We're less than 48 hours away from kick off at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL between my hometown Chicago Fire and the beloved Aston Villa. It's a day I never thought would happen and yet the mighty Villa have made their way to me, of all things, and I get to watch them up close and in person. Needless to say I am very excited not only at the prospect of watching the claret and blue up close but also that I don't have to see Alan Hutton.
I consider myself a Fire fan and I'm very happy to support the game locally. I even hope to get season tickets when my son is old enough to withstand a couple of hours in the same spot while not sleeping. So I think I have a pretty good idea about Villa's preseason opponent on Saturday but perhaps you, fine reader, would like to know a little more about the Chicago Fire. Without further ado, Ryan Sealock from the Fire SB Nation blog Hot Time in Old Town answers my six questions followed by the answers I gave Ryan and James Coston from HTIOT.
7500 to Holte Asks Hot Time in Old Town
1. Who are the players that Villa fans should be looking for when they line up on Saturday night? Both good and bad?
For the good, I am going to say Alex. He is a young CAM type of player that just joined the club on June 27th. His signing had been announced before that, but he had to wait until the transfer window opened. Our main CAM, Sebastian Grazzini, has just left the club indefinitely to go back to his native Argentina for "family issues." His loss is a big blow to the club, as he was a very successful catalyst of the Fire offense. The club is of the mind that Alex can help fill Grazzini's shoes, and so far the news has been more positive than negative. It took Grazzini a little while to gel and settle into the team, and Fire fans are expecting the same for Alex. Overall, he has looked good so far, and personally I expect him to continue to improve as he adjusts to the league and his new teammates. If he truly can fill the role Grazzini previously occupied, it will be a huge boost for the Fire offense.
For the bad players, I will list two names, both that are currently widely lamented in Fire Nation. They would be Rafael Robayo and Federico Puppo. Puppo came to the team with a reported large transfer fee in the range that a Designated Player (DP) would receive. Unfortunately, he has failed to impress and hasn't even been able to see any action on the pitch for a good chunk of time. In fact, for the most recent game yesterday against New York, he didn't even make the starting 18. That spoke volumes to me as I expected him to at least make the bench for a mid-week game when many times starters will get some rest. When Puppo has played, he has been uninspiring and simply put, just hasn't cut it. He is pretty small for a target forward in a very physical MLS league (he is listed as 5' 10" but that seems like it could be generous). For the amount of money that we have spent on a transfer to get him, he has not come anywhere close to living up to that billing.
Rafael Robayo was signed this offseason with the hope he could be the dynamic midfielder that he was billed as in his time at Millonarios. Like Puppo, he has come no where close to living up to that billing. Robayo apparently expected to come to MLS and have a starting spot waiting for him. Head coach Frank Klopas has made it clear that is most certainly not the case. Robayo has struggled to find playing time, and when he does get on the pitch, has failed to impress in any discernible manner. He did little yesterday against New York when he had the chance to come in and make an impact in a game where the Fire desperately needed someone to step up. While transfers are like playing the stock market and not an exact science, Robayo has made it much worse by constant complaints about the league and playing time. He has stated that he wants to go back to a higher league in Europe, but given the fact he can't cut it in MLS, his comments have enraged Fire fans, with many of us hoping for his departure as soon as possible. The club which he came from, Millonarios, still has the option to take him back. In fact, rumors have come out this past week that his return is imminent. I think Frank is holding on to him until he is sure we can get a replacement before the window closes. It really comes down to this: Fire fans want a hard worker that loves the team and gives 110% percent when he pulls on that red jersey with the Fire badge. It's clear he doesn't want to be here, and his constant whining has only alienated fans even more, rather than create sympathy. The sooner he can go, the better.
2. The Fire currently sit in position to make the MLS playoffs but they have just lost a key midfielder in Sebastian Grazzini. How do they plan to replace him and continue to push for a spot in the playoffs?
This kind of overlaps my first answer in the form of Alex. He is the main player the team is expecting to replace Robayo. Chris Rolfe is another key ingredient for this question. He is a dynamic player in his second stint with the team after spending time playing in Europe. Chris has played in the midfield creation role that a Grazzini/Alex type of player normally mans, but that is not Chris' strong suit. Most fans want him up top with Dominic Oduro as a forward. Honestly, this is his best position, and the Fire are really struggling right now in terms of scoring. Oduro is our main threat but it's pretty obvious that it's easy to game pklan for a team building their attack around one person. Getting Rolfe up top aor signing a striker with a scoring pedigree is a vital situation to watch as the transfer window is heading into its final days. If the Fire can get legit offensive help up top, the team will really bu running on all cylinders. Whether this is in the form of Rolfe or a signing, the situation demonstrates how important it is for Alex to learn and grow into his role. If he becomes the player that we think and hope he can be, we will have another great find on our hands. This will allow the more offensive Rolfe to help out up top where it is sorely needed. If Alex can't and Rolfe has to play out of position, the offensive punch of the team is definitely affected.
3. As Fire fans and fans of the MLS in general, how do you view these kinds of matches? More of a burden or a good time for the players and fans?
I know many fans that don't like friendlies at all, but personally I am a fan of them. It allows fans to see teams that they normally could never see. Even if you aren't an Aston Villa fan, it's nice to be able to see a team of that quality in your hometown. It's certainly easier and cheaper than planning a trip over to Birmingham, England to watch them. And it's great for Villa fans in the Chicago area for the same reasons. Personally, as a Newcastle fan myself, I drove to KC last year to watch them play in a friendly vs. Sporting KC. It was incredible to see the players you watch on tv every week right in front of you. So for fans of the visiting teams it is sometimes a once in a lifetime chance to see legends ply their trade.
I know injuries are a risk but in my opinion the benefits outweigh the risks. It's good exposure for the Fire and MLS in general to have games like this. If done right I think it can bring in additional revenue for the club, and also exposure to Villa fans. I know that supporters of European clubs follow their teams everyday, even in the offseason like Fire fans do. However, once friendlies start, then a huge European soccer market pays attention to a game in Bridgeview, Illinois. That's a win-win in my eyes. Some fans even use tours like this to come across the proverbial pond on vacation to follow their team. Again, pulling from the Newcastle game I attended, there was a good number of fans directly from Newcastle that made the trip over. Talking to fans from England and getting their perspective was a unique and really enriching experience personally for me. One fan has based his life around traveling with Newcastle and watching games. He told me that the match vs. KC would be his 120th different ground that he has watched Newcastle at. Imagine watching Villa or the Fire at 120 different stadiums in your life. That was pretty amazing. Just getting to meet fans like that and talking with them for a few minutes is an example of what makes friendlies like this a good thing. Hopefully a good number of Villa fans make the trek to Chicago and are able to interact with Fire and Villa fans alike. It's truly an experience not to be missed.
One other unique thing about this friendly that I like is the supporter's match taking place the morning of the game. I think it's awesome to have two groups of supporters getting to play a friendly match against each other. This is not something that really happens for MLS games. And, a Villa legend in Ian Taylor will be playing for the Villa supporters, with Fire fans trying to find a former Fire player to join them. That is something else that is unique that a friendly like this brings.
4. Aston Villa's biggest rival is a club that shares their city called Birmingham City. Which club would you say the Fire call their biggest rival?
That's a good question, and the answer varies depending on which Fire fan you ask. Personally, I view the Columbus Crew as our biggest rivals. Due to proximity, every year the Fire faithful invade Crew stadium in the form of a handful of buses, scarves, and cheering, singing, and chanting for the Men in Red. Earlier this year, nearly 1,000 Fire fans made the trek to Columbus to cheer their team on. Another common team cited as a rival would be the New England Revolution. Although this rivalry hasn't always been looked at in this light, memorable playoff matchups in recent years have really heightened the animosity between the two teams. It's usually a tense affair now when the Fire and the Revs square off. One other team mentioned as a rival would be FC Dallas. There is something called the "Brimstone Cup" that is given to the winner every year. The Fire are not a fan of this, and when we won the Cup this year the trophy "accidentally" got dropped/bent/crushed. I will leave it to your imagination to figure out how this "accident" happened. Let's just say this further incensed the Dallas fans and definitely increased the feelings of animosity between the two teams.
5. What should a Villa supporter that doesn't know much about MLS know about the Chicago Fire and their proud history?
Man, this is a question I could write all day on. The Fire have a long tradition of winning, and the last couple of years missing the playoffs have made the lives of Fire fans much more painful. Fortunately, the team is back on the right track and climbing back towards the top of the mountain. One thing the Fire are known for is their legendary Independent Supporters Association called Section 8. The group can always be found in the North Harlem End of the stadium. You know Section 8 right away because they stand at all times, sing and chant their hearts out, and always have flags waving. There has also been too many incredible tifo displays organized by Section 8 to even count.
The Fire have won 1 MLS Cup. In fact, they did this in the inaugural season that they entered the league. We have also won 4 US Open Cups, which is a domestic multi-team tournament much like the FA Cup in Europe. The club is steeped in history and tradition, and as of 2006, they have had their own stadium (Toyota Park) to call home in Bridgeview, Illinois. It's a beautiful place to watch a game and the Fire are currently 6-2-2 at home, so Toyota Park can be viewed as somewhat of a fortress for opposing teams.
6. Is Frank Klopas the man to take the Fire forward or would they be best served looking elsewhere?
Yes, I have tons of faith in Frank and think he is the right man for the job. This is his first head coaching job, having transitioned from the role of Technical Director to interim coach when Carlos De Los Cobos was fired last year. Frank assumed the role permanently and he has done a wonderful job so far. Like any coach he has things to work on but he will get better as time goes by and he gets more experience under his belt. The good definitely outweighs the bad. The past 2 seasons before this one have been a train wreck to be honest. Frank took the team on a red hot run late last year and almost got us into the playoffs. That has continued this year as the Fire currently sit in 5th place in the Eastern Conference. Despite coming off a tough loss yesterday, Chicago is only 5 points out of first place right now. It will certainly be an exciting playoff push with multiple teams in the mix. Now the Front Office needs to bring in a couple of players to help improve the squad for the end of the season push. If Frank gets the players he needs to fill the gaps on the squad I think this team can go all the way.
Hot Time In Old Town Asks 7500 To Holte
1. After some respectable campaigns in the English Premier League, Aston Villa struggled mightily during the 2011-2012 EPL season, finishing 16th and barely escaping relegation. What do you think was the reason for this downturn? (via James Coston).
The downturn has been a two year process. Essentially the manager that took Villa to back to back 6th place finishes in the league along with Europa League appearances was also spending insane amounts of money on wages for bad players that never saw meaningful time for Villa. These players are finally starting to exit the club only just now but were a major drain on owner Randy Lerner's pocketbook and other thanDarren Bent coming in two seasons ago in the January window, Villa have been forced to sell some of their best players such as Ashley Young, Stewart Downing (who has been a massive failure at Liverpool), Gareth Barry and James Milner just to name a few. Any club would be stung losing players of that quality. It also didn't help that Alex McLeish is a terrible manager who hates fun and winning.
2. What is the club doing to ensure the 2012-2013 campaign is different? Any big signings coming in? (via James Coston)
Paul Lambert was the man the fans wanted to bring in before Alex McLeish was even sacked. He led Norwich to back to back promotions and plays exciting, attractive soccer. In fact at Villa's final match vs. Norwich - both sets of supporters were singing "There's only one Paul Lambert!" Lambert so far has said all the right things and even seems to hate all the players the fans hate and is trying to get rid of them. He's also been very shrewd in the transfer market thus far, going after younger players from non-English leagues who can develop under him. The feeling around the club could not be more positive at the moment.
3. The club has a new manager in Paul Lambert after saying goodbye to Alex McLeish. What are your thoughts on the former Norwich City man taking charge? (via James Coston)
I mostly answered this one above but Lambert is exactly the kind of manager Villa needs. He's got extensive experience as a player - he was part of a Champions League winning side with Borussia Dortmund in Germany. He's going to make watching Aston Villa fun again and he's known for getting the most out of his players. I can't wait.
4. Aston Villa has quite a few promising young players, which one of these players are you the most excited about? Which player would you like to see get more playing time now that Un-Sir Alex is gone? (via Mark O'Rourke)
My favorite player amongst the youngsters is Nathan Delfouneso for admittedly stupid reasons (more on that in a bit). I don't know if he'll develop but one can hope. Marc Albrighton took a real step backwards last year after a really promising season and Barry Bannan seems to go from getting in trouble with the law to being called the Scottish Xavi. I think the best youngster we have might be Gary Gardner. This could be a big step for him but I know Lambert's not done restocking the side so the existing youth may find it difficult to get a game barring injury.
5. Assuming all the cards fall right (health, expected performances, etc) where do you see Aston Villa finishing in the EPL table? (via Ryan Sealock)
If everything goes perfectly I honestly believe they can challenge for a spot in Europe. You see what a team like Newcastle did last season with some infusion of fresh talent, acquired somewhat cheaply, and I don't think Villa is that far off. A huge key is going to be Charles N'Zogbia's form as well as Stephen Ireland. Ireland at his best can be a starting player for a Champions League team - he's just such an enigma. If Lambert gets through to him and we see the Ireland we saw against Chelsea last season, we could be in for a fun ride.
6. Can you tell me 1 or 2 things that drew you to become an Aston Villa supporter over the few big clubs that many Americans traditionally support? (via Ryan Sealock)
Honestly I always liked the EPL but never could settle on a team. I'm not much of a front runner, for instance I only support Chicago teams when it comes to American sports. I'm also a huge fan of the Football Manager series which is a computer simulation of managing any soccer club you can think of. After watching The Damned United, I started a career with Derby County and was so successful that Aston Villa lured me away with a nice contract to manage them. Once I took over I managed to transform them into a top 5 club in England and Nathan Delfouneso was scoring 30 goals a season for me. That's how the love affair started as I realized my affinity for the club went beyond the game. I like to say that you can't really just pick a club, the club picks you. Villa literally picked me in a video game and here I am today!