs. NE
Nguyen scored a goal-of-the-season candidate earlier this season when he volleyed the ball from outside the box into the top corner. The Fire cannot allow the Revs' midfielders space to shoot from the outside. New England will also have target man Jerry Bengtson back from international duty and will be looking to him to provide layoffs for shots from the outside.
Chris Tierney: A Threat from the Left
New England have deployed different formations in its past two games but one thing that hasn't changed is the team’s reliance on left back Chris Tierney to get forward to provide crosses into the box. Against KC, Nguyen constantly pushed inside to allow space for Tierney to move into on the left.
Against Montreal last week, New England played with one striker but again the Revs made room for Tierney on the outside to get the ball in the box. The players pushing inside also meant that New England had numerous players waiting to attack Tierney's crosses instead of just the forwards. In both of the past two games, the Revs have pushed Tierney up in advanced positions while keeping the outside right defender on more a leash.
If the Fire do indeed bring Fernandez into the middle it will be up to his replacement (presumably Nyarko) to track back and help either Jalil Anibaba or Dan Gargan when Tierney gets pushes forward into the attack.
PREDICTION: Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 0 with goals from Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com, follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
The Comeback Kids were at it again. The Chicago Fire moved into fourth place in the Eastern Conference with the sixth come-from-behind victory of the season as the Fire dispatched the Philadelphia Union 3-1. Chris Rolfe’s brace and Arne Friedrich’s first MLS goal helped the Men in Red escape Philadelphia with the full three points. Catch all of the highlights here.
Though his brace Sunday evening was the fourth time the veteran striker scored multiple goals in a Fire match, Rolfe said that he thinks there’s still room for improvement. “I think overall it was okay,” said Rolfe. “I had quite a few mistakes that I need to work on.”
While there’s always room for improvement, folks are already noting the Fire’s recent run of good form. In his most recent MLS Power Rankings for ESPN, Jeff Carlisle had the Fire in fifth place, up one spot from last week.
ESPN wasn’t the only one to notice how well the Fire players have been performing. Three Fire players, goalkeeper Sean Johnson (United States), midfielder Marco Pappa (Guatemala) and forward Orr Barouch (Israel U-21) were all called up for international duty to represent their respective nations on the upcoming Aug. 15 FIFA international date.
On a more bittersweet note, the Fire announced this morning that midfielder Marco Pappa has signed a pre-contract with Dutch Eredivisie side SC Heerenveen and will join the club when the transfer window opens Jan. 1, 2013. Pappa will finish out the season with the Fire. “I plan to do the club proud,” said Pappa, “And put everything I have into the remaining matches with the Fire.”
Last week, the Fire played a team with a newish coach and it’s the same with week when the Men in Red travel to Philadelphia to face a Union team headed by interim coach John Hackworth. Philly have had some ups and downs but are a very difficult team to beat on their day. Here are a few tactical things to look out for in Sunday night's game:
Freddy Adu: Jekyll and Hyde
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on Philly
Freddy Adu has a long history of inconsistency. When he is on, he can be one of the best attacking players in MLS but far too often fans haven't seen the best of him. This season has also been a mixed one for Freddy but the past two games in particular, he has failed to show up. He did score a penalty in a 2-1 win over New England but in Montreal last week he was very isolated on the right wing.
Fullback Sheanon Williams failed to get forward to support Adu on the outside and this forced him to constantly play the ball into the middle when he would get it in a wide position. He even switched wings for a time but this didn't help. Under Hackworth, Philadelphia have become an attacking force but last week the wing play of Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp prevented their outside backs from getting forward.
The Fire should look to mimic that tactic, especially because it limits the support for young Fredua.
New Forward Taking On New Defender?
Last week, Fire Designated Player Sherjill MacDonald replaced Dominic Oduro at halftime and helped the team overturn a 1-0 deficit. MacDonald is getting back to match fitness and Sunday’s game could be a good opportunity for him to get his first start.
Oduro has struggled to find the net of late and his speed could be a game changer off the bench. If Philly are in need of a goal, Oduro is the perfect person to bring in because his “freaky fast” pace enhances the Fire's counter attacking ability ten-fold.
Whoever starts up top for the Fire Sunday could be facing a new center back paring for the Union, who may give a first start to former Fire player Bakary Soumare. The Mali international has been rehabbing a knee injury since returning to MLS from Germany side Karlsruher in June but he did play 90 minutes in a reserve game last week and could replace second-year defender Amobi Okugo at the heart of the Union defense.
New partnerships have the potential to be shaky and if Soumare does indeed start, I would look for the Fire to test out the new look back line as early and often as possible.
This, of course can also be achieved through set pieces. Philly have had a major problem this year in that department, giving up the most headed goals in the league. As we saw last week, the Fire and especially rookie-of-the-year candidate Austin Berry are a threat from corners and free kicks and this could be key to unlocking the Union.
Depth: If we need it, it’s there
With any team, having strong options off the bench is a massive bonus. It can help the coach to change his tactics but it also increases competition for the first team. After last month’s acquisitions, the Fire now have a bench that is not only stronger but has plenty of MLS experience.
Take last Saturday’s game for example: the Fire lineup card had names like Dan Gargan, Patrick Nyarko, Daniel Paladini, Alex and Sherjill MacDonald on the sub’s list. Soon enough we could be adding Cory Gibbs there.
The team's depth is going to be very important in the push to move as high up in the Conference standings as possible. If things aren't going well on Sunday, coach Klopas has tried and tested players that he can call on, something that could be the difference between one point and three.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 2, Philadelphia Union 0 behind goals from Marco Pappa and Sherjill MacDonald.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
#6 - Chicago Fire 2, Tampa Bay Mutiny 0 - April 4, 1998 - MLS Regular Season Match - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
In their first home match in Major League Soccer history, the Fire were taking on the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny at Soldier Field. With a hearty crowd of 36,444, the Fire would deliver results on this spring night. Frank Klopas got the first goal of the match in the 43rd minute, with an assist from Zak Ibsen. Klopas would score again in the 88th to secure a brace and lead the Fire to their first home victory. The total combination of the inaugural home game, a 2-0 win, and two goals from the Fire’s future coach would make this a match to be remembered.
#5 - Chicago Fire 1, New England Revolution 0 - November 14, 2003 - Eastern Conference Final - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
The Fire outshot rivals New England Revolution 20 to 7 in this physical Eastern Conference Final. With neither side scoring in regular time, the match went into extra time. It took until the 101st minute for the Fire to score, off the back of a run from substitute Justin Mapp toward the goal line. Mapp cut the ball back, passing to the center of the six-yard box. Damani Ralph then attempted a weak shot, but it surely would have been saved without captain Chris Armas there to finish it off. At the time, the golden goal rule applied, meaning that the game was complete and the Fire were Eastern Conference champions.
#4 - Chicago Fire 2, Miami Fusion 1 - October 21, 2000 - Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
In the 44th minute, Fire legend Ante Razov broke past the Miami Fusion defense on a breakaway. After drawing out the goalkeeper and dribbling past him to the side of the six-yard box, Razov centered the ball to Hristo Stoitchkov. Soitchkov easily slid the ball past one defender to score the first goal of the match. Later, Fire favorite DaMarcus Beasley streamed down the left wing, beating his defender. Beasley put a low cross into the dangerous area in front of goal and Fusion defender Tyrone Marshall mistakenly knocked the ball into the net for an own goal. While the Fusion would grab a goal through Welton once before the match was finished, the Fire had put in enough effort to win the match, counting them as US Open Cup champions for the second time.
Stay tuned later this week for the final three matches in our #Fire15 Countdown... Check out our previous countdown videos below:
As I’m sure you’ve come to realize the last week, picking a Top 15 list for this club is a daunting task. Weighing personal accomplishments along with how the team did during a players tenure and how that player represented the badge – let’s just say you can enter everything you want into an Excel Spreadsheet and you’ll still change your mind 43 different times.
Luckily for everyone else voting, your ballot is private, so you don’t have to worry about excluding someone very deserving, or even someone you see on a daily basis.
After much deliberation, here are my public picks for the Top 15 Fire players of all time.
DISCLAIMER – These are my own picks and do not necessarily reflect voting trends or the ballots of other voters.
#15 Frank Klopas (1998-99) – Though Frank played only two seasons for the Fire, he was part of the original group that wore the badge with pride. His “Golden Goal” in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup Final started the club’s tradition of success in the tournament and few players have meant as much to the club as Frank as reflected by being chosen second into the Ring of Fire back in 2004.
#14 Hristo Stoitchkov (2000-02) – Stoitchkov only won one trophy in Chicago, following up Frank’s ’98 Golden Goal with the game-winner in the 2000 U.S. Open Cup Final. A world renowned star, when the Mad Bulgarian came to Chicago, he reinforced the spirit of the hardworking, win-at-all cost teams that the Fire became known for early on in the league. With 24 goals and 22 assists in just 70 competitive matches, Stoitchkov was on the score sheet in some form 66% of the time during his Fire stay.
#13 Gonzalo Segares (2005-present) - Segares is one of the few true left backs the Fire have ever had and most of the reason for that is the fact that he's locked down the position for half the club's existence. One of only three players on the current roster to win a trophy with the club, Segares sits behind only Lubos Kubik for most offense produced by a defender and seems destined to become just the eighth player in club history to hit 200 competitive appearances before season's end.
#12 Logan Pause (2003-present) – The current club captain, Logan Pause stands as the club’s connection to the near treble winning year of 2003. A hard-working midfielder that’s modeled himself after the likes of Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch, Pause has been a constant in the Fire lineup the past 10 seasons, even going to play at right back when needed. Though lacking in offensive achievements, Pause has been a part of three title winning teams and sits second behind only C.J. Brown on the club’s all-time appearance list at 291 games played.
#11 Jesse Marsch (1998-05) – Like Gutierrez, Marsch combined with Armas, Pause and others throughout the years to make the Fire midfield an undesirable place for opponents. Never accuse of being the most skilled, Marsch was always smart on the ball while quietly tallying 23 goals (9th all-time) and 32 assists (6th all-time) on his way to winning five of six of the club’s domestic titles.
#10 Chris Rolfe (2005-09; 2012-present) – The highest on the list of the current Fire roster, Rolfe became the club’s second all-time leading goal scorer before leaving for Denmark at the end of 2009. That feat is even more impressive when you consider a lot of games saw him playing out of position on the right wing and he never tallied 10 goals in a season. The two goals since his return have him at 41 but it will take a while for him to catch Ante Razov at 95…
#9 DaMarcus Beasley (2000-04) – One of the most fouled players in MLS during four and a half seasons in Chicago, Beasley provided speed and constant danger to aid the likes of Razov, Peter Nowak, Josh Wolff and Damani Ralph. A winner of three domestic titles with the Fire, his stats (134 GP, 18 goals, 28 assists) would be much higher had he not left for PSV Eindhoven midway through 2004.
#8 Cuauhtemoc Blanco (2007-09) – The only player on my Top 15 list that never won a trophy in Chicago, Blanco proved those wrong that anticipated him viewing MLS as a retirement league. The legendary Mexican midfielder tallied 19 goals and 28 assists in his 77 appearances for the Fire (61% conversion rate) and led the team to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals as well as the 2009 SuperLiga championship match.
#7 Carlos Bocanegra (2000-03) – Boca’s case is very similar to that of Beasley’s in that his stats and accomplishments would likely be much greater if he hadn’t left for Fulham after 2003. Still, Boca was the 2000 Rookie of the Year, two-time MLS Defender of the Year and Best XI selections (2002-03) along with three domestic titles. There are few defenders all-time in MLS that have been quite as dominant as Carlos Bocanegra was in his time with the Fire.
#6 Lubos Kubik (1998-00) – The backbone of the 1998 double-winning team, Kubik won MLS Defender of the Year that season and was likely one of the few MLS defenders more dominant than Bocanegra during his three seasons in Chicago. The third inductee into the Ring of Fire, Kubik also holds the distinction of being the most offensive defender in club history, tallying 19 goals and 25 assists in 88 matches.
#5 Zach Thornton (1998-2006) – One of only three players to be part of all six domestic championship teams, Thornton beat out Jorge Campos to win the starting job during his first season in Chicago. He holds the distinction of holding most of the club’s goalkeeping records and is one of Major League Soccer’s top goalkeepers of all-time.
#3 Ante Razov (1998-2004) – What can you say about a guy that nearly scored 100 goals in a Fire uniform? Having tallied double-digit goals in five of his seven seasons in Chicago, Razov’s offensive achievements with the Fire (95 goals, 51 assists in 196 games) match up with anyone else’s in Major League Soccer. Despite his incredible scoring record, Razov was just once named to the MLS Best XI (2003) and All-Star Game (2000).
#2 Chris Armas (1998-2007) – A revelation of sorts when he joined Chicago via trade from LA in 1998, Armas epitomized the work ethic and attitude that would come to be known from Fire teams in years to come. His play in Chicago helped him carve out a place with the U.S. Men’s National Team and if not for a devastating injury, would have taken part in at least one FIFA World Cup. Despite being known as the ultimate destroyer in midfield, Armas quietly racked up 53 assists, good enough for second on the club’s all-time list. The club’s second captain, Armas was a five-time MLS Best XI selection, four-time all-star and is one of seven members of the Ring of Fire.
#1 Peter Nowak (1998-02) – I hope there was little doubt that Nowak would always be the number one choice. The first captain in club history, it was the former Polish international that often times put the team on his shoulders during the early seasons. The only player in Fire history that can claim an MLS Cup MVP award, Nowak is the club’s all-time leader in assists with 60, a three-time Chicago Fire MVP and MLS Best XI selection and the original inductee in the club’s Ring of Fire.
The Fire play the Supporters Shield leaders San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium. Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical standpoint…
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on Quakes
With six more goals scored than any other team in the league this season and two in-form strikers, San Jose just can’t stop scoring. That being said, the team’s 44 goals eclipse the fact that they have given up 27. Of the teams currently in playoff positions, only New York and the Galaxy have given up more.
Last week’s loss to Vancouver exposed one of San Jose’s biggest weaknesses which also happens to be one of Fire’s greatest strengths: speed. Though Morrow had a good game on the attacking side, he was punished time after time by Dane Richards whose goal came directly from a Morrow error.
On the right hand side, San Jose will be without Beitashour for the first time all season which could pay dividends for the Men in Red. The pace of the Fire’s Ghanaian duo of Nyarko and Oduro could cause San Jose some major problems on the outside. Because the outside backs push up so much, there is plenty of room behind them for Oduro to run into. When he does go wide however, it requires the other attack-minded players Rolfe, Alex and Nyarko to get into the box in support.
Wondo and Gordon: Stay Tight
A major reason San Jose is sitting at the top of MLS this season are the goals from Wondolowski (17), Gordon (9) and Lenhart (6). The Quakes don’t set up their strikes the traditional way, with one on the shoulder off the last defender looking for flick-ons from the target man. Wondolowski and Gordon/Lenhart are constantly switching positions; dropping back into midfield and drifting wide. The interchanging of positions causes major problems for defenders and is one reason why you see Wondolowski score so many simple goals (think Fire vs. San Jose last season) - even though he is the obvious danger man, his movement makes him so difficult to pick up.
The other reason is that San Jose attack in such great numbers that it allows Wondo to go undetected. It sounds simple to say “stay with your man” or “keep your eye on the man and not the ball” but that’s exactly what the Fire need to do.
Using last week’s game as an example again, Jay DeMerit didn't let him out of his sight for almost the entire match to great effect. The Fire's defensive performances have been stellar this season we and should expect nothing less from Austin Berry and co on Saturday night.
Sometime shortly before kick-off when the Fire host Aston Villa this Saturday evening, the captains from the two sides will meet at midfield, shake hands, and exchange small pennants with each other. It's a routine we've seen countless times before when two teams from different nations meet in competition. But does anyone actually know what happens to the banners after their two seconds of fame?
Charlie Raycroft does.
Raycroft, the team's equipment manager since 2003, is also the Fire's unofficial keeper of the pennants. In his office (which doubles as the team's equipment room) hang dozens of club banners, ranging from England's Manchester United (from last year's friendly) to Mexico's Tigres UANL (2009 Superliga).
“Any international match we play, we usually do a captain’s banner for it,” said Raycroft, who also created the design for the Fire's banner. He added that it is similar for domestic Cup matches like the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and the exchange has been appearing more often even in regular season MLS matches, as more teams adopt the tradition.
However, Raycroft admitted that more work typically goes into the international ones, to “mark the occasion, have a little bit of history [and] make them more special.”
"It’s basically the same design for each match," he said. "[But] for matches like the Aston Villa match, or the Manchester United match, or the Open Cup we try to put the date, the location, the opponent. For MLS matches we have just a generic one with no date on it."
Another interesting note is that it's not always just one banner -- often times, teams will create duplicates for the same match. So in addition to those hanging in the equipment room, Raycroft said there are extras that are displayed around the club, or given to the team president or owner if they request one.
"[But if there are no duplicates] and if they come in and want any of these, I guess they can take them," he added with a laugh.
There is just one more part of the banner's story that is undisclosed: how does it get from the the captain to the equipment room? Surely it must be an epic journey, right?
Alas, Raycroft says it's pretty simple in reality.
“He just walks over, and I try to meet him part of the way, get it and just put it in the bag until they come inside.”