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Rematch weekend for the Quakes and Fire: three questions with Hot Time in Old Town

Jon Busch makes his first visit to Toyota Park as a member of the San Jose Earthquakes to face his former team the Chicago Fire.
Jon Busch makes his first visit to Toyota Park as a member of the San Jose Earthquakes to face his former team the Chicago Fire.

Well, the Earthquakes bowed out of U.S. Open Cup qualifying Tuesday night after a disappointing penalty kick loss. However, they get their chance to avenge the loss when the same two teams meet Saturday in MLS regular season play. Earlier in the week, I exchanged questions with Tweed Thornton of the Hot Time in Old Town Chicago Fire blog here at SB Nation, and thought it would be insightful to do it again. So without further ado, let's learn more about the Fire in this week's Three Quesitons.

Quake, Rattle and Goal: Since its founding in 1998, the stated mission of the Chicago Fire on the field has been to capture two trophies every year: the MLS Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. While in 2011 the campaign for the former is not off to a great start, qualification toward earning the second has been accomplished. From the supporters' perspective, what has been the attitude toward to Open Cup tournament, and would a successful run in that competition temper any negativity cast on the team for their struggles in the MLS regular season?

Hot Time in Old Town: The die-hard supporters of the Chicago Fire have embraced the U.S. Open Cup from the very beginning. The club ownership has not been so consistent. The good news on the ownership front is that it has turned around as of late. For example, last year the only U.S. Open Cup game was played at Toyota Park. This year the U.S. Open Cup Play-In match against Colorado was played in Peoria but the game was live streamed on the Fire's website. We will see if the team makes a serious bid to host the next round of the U.S. Open Cup. I am optimistic that after a couple of ‘dark years' of USOC competing, Chicago will put forth their best effort both in terms of advertising the game (be it home or away) and in putting out a choice Starting XI even to the detriment of the MLS Regular Season.

As you point out though, the decision to take the USOC more seriously than the MLS Regular Season this year has been aided by the fact that the team has had poor results in the MLS Regular Season. It's easy to put all of your eggs in one basket when the second basket doesn't have much to begin with. The track record for teams with large roster turnover is not kind in MLS or soccer anywhere really. The 2011 regular season has always been approached with concern because it takes time for roster battles to settle and it takes time for players to gel as a team. The team would be wise to focus on the USOC to build some goodwill with the die-hard supporters.
However, not every fan cares about the USOC. There are over 3,000 new season tickets for the Chicago Fire this year. Many of them have never heard of the USOC let alone seen a USOC game. Even if the Chicago Fire advance in the tournament, how do you get the casual fan interested in a competition they might not watch in person while the team is racking up loses and ties in the many games they do see? It brings up a couple of tough issues and it's a fine tightrope the front office has to walk.

At the end of the day, the Chicago Fire need to be true to themselves. We are the Kings of the Cup: the MLS team with twice the number of USOC trophies as the next MLS team and one short of tying Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles for the overall lead. Whether in first place or last place in the MLS Standings, this club has been built on success in the U.S. Open Cup and should put out a first team for USOC games accordingly. Some fans might be negative for now if we lose a MLS Regular Season game or two but the supporters of the team should always be able to look at the Chicago Fire and be able to say that current custodians of the club tried their best and gave it their all in the U.S. Open Cup year in and year out.  That is an identity that will attract fans in the long-term.  The USOC success is an identity that keeps me a passionate fan of this club.

QRG: A new face for the Fire, Cristian Nazarit, made his debut for the club in Tuesday's Open Cup qualifier and displayed a good nose for the ball and the ability to get himself open in the attacking half. What are the expectations for the 20-year old Colombian this season, and are the Fire working to fast-track him into the regular starting line-up?

HTIOT: It's hard to say what his expectations are because technical director Frank Klopas and coach Carlos de los Cobos are tight lipped individuals. Prior to signing with the Fire, Cristian Nazarit had not played competitive soccer for a couple of months. I was surprised he went 120 minutes against the San Jose Earthquakes on Tuesday. Technically that's not even true because Nazarit started cramping up in overtime of Tuesday's USOC game. In the original press release Frank Klopas was quoted as saying:

"Cristian brings a wealth of talent and experience to the Chicago Fire," said Fire Technical Director Frank Klopas. "The Colombian target forward has pace, strikes the ball well and is able to play with his back to goal. His size and offensive abilities make him a positive addition to our team."

I will say that many people were confused to see Nazarit signed because the backline has been hurt by injuries and inconsistency and Nazarit filled out the roster at the maximum of 30 players. I tend to agree that the team is pretty shallow on defense so I hope that Nazarit wasn't signed to be a second or third string forward. I think fans in general would be more excited (I mean, Simon Borg was calling him the Colombian Samuel Eto'o and there was rumored interest from Real Madrid and Chelsea previously) but we've also been burned by a promising forward who was not 100% in game playing shape upon being signed. At least Chicago can take comfort that Cristian Nazarit is making $1.7M less than Nery Castillo was.  In fairness to Nazarit, he did put a ball in the back of the net only to have it waved off as offside on Tuesday and he has scored a goal in a MLS Reserves League game.  That's more than Castillo ever did.  At 6'1, Nazarit also brings some much needed to size to an offense that is still looking for a corner kick goal (0 for 54 in the regular season) and has featured 5'10 Diego Chaves and 5'7 Gaston Puerari up top.  There's a good chance he will be a starter by the time Chicago travels to San Jose on September 10th but we are hesitant to bet on such a thing.

QRG: Sean Johnson had a howler of a time on the Earthquakes second goal Tuesday night, and seemed to play with a lack of confidence at times. Talk about the struggles he has had this season and also the role of Jon Conway in the goalkeeper conversation for the Chicago Fire.

HTIOT: Jon Conway is your typical veteran backup. He is serviceable but not elite. Conway has been mentoring Sean Johnson and that is crucial to Johnson's development.

In watching the highlight video of Tuesday's game, it is a little disappointing to admit that isn't the first time I've seen Sean Johnson let in a goal like that. He has an incredible ability to not hold onto the ball. Goals off of rebounds have been a plague for him.

After reviewing Sean Johnson's rise, I've started to wonder how much national media hype has added to his reputation so far. His MLS debut came against the Los Angeles Galaxy on August 1st. The next week the Chicago Fire played against the New York Red Bulls in front of a nationally televised audience. Sean Johnson stopped all seven NYRB shots and was the star of a matchup that featured Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and the debuts of Raefel Marquez and Nery Castillo. You know, back when it was a big thing that Castillo was coming to the MLS. On September 4th, 2010, Sean Johnson stopped a Landon Donovan penalty kick, something MLS goalkeepers do once every four years or so. The buzz around Johnson to get a USMNT call-up started soon after that.

Meanwhile the flaws of Sean Johnson were on full display in low profile games like the August 21st, 2010 match against the Houston Dynamo. Johnson gave up four goals including one where he leaped up to grab the ball, collapsed on top of his teammates, and had the ball slip out of his hands. Brian Ching quickly put the ball in the net. I think part of the reason Johnson was benched this season was because he is too confident in the air and has been giving up too many rebounds. He has not learned from plays like the Ching goal but I think other teams have. It is hard to attack Sean Johnson on distance or mid-range shots. His pure athleticism will lead to highlight saves. Teams seem to have figured out that Johnson's weakness is set pieces, crosses, and other aerial strategies.

If Sean Johnson wants to become an elite goalie, he must address this problem. The problem is we thought Sean Johnson was a finished product. Our expectations should be that he is a 21 year-old goalkeeper with a lot to learn just like the majority of players his age. The Chicago Fire defense must focus on a game plan that minimizes Johnson's weaknesses and maximizes his strengths. Sean Johnson is the goaltender of the future for this team so I'm happy to see the team work around the learning curve.