Tottenham Hotspur wraps up its preseason tour in North America Saturday evening in Chicago with a 7 pm CT match against the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park. We love the other soccer blogs at SB Nation, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to not only preview Saturday's match, but to also help spread the Major League Soccer gospel and learn about the professional soccer team that's in my – and many other American Spurs fans' – back yards.
Sean Spence, editor-in-chief at SB Nation's Fire blog Hot Time in Old Town, and Anthony Seymore, staff writer (and Spurs fan!) were gracious enough to take the time to answer my questions about the Fire, soccer culture in Chicago, and Saturday night's match. And in return I did the same for them.
Cartilage Free Captain - The Fire have one of Tottenham's youngsters, Grant Ward, this season on loan. What are your impressions of Ward as a player? How has he integrated himself into the Fire's squad, and does he look like the kind of player who could develop into an MLS or Premier League star?
Hot Time in Old Town (Sean Spence) - Grant is a modern two-way winger, fleet and crafty enough to create problems going forward and hard-working enough to contribute without the ball. He's still young, still prone to have stretches where it's clear he's not sure how to affect the game, but in a few short months we've seen enough growth to think the problem is merely lack of top-flight experience, not lack of ability.
He sort of burst onto the scene with the Fire, playing very well with a younger group in preseason and scoring an absolute golazo in a match in Arizona. He seems to be a good teammate, and the other players seem to like the kid.
As an MLS prospect, I could see him developing into a Best XI-level winger; he will get mountains of playing time here that he wouldn't get in the Prem. He still has a lot of room to grow, technically and especially mentally, and he's young enough to get where he needs to be. He struggles to come up with ideas in the run of play at times; his best moments are when the game opens up and he can focus on beating a guy and getting a shot or cross in.
At the Premier League level, I'd probably be converting him to a right wingback. Pochettino surely loves a good wingback. In that position, he'd be more technical than average and more creative than average, rather than on the negative side of those ledgers, and his pace and work rate would do him more credit.
CFC - American cities like Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles get the lion's share of the attention in MLS due to the strength of their fan base. How does Chicago fare as a "soccer city" - has the city embraced the beautiful game? Is there more that needs to be done to increase fan support and soccer culture in the Windy City?
HTIOT - Chicago is a soccer city, full-stop, but most of it exists below the radar. There are a huge number of youth programs, of course, but there are also a truly staggering number of adult leagues in the city, mostly organized around the old neighborhood structure of ethnicity - there's Croatian teams, and Mexican teams, Poles, Guatemalans, you name it.
The ongoing tragedy of the Chicago Fire is that most of the soccer fans in the city ignore the team, choosing to experience the world's game either personally in a park somewhere, or from arms length via television.
"Why?" is the (several) million dollar question. Here's a few reasons: The club has not always done a good job building bridges to those existing soccer communities in the city, so they don't turn out, focusing instead on their city leagues and news from the old country. The club plays in Bridgeview, a town on the outskirts of the Chicago metro area that is not well-served by mass transit; this blocks the effort to recruit the hipster hordes that pack Seattle and Portland. And the general trend for the club on the field in recent years has been depressing; we were one of the league's elite from our founding in 1998, but have been mediocre at best for the last five years or so.
CFC - Where does Chicago fall in the hierarchy of MLS teams right now? Are they performing at more or less where you expect them to be at the moment?
HTIOT - Man, you're not making this easy, are you? I think I'm going to do some yoga for a minute to calm down.
Sadly, we are near the bottom of the MLS hierarchy at the moment. In the off-season, the club fired basically the entire front office; we are still waiting to see whether the new group can produce better results. But just a quick eyeballing of our roster shows you that we're not spending the money on payroll that most teams are. We do not feature a Designated Player. We are leaning heavily on a 22-year-old homegrown player (Harry Shipp) to produce moments of inspiration going forward. Manager Frank Yallop and his crew have some leeway, as he's clearly been brought on to rebuild, but the early returns are not good.
CFC - Sure, it's a preseason friendly, but it sometimes feels as though MLS teams that play major European teams take it a little more seriously than other clubs. What do you expect out of the Fire in this match? Will we see a full-strength starting lineup, or a rotated side? Is it about bragging rights? Is it about trying to raise MLS's profile abroad? Or is it really just a friendly?
HTIOT - We just had a league match on Wednesday, and have another next Wednesday. If we don't see a rotated side for this friendly, I might have an aneurysm. That said, I've got medical staff on call, because there's only so much rotating we can do at the moment.
I'd like to say this is about raising MLS' profile, or whatever, but for us it's not. It's a chance to have a nice night out at the park and see some guys play who make more than our entire roster. Manchester United just nuked the LA Galaxy from orbit; my guess is that Spurs will want to do likewise, just to show the folks back home that they're not off the pace already.
Many of the more hardcore Fire supporters feel that this friendly is an ill-timed cash grab for a team that needs fewer gimmicks and more quality footballers. Your mileage may vary.
CFC - Sean Johnson, Mike Magee, and Jeff Larentowicz might be the three most recognizable Chicago Fire players right now. For the benefit of our non-American readers and those who don't follow the MLS closely, who else on the Fire roster should Spurs fans watch closely during the match?
HTIOT - Our center back tandem of Bakary Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado have a distinctly 'little-girl-with-the-curl' vibe to them - when they're good they're very good, but when they're bad they're awful. If they have a good outing, Tottenham will find this to be a surprisingly difficult matchup. Soumare is the usual culprit either way; he's huge, aggressive, and has good feet, but is prone to switching off at the most astounding times.
Quincy Amarikwa is a striker whose specialty is leverage - he's not very big, but he's tremendously strong. He's a handful.
Of course Harry Shipp, whom I'll discuss below. Another homegrown player signed this season is Chris Ritter, a defensive midfielder who played at Northwestern University. Ritter passes the ball well from deep midfield.
CFC - I've been hearing a lot about Harry Shipp lately... not least because I live in northern Indiana and often tracked the Notre Dame soccer team during Shipp's tenure there. He's playing well right now - how high is his ceiling, and could he turn into a player with international club or national team ambitions?
HTIOT - Harry Shipp's ceiling is very high, but he's a very different player than the usual American attacking mid. I'd propose that Landon Donovan is the prototype USA attacker - good enough touch and vision boosted by (in his prime) truly startling acceleration and pace. Harry inverts that equation, as he's a good enough athlete, boosted by truly startling touch and vision. I wrote about Harry's difference a couple of months ago, saying his proper role was as an enganche.
He's only 22, in his first season as a pro, but I've seen enough to say that Shipp should at least get a look from Klinsmann and the USA. Can his game continue to grow? I'd like to think so. At the highest level, the question may become is he the kind of player who can fit into modern tactical structures? Or can he produce enough chances to dictate his place?
CFC - Chicago Spurs has a large presence in the Windy City, and are preparing to welcome what feels like a large number of American Spurs fans in the region and beyond to Chicago for this weekend's match. Overall, how popular are Spurs locally in Chicago compared to fans of other major European clubs?
HTIOT - (Anthony Seymour) Most of the major EPL clubs have significant followings in Chicago. I would not want to diminish the commitment of any other club's supporters in the region. Many of the of the Spurs supporters are also Fire supporters who participate in a very rich soccer culture in Chicago, mingling with supporters from many other EPL clubs. That being said, the Spurs do have a very organized and committed following in Chicago that could rival any other club's following. The Chicago Spurs are an official supporters group of the Tottenham Hotspurs and have gotten frequent recognition from the club and even photo features in the Spurs game day programs. The group currently meets at the Atlantic Bar and Grill in Lincoln Square and boasts a game day attendance that drifts into the hundreds for major matches such as when they play Arsenal (even at 6 in the morning!). There is even a group that travels up by bus for major matches from the small suburb of Crystal Lake. I attend many Spurs matches at the Atlantic and the group is known for maintaining passion throughout the match singing supporters songs throughout the watch party.
Chicago Spurs fans would boast that a large part of Tottenham choosing Chicago to compete in for the summer friendly is the organized efforts of the Spurs supporters culture in the city. It is undeniable that they have helped the Spurs plan a quality event for this friendly including: a Q&A session with Spurs legends, a charity toy drive and a supporters game with our own Fire supporters. Spurs fans from Chicago and around the US will be seen this weekend at the Cubs game when Spurs players throw out the first pitch, the open practice at Toyota Park, Downtown at ceremonial bell-ringing at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and in force at Toyota Park for match day. As a Spurs fan you, along with other fans from around the US should feel very welcome indeed. Fire fans will need to come out strong to show equal support to counter efforts.
CFC - Final question: Let's say Mauricio Pochettino will allow Chicago Fire to keep any one Tottenham Hotspur player on loan for one season. If you're the manager of the Fire, which player do you pick, and why?
HTIOT (Sean Spence)- Uh, wow. Off the top of my head, I'd probably say Emmanuel Adebayor, because we've got three strikers on the roster, and one of them is Matt Fondy. Or Jan Vertonghen to solidify the backline. Those are pure fantasy, of course, as neither of them's going anywhere.
If you're looking for a more realistic loan, maybe Lewis Holtby - he'd certainly get a lot of games for us. I'd love to see the Fire roll out an old-school Brazilian-style 4-2-2-2 with Shipp and Holtby in the attacking-mid band, given freedom to roam around and look for space. That'd be fun.
Thanks very much to Sean and Anthony for taking the time to chat about the Fire, and for providing invaluable assistance and information ahead of this weekend's match. Be sure and check out the return interview over at Hot Time in Old Town, and if you're a Spurs fan in the Chicagoland area, we all hope to see you at Toyota Park this weekend.