We continue our Three Questions series, hitting up TFC beat reporter Kurtis Larson to see what's going on with the Reds ahead of Saturday's match...
Jeff Crandall: For the seventh straight season, Toronto FC once again find themselves without a postseason berth. What is the mood around this club in Ontario and is there more hope that under the leadership of Tim Leiweke TFC will begin to realize its potential on the field?
Kurtis Larson: I think there's a bit of cautious optimism circulating the city. Fans have been through this song and dance before. The difference this time around is that TFC has been granted a budget of $26 million to spend on a pair of Designated Players this off-season. Head Coach Ryan Nelsen and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke returned from a European scouting trip this week where they met with agents and clubs.
For once, the team has its salary cap under control after offloading a number of big contracts. During the off-season, you'll see big-money guys like Danny Koevermans and Stefan Frei leave as well. That's a huge turn of events for a team that's always had a ton of guys on cap-killing salaries who have been injured or underperformed.
As a result, fans are optimistic Nelsen has the tools he needs to bring in new talent. And that, combined with the club signing new GM Tim Bezbatchenko, has some fans thinking TFC might turn a corner next year and at least push for a playoff spot.
JC: Stefan Frei hasn’t played an MLS match in two years but with Joe Bendik suspended, the Swiss ‘keeper finds himself in the ironic spot of making his return between the sticks and quite possibly his last appearance for TFC Saturday. How has he approached this week and what is his form like, i.e. how has he performed in reserve matches?
KL: No one is more respected at this club than Stefan Frei, who was arguably one of the top three 'keepers in the league from 2009-10. Had it not been for a horrible spell of injuries -- a broken leg in 2012 and a broken nose this preseason -- he'd likely still have a job.
That said, that was then, this is now and Frei's form is somewhat of an unknown seeing as TFC has only played a handful of reserve games at home this season.
- TACTICAL: Keep up the high pressure vs. TFC
It's imperative that Chicago tests Frei early in this one and makes him work. I'm not entirely confident he'll be able to shake off the cobwebs as quickly as most think.
Don't forget, Frei and Toronto FC were shelled 6-0 the last time the Swiss-born 'keeper was in goal when the Montreal Impact laid waste to TFC in a Canadian Cup match. That couldn't have been good for his confidence.
JC: No matter what they do in their final two matches, Toronto FC will finish ninth in the Eastern Conference. With their first round draft pick sent to Vancouver in the Eric Hassli trade, Toronto has virtually nothing to play for. Still, is the team still approaching Saturday’s game vs. Chicago and the season finale vs. Montreal with something to prove?
KL: I think most of the players will be delighted if they can spoil a few playoff dreams over the next two weeks. Toronto knows Chicago is desperate for three points and will be looking to do what it can to prevent the Fire from walking into the playoffs.
Ironically, if TFC somehow takes all three points at Toyota Park Saturday, they'll be doing rivals the Montreal Impact a great service. As a result, fans are in a catch-22, similar to what we saw during the Panama-U.S. game this week.
The bigger prize for most TFC fans is knocking off Montreal at BMO Field on the final day of the season to hurt the Impact's post-season chances.
Thanks for your time Kurtis!
Follow him on Twitter @KurtLarSUN.
In terms of my soccer writing heroes, The Washington Post's Steven Goff is the epitome for me.
Long before covering the game was trendy and social media made everyone an expert, Goff was there giving incredible coverage to the U.S. Men's and Women's national teams as well as D.C. United through his Soccer Insider blog on washingtonpost.com. He's kept up in the social media age as well, with nearly 100,000 people following his @SoccerInsider account on Twitter.
So naturally we here at Chicago-Fire.com are honored to have him answer three questions relating to D.C. United as the Men in Red prepare for a crucial clash with the newly crowned U.S. Open Cup champions Friday night at RFK Stadium (LIVE 7pm CT on NBC Sports Network).
Jeff Crandall: Where does Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup victory rank in terms of the club's other trophy wins?
Steven Goff: The four MLS Cup trophies rank higher than this championship, but among the three Open Cup titles, this one was the most satisfying -- on the road against a high-quality opponent during an otherwise terrible year.
It's hard to compare domestic tournament titles with international trophies (CONCACAF Champions Cup and Interamerican Cup many years ago). The Supporters' Shield is different because it involves a season-long effort. All in all, I haven't seen so many happy DCU faces in a very long time.
JC: With the playoffs long out of sight and the Open Cup match the last meaningful one for D.C. this season, what type of lineup do you expect United to run out Friday vs. the Fire?
SG: United played Tuesday night and traveled all day Wednesday, so I would expect a mix of regulars and reserves Friday. I would guess Jared Jeffrey, Kyle Porter, Luis Silva, Daniel Woolard, among others, will enter the starting lineup. Maybe Dennis Iapichino and Conor Doyle as well.
JC: Having won a trophy, is Ben Olsen's job safe for 2014 despite the possibility of finishing with the league's worst-ever regular season record?
SG: Olsen has a guaranteed contract in 2014, so even without winning the Open Cup title, I expected to see him back. The trophy certainly helps his cause. The players play hard for him and management loves him.
He's been involved with the club as a player, assistant coach and head coach for 15 years -- deep ties that are hard to break. I do think ownership sees a bright future with Olsen in charge.
Continuing our Three Questions series, I hit up TheCrew.com's Cody Sharrett to find out what's been going on with "The Massive's" turnaround in form under interim head coach Brian Bliss ahead of Saturday's visit to Crew Stadium (LIVE 6:00pm CT on My50) I also exchanged answers with him for TheCrew.com, see below
Jeff Crandall: The Crew looked destined to miss the playoffs again this season but the move of Brian Bliss downstairs as interim head coach has seen the team win two of its last three matches. What has changed since he took over the dressing room?
Cody Sharrett: With the coaching change, I think some players felt they had something to prove and re-earn their spots in the lineup. Bliss has brought more accountability to the club with his tell-like-it-is, yet positive approach. Training sessions are definitely more vocal and the players seem to be responding to Bliss’ style.
The change has also helped guys who had maybe fallen out of favor with Robert Warzycha earn new opportunities on the field. Since the coaching change, both Tony Tchani and Tyson Wahl have seen their minutes increase. Tchani has brought a physical presence to central midfield and was key in the wins against Houston and Montreal.
Even in the 3-0 loss at Kansas City, Tchani was one of the few bright spots for the Crew. Wahl, on the other hand, brings veteran presence to the backline alongside stalwart Chad Marshall. Aside from one slip up that led to a Marco Di Vaio goal, Wahl paired well with Marshall in his first match of the season at centerback.
JC: The Fire dealt Dominic Oduro to the Crew in a January trade that brought Dilly Duka and eventually Mike Magee to Chicago. Dom just scored his 10th goal of the season for the Crew last weekend, how has he helped the Columbus attack improve this year?
CS: Oduro’s speed has definitely added a different dimension to the Crew attack that just hasn’t been there in the past. Federico Higuaín leads MLS with 44 attempted through balls this season, and with Oduro’s pace, can you blame him? When the two have connected, it’s been a work of art as evidenced by Oduro’s goals in Toronto earlier in the season and last week in Montreal.
A pleasant surprise in Oduro’s game for Crew fans has been his ability to make defenses pay for mistakes, thus coining the term “Grand Theft Oduro.” Teams have been more hesitant playing out of the back due to Oduro’s ability to pounce on miscues.
Leading the team with 10 goals this season, Oduro has been a breath of fresh air for the Black & Gold.
JC: The Crew have little margin for error in remaining matches if they hope to qualify for the playoffs. With backs against the wall, what is the mood and spirit like going into Saturday’s game vs. the Fire?
CS: The locker room has been positive, especially since the win at Montreal. The Crew knows it needs help from other results, but also realizes it most likely needs to win-out to ensure a playoff spot. With four of the five remaining matches coming against Eastern Conference opponents, the points are there for the taking.
Cody Sharrett: The Fire sit in playoff position for the first time in 2013. What’s the atmosphere like in the locker room with six matches left to go in the season?
Jeff Crandall: Having gone 2-7-1 through their first 10 matches, everyone at the Fire will say the team had a pretty bad start to the year. Still, the spirit never faltered and the arrivals of Mike Magee and Bakary Soumare in late May helped stabilize things a great deal.
Despite a few disappointing results to start September, the team still remains one of the hottest in the league since that time but the fact the fact that we’re in mid-September and last Saturday was the first time they’ve reached a playoff position tells just how deep a hole was dug at the beginning of the year.
There are a few reasons for the turnaround this season but it most assuredly wouldn’t have happened if the mood didn’t stay positive through the hard times. Now that they’re in a position to qualify for the playoffs, they’ve noticeably gained even more confidence heading into the close of the season and will go to Crew Stadium looking for a season sweep on Saturday.
CS: New DP Juan Luis Ananganó bagged his first goal for the Fire last week against New England. How has he changed the dynamic of the club’s attack?
JC: Though he is a Designated Player, Anangono was purposely not billed as someone that would come in and be a significant contributor right away. He is a strong target striker that has a lot of work ethic but as we see with many foreign players coming to MLS for the first time, an adjustment period is needed.
He showed flashes in games before but his 30th minute equalizer in Saturday’s win over New England was huge for a Fire team that had once again conceded early in a match. Though he may have been offside on the second equalizer through Mike Magee, his shielding the defender was what gave the Fire’s leading scorer an easy conversion.
Anangono’s transition to the Fire and MLS isn’t complete but his recent performances now give head coach Frank Klopas the most variety he’s had all season up top and allows the manager to be more unpredictable with his lineups at the close of the season.
CS: Since the Fire’s first season in 1998, the rivalry with the Crew has been one of the best in MLS. What is the general feeling of this rivalry among the Chicago supporters compared to other rivalries?
JC: In my view, (and I may be biased because I’m a Wolverine) the rivalry with the Crew is the best the Fire currently have. Last season 600 supporters went to Crew Stadium and the year before about 400 attended. Hands down, the visit(s) to Crew Stadium are one of the first games Fire supporters circle on their calendars when the schedule is released every year.
Games against the Crew mean a lot to Klopas as well as Crew Stadium was the site of his first win as interim head coach back on June 12, 2011 and it was him that scored the Golden Goal winner against Columbus in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup final at Soldier Field.
In the locker room, Ohioans Chris Rolfe and Austin Berry especially get up for games vs. “The Massive” but throughout the team, whether players are new or haven't been around too long, its known that matches vs. the Crew are big and usually very intense.
With both teams pushing for the playoffs and former players on both sides of the divide, I expect no less on Saturday.