Chicago trades Hurtado to Chivas USA, passes judgment on own offseason

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When Frank Yallop was brought in this offseason to run the show in Chicago, the first area he addressed was defense, sending Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry away as he overhauled the main problem he saw in last year’s squad. In came Lovel Palmer, Patrick Ianni, and what seemed like the key to the rebuild: long-time Sounder Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. Twenty-three games (and only four wins) later, the overhaul’s proved a bust, with mistakes at crucial times undermining an otherwise respectable defensive record.

Passing the final judgement on his offseason rebuild, Yallop traded Hurtado on Friday, accepting allocation money from Chivas USA in return. While it’s difficult to judge a deal when the dollar numbers are unknown, you almost never see a key, wanted piece of a team’s puzzle traded for mere allocation. With a move to Carson, it’s clear: Hurtado is no longer a key for Chicago.

“We felt this was a good opportunity to gain additional allocation money that will allow for flexibility moving forward,” Yallop said, via the club’s website.The question is where that flexibility will be put to use.

Maybe this has something to do with Jermaine Jones. Or maybe former Liverpool striker Florent Sinama Pongolle is about to ink a deal. With a roster spot and a good chunk of change opened up (at least, salary-wise), there are a number of possibilities, one of which is that Hurtado, independent of any other deal, just wasn’t in the plans going forward.

It’s a reasonable choice, given what we’ve seen from Hurtado. The only striking part about the move is the 180 – a complete change of mindset from the one that acquired the Colombian this winter.

In making this swap, Yallops offering a tacit mea culpa. He messed up. His solutions failed to address the problem.

Now, in the face of a 4-6-13 record, best to approach Hurtado as a sunk cost. Chivas USA was willing to hope for better. For Yallop and Chicago, it was time to move on.

Eddie Johnson knows the chemistry will come as DC United looks for first points

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EXCLUSIVE – DC United have picked up where they left off last season – at the bottom of Major League Soccer.

One of just two MLS clubs without a point thus far, the 2013 basement-dwellers were looking for goals, goals, and more goals when they signed Eddie Johnson to a Designated Player contract this offseason.

While he – or anyone else – has yet to score for DC, Johnson is adamant that early improvement from their first match to their second is promising enough to ease the players, even if it has yet to ease the fans.

“It’s hard to say ‘oh there’s positives things out of two losses,'” Johnson admitted, “but there’s actually some spells in the games where we got some good possession within the team and in the final third, and it’s just that final pass or two that’s not there right now.  But we know with due time that’s going to come, so that’s why we’re not panicking.”

In a vacuum, the two losses mean little in the big picture of a very long MLS season.  However, following the dreadful nature of last season, it’s hard for fans not to panic after the pair of disappointments: a 3-0 loss to Columbus at home to open the season followed by a narrow 1-0 defeat to Toronto.

(MORE: MLS Preview: Chicago Fire at DC United)

Johnson admitted building chemistry with his new teammates at the head of the DC attack has been harder than expected, especially with fellow newcomer Fabian Espindola, but not for the reasons one may think.

The Argentinian is a talented player in his own right, with MLS Cup experience as well as time with one of the biggest South American clubs in Boca Juniors.  For Johnson, working with a player who has many quality facets to his game has been tough to adjust to.

“It’s been a bit challenging because he’s a very good footballer and someone I very much admire, and I want to make the most of my opportunity in playing with him.  It’s been too bad in two games where things haven’t been clicking for us.

“For me, it’s about trying to figure out how I be effective when he drifts wide when it’s too congested in the final third up top when they really squeeze in and make the field small for us.  It’s how can I still be effective, and develop a communication with him and stay connected with him to give ourselves some real chances to be dangerous in front of the goal.  But we worked on that this week and we’re looking forward to seeing all the hard work we put in training this week trying to play that tomorrow against Chicago.”

Cutting off that connection between the two has been a point of emphasis for DC’s early-season opposition, and so far it’s worked.  Espindola has completed just 65% of his passes throughout his first two games.  While that’s not too uncommon for an attacking player, and it’s not terribly far off his last season percentage of 72%, it’s still not where DC will want his service to Johnson to be.

source: AP
Things haven’t gone swimmingly at DC United in their first two matches, but Johnson and the rest of the squad are putting in the hard work to turn it all around.

But with Chicago coming up at 4pm ET Saturday on NBCSN, it’s a golden opportunity for DC to get off the schneid.   The Fire have just two points through three matches in the young MLS season, and having seen them in preseason twice already earlier in the calendar year, Johnson is well aware of what they bring to the table.

“I’m familiar with their back four and their center backs.  I played with [Chicago defender Jhon Kennedy] Hurtado for two seasons in Seattle and I know what he likes and what he doesn’t like, so I’m going to try and play him and get him into positions he’s not comfortable with, and really going out there and putting them on our terms.”

And most of all, he wants to show the fans that last season is in the past.

“You go two games without scoring a goal or getting shots on goal and everyone starts to panic that the guys aren’t gelling and stuff.  But I feel like every game we’ve gotten better, and it’s just a matter of time that the ball starts bouncing our way.  Really, the focus is more on ourselves than the focus is on Chicago.”

With the focus on themselves, Johnson’s really enjoyed his time working with head coach Ben Olsen.  The pair have history, as teammates on the US National Team from Johnson’s debut in 2004 until Olsen’s retirement in 2007. Now, despite one standing as the boss, the two still share a similar relationship.

“Now playing under him as a coach, nothing has really changed from playing with him and his mentality is still the same.  He’s still a hard worker, he’s a winner at the end of the day, and those are the guys he wants in his team every weekend.  The results haven’t been great, but we know they’re going to come so the more we can stay positive and the more we can stay focused on trying to build and create the identity we’re trying to create here, the more successful we’re going to be.”

In addition to his new MLS venture, Johnson is also staring a chance at making his third World Cup in the face. However, as a more experienced player, he believes the two ventures of club and country to him are completely separate entities in his mind.

“If I was younger with no World Cup experience and never having been in this situation before, it would probably be eating me up through these two games not really having opportunities on goal to win games for my teams. But for me, with my experience and being in this situation for the third time now, it’s about taking it one game at a time and staying true to myself, what I believe in, and my abilities.  And if I’m honest with myself at the end of the day putting the work in week in and week out and I can look myself in the mirror and say hey, I’ve been doing all the right things, at the end of the day it’s up to the manager to pick whatever players he wants to see.”

So with the 29-year-old on the squad to take on Mexico next Wednesday, he knows not only is this a chance to earn a trip to Brazil this summer, but it’s also a chance to play Mexico – something that these players never take lightly.

source: Getty Images
Johnson is hoping to make his third World Cup, and has a chance to make yet another impression against Mexico in next week’s friendly.

“It’s not a friendly.  National team call-ups don’t come easy these days, and this is a very important game.  I think a lot of players are going to come into the camp fully focused, committed, and on top of their game, and they’re gonna leave it all out on the field and give themselves a real, real good chance at making the team.  And on top of that it’s our rivals, so any time we play against our rivals it’s about bragging rights and about showing who’s on top of CONCACAF.  [Mexico] are going to have a lot of hunger for revenge, and we’re looking forward to it.”

With making the national team a dream for just about every American-born player, Johnson got nostalgic for a moment when a former club of his was brought up.  As Fulham struggle in the bottom of the Premier League, Johnson hoped the team that gave him the opportunity to play in one of the biggest leagues in the world manages to stay up, just as he did with the Whites six years ago.

“I remember when I first went over in 2008, we were in the same situation at the bottom, and we survived,” said Johnson. “One thing I can say about everyone in that dressing room and organization is they’re fighters at the end of the day, and they’re going to do everything they can to stay up.  So I’m praying for them, I wish them all the best, and they gave me the opportunity to go over and make my dreams of playing in the Premiership come true and I’m forever grateful for that.”

So as DC United look to pick themselves up in the midst of a 14-match winless streak dating back to last year, one thing is for certain: their newly signed forward has the experience and work ethic to get them out of it.  If anyone can scrape DC United off the bottom of the standings, it’s Eddie Johnson.  He just needs a little help from his friends.

MLS Season Preview: Chicago Fire

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The 2014 MLS MVP is back, their coach is not.

While Mike Magee and his strike partner return for a full season to pump in the goals, there is much change behind them.

Missing out on the playoffs by a tiebreaker last season hurt for sure, but the Fire had plenty of chances to grab that postseason spot, and they just couldn’t come up with the final answers.

One thing that hurt the Fire last season was their horrendous start, with just seven points through their first 10 games.  Over that span, they were shut out six times and conceded 16 goals. But of course, they didn’t have Mike Magee.

With a reshaped defense and a few key pieces gone, new coach Frank Yallop has plenty of work to do right off the bat to get the club off to a better start.

Players in: Patrick Ianni (trade from Seattle), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (trade from Seattle), Lovel Palmer (trade from Seattle), Kyle Reynish (transfer, NY Cosmos), Harrison Shipp (homegrown, Notre Dame), Chris Ritter (homegrown, Northwestern), Giuseppe Gentile (waiver draft, UNC Charlotte), Benji Joya (weighted lottery – loan, Santos Laguna).

Players out: Jalil Anibaba (traded to Seattle), Austin Berry (traded to Philadelphia), Daniel Paladini (traded to Columbus), Paolo Tornaghi (waived), Brendan King (waived), Kellen Gulley (waived), Shaun Francis (released), Wells Thompson (released), Arevalo Rios (option declined), Michael Videira (option declined), Maicon (option declined), Corben Bone (option declined).

LATEST 2014 MLS SEASON PREVIEWS, RIGHT HERE

Key Player: Mike Magee

Shocker! The reigning MVP is your key player! While it’s clear that Magee is by far the most valuable and important single player on the team, the success of this club depends on much more than just their main man up front.

source: AP
The ability of Mike Magee to repeat his MVP form is going to be crucial to the Fire’s success in 2014.

Magee will be again supported by Patrick Nyarko at the front, with relief coming from Juan Anangono and Chris Rolfe. The Fire also picked up Guiseppe Gentile and Benji Joya in the offseason, and the two will add to the strike options for Chicago.  While it’s not the most star-studded attack outside of Magee, it’s a deep one, and that should help offset any possible issues at the back.

Speaking of at the back, there’s a saga developing at the back in the recent weeks. With the departure of Jalil Anibaba in the trade to Seattle, the defense has been completely shaken up, and Magee will have to offset the learning curve that comes with a crowded new back line.  The team also sent Austin Berry away to Philadelphia for allocation money, seeing a total of 6,109 minutes from last season out the door.

With Anibaba and Berry gone, coming in the other direction is Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, a pair of center-backs who will battle for playing time alongside Bacary Soumare.

For what it’s worth, the Fire conceded just a single goal in their five preseason games, and the partnership of Soumare and Hurtado picked up the starts in their two most recent matches and played 106 minutes together.

Another important name we can’t leave off the list is Jeff Larentowicz, who will man the space just in front of the new center-back pairing, whatever it happens to be.  Often last season the 30-year-old Pasadena product played alongside a DM partner, but with Daniel Paladini gone and the midfield thin, he could be roaming the defensive middle by himself behind Benji Joya and Dilly Duka.

Manager: Frank Yallop is Chicago’s man. Coming over from San Jose, the Watford-born 49-year-old has seven prior years in Major League Soccer, and as far as league experience and accolades go, he’s got it all.

source: AP
Despite inheriting a formidable squad, Frank Yallop still has to cope with chemistry issues and get his team off to a better star than last year’s opening debacle.

Unfortunately, arguably the biggest knock on Yallop’s resume is the 2007 season with the Galaxy, failing to make the playoffs due to a squad with plenty of turnover.

That will be the challenge Yallop faces this season.  Thankfully for him, the front of his formation remains mostly intact, and he takes over a squad that boasts the reigning league MVP.  The defense has plenty of question marks, but it’s still experienced and has had a very promising preseason.

Yallop’s credentials are without question, and as far as head coaching openings go the Fire one was very attractive, but there remains work to be done, and with a pretty solid squad to boast, much of it rests on the coach to make sure everyone plays at their optimal level.

Outlook: This team could surprise. If they can recreate last year’s attacking form around Mike Magee, the top of the table squads are in for a surprise when the match up against the Fire.

The biggest questions will be with the turnover in defense.  With so many minutes from last season lost, it remains to be seen how the back line will gel (Yallop said it could get “a little disjointed”).  If the preseason is any indication, and the selected starters don’t need much – if any – time to find their form, the Fire could find themselves near the top.  However, there is much to prove and they begin the season as favorites in a battle for the final playoff spots.

The start to the season is crucial for Frank Yallop. They play three of their first four fixtures on the road, and take on a spectrum of opponents.  If the Fire can get through games against Portland and New York unscathed and take advantage of last year’s basement dwellers Chivas and DC United, the Fire can set themselves up for a strong season.

Seattle gives up Hurtado and Ianni, gets Anibaba, room to maneuver in trade with Chicago

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Two players who had been with Seattle since the team’s 2009 MLS debut will start the 2014 campaign elsewhere, with the Sounders sending center backs Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni to Chicago on Wednesday in exchange for defender Jalil Anibaba. Balancing out the trade, Seattle and Chicago also swap first round picks in Thursday’s draft, the Sounders jumping from 13 to eight, while the Fire give up a conditional third round pick 2015.

On the surface, it appears Seattle is targeting somebody with the eighth overall pick, but the trade’s real intrigue may be in the salary the Sounders have shipped to Chicago. Based on 2013 players union numbers, Seattle are saving around $200,000 with this deal, and while Anibaba looks set to start along side Chad Marshall in the Sounders’ defense, the real payoff may come with the acquisition of somebody like Marco Pappa. (This Seattle blog has a great breakdown of the possibilities.)

The former Fire winger has been a rumored target of Seattle’s throughout the week, and while at least one other move would be necessary to get the Sounders in position to select the Guatemalan international, the money end appears to be falling into place. Whether Seattle’s new cap space goes toward Pappa or somebody else, Wednesday’s trade gives general manager Adrian Hanauer the flexibility he needs to continue reshaping the team’s midfield.

“One of the most difficult parts of this job is losing good people,” Hanauer said, alluding to the time Hurtado and Ianni had spent with in Seattle. “Jhon and Patrick are both quality individuals who have been with our organization from the beginning. We wish them the best in Chicago.”

source: Getty Images
Initially used as a central defender, Jalil Anibaba was pushed to right back last season. During the 2013 campaign, he appeared in all 34 games for the Chicago Fire. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Part of the payoff, however, sees Seattle get slightly younger along the back, with the 25-year-old Anibaba also bringing a durability Hurtado had lacked. Whereas the 29-year-old Colombian had missed at least seven games in each of the last three seasons, Anibaba has played 67 of 68 possible matches over the last two years.

“Jalil is a center back who has tremendous upside,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said, adding “… we expect him to contribute right away.”

Chicago’s point of view on the deal may require some reading between the lines. With Frank Yallop having taking control at Toyota Park, Anibaba went from a staff that drafted him out of North Carolina to somebody who had less familiarity with his talents. Given the opportunity to get two defenders he faced often during his last four-plus seasons n San Jose, Yallop has elected to add two veterans to help Austin Berry in central defense.

“[Coming in] right away I recognized that we were light on the defensive side of things,” Yallop told the team’s website

“Adding Jhon, a former Defender of the Year finalist and  defensive All-Star, automatically makes our team better,” Yallop said. “Along with Patrick, we are adding valuable depth on the defensive side.”

Add in the salary Chicago’s taking on and the swap of draft picks, and this looks like a curious move for the Fire, though seen another way, the deal looks like a challenge trade. While it isn’t Kennedy for Anibaba straight up, Yallop is implicitly wagering the acquisition of the veteran Colombian justifies dealing the younger player. For Seattle, any downgrade from Kennedy to Anibaba will be offset by the improved draft position and the players they bring in with their new flexibility.

At least, that’s the theory. Tomorrow, when the MLS SuperDraft draft hits pick number eight, we’ll see how Seattle starts using their new resources.

Portland Timbers Man of the Match: Diego Valeri

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PORTLAND, Ore. — It didn’t take long for Diego Valeri to show he’d move on from Saturday. Then, the Portland playmaker was anonymous, his greatest influence being that of a decoy that drew Seattle’s attention. It wasn’t meant to be that way, but in his hour of action, Valeri failed to make an impact.

On Thursday, Valeri’s impact was almost immediate, the Portland Designated Player creating a chance for Rodney Wallace in the third minute. That shot went wide, and a 14th minute breakaway for Diego Chara that Valeri had a part in creating also failed to beat Michael Gspurning, but after a quarter hour, there was little doubt: Portland’s most creative player wouldn’t go unnoticed in their conference semifinal finale.

In the 44th minute, after Portland had gone up 1-0, Valeri made his mark. On an attack built down the right, Valeri burst through the defense and onto a short pass from Rodney Wallace, a ball he’d pushed behind the line and into the six-yard box. There he beat Adam Moffat and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, sliding onto a shot he’d put into the far side netting for what would prove to be the series-winning goal.

source: AP
Diego Valeri’s 44th minute goal proved the series-winner as Portland advanced to MLS’s Western Conference finals. (Source: AP.)

Seattle had done their best to stop him, their physicality giving his goal a tinge of justice. In the seventh minute, DeAndre Yedlin sent him to ground clutching his angle, with the rookie right back laying him out again a few moments later. After Valeri switched to the other side, Marc Burch lad a go at him, too, initially going hard through his back to draw a whistle. The left back’s second foul on Valeri briefly forced him off the field in the 41st minute, yet the night’s most fouled man (four times) had his redemption three minutes later, running through Burch’s side for his goal.

As with most games, there were a number of quality candidates. Goal-scorer Will Johnson had a strong night, particularly after the Timbers ceded twice and needed to settle down. Rodney Wallace played a part in each of Portland’s last two goals, his cross for Futty Danso leading to the Timbers’ third score of the night.

Yet there was something about the way that Valeri started Thursday’s match, apparently intent not to repeat Saturday’s performance. Like Graham Zusi last night, his numbers don’t reflect the influence he had as a focal point for his attack. But whether it was creating early chances for Wallace or doing his own scoring, Valeri’s influence was obvious. He is our Portland Timbers Man of the Match.