Last week I wrote about how difficult the upcoming weeks are to players in MLS. I guess I forgot how difficult it is for the coaches, too.
After this week's first wave of national team call-ups, it is obvious that the players aren't the only ones struggling with the busy schedule. As a coach in this league, you have to deal with a schedule different from any other league in the world. There is no comparison. MLS coaches, moreso than any other league in the world, pay the price for having talented teams. When they select a player that will be a national team player in a World Cup qualifying year they know what to expect.
But what happens when they have four or five players who play for their respective countries? Such is the case with the Chicago Fire this week, who travel to The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., to play against league-leading Los Angeles Galaxy. Andy Williams and Damani Ralph will be noticably missing as they respresent Jamaica against Haiti. Captain Chris Armas and DaMarcus Beasley will be in Columbus helping the US qualification effort, which kicks off Sunday angainst Grenada.
Fire head coach Dave Sarachan shugs his shoulders and says, "What can you do?" Clubs released players earlier this week so that they could report to camp Monday to begin training for this week's games. Jovan Kirovski will be the only player from L.A. who got the call from national team head coach Bruce Arena, which depletes the Galaxy a bit but it seems that hasn't really bothered then of late. With Carlos Ruiz still nursing a sore ankle they have discovered the talents of Alejandro Moreno and his connection to Andy Herzog to be sufficient for the time being.
But the Fire might be in a different boat. Losing four key players might be a little bit much for them to handle. They still have Ante Razov, who is off to the worst start of his career with only two goals in his first nine games. Truth is, Razov has not played to his high standards, and its gotta sting a bit knowing that if he had hit some of those early-season chances he might be on the plane with Armas and Beasley. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that this slump won't last much longer.
The Fire are a team still searching for an identity. They have never been this hot and cold. They haven't changed much from last year's roster. Outside of the goalkeeping position, it's pretty much the same team we saw against San Jose in MLS Cup final last year. There are even some who believe that the goalkeeping position has been improved through the play of Henry Ring. The fact that they lost last year leads me to believe that they feel as if they have a little unfinished business. Almost everybody thought they would walk away with the hardware. But they didn't. They got spanked and Razov had a shocker ... and to be totally honest, I don't think he has recovered yet.
But this is L.A. This is the place where it all began for Ante. Not many remember that. This was the place where he sat the bench for guys like Hurtado and never really got his opportunity. This was the place where Steve Sampson once told him that if he worked really hard he could be a pretty good A-League player. He finally got his opportunity when Bob Bradley rescued him from self doubt and brought him to a team where he has flourished ever since, leading the team virtually every year in scoring. He resurrected his career once. Now, I think its time for another comeback.
This game will be all about Ante and that's just the way he likes it. He won't admit it, but he hates sharing the spotlight. I thought it was great when Sarachan pulled him off in New York and had to chase him all the way down the bench just to calm him down. Some people have a problem with that, I don't. There is a difference between shaking hands with the guy who comes in for you and wishing him luck but still disagreeing with your coach and coming off without shaking the sub's hand and pouting on the bench. Unless he gets hurt, Razov will have it his way Saturday and not see a minute on the bench.
This game is going to be good because Razov has something to prove. I think Logan Pause will surprise some people in this game. Ring is a good goalkeeper and this will not make things easy at all for the Galaxy. The Fire always play well against the Galaxy, especially in L.A.
Herzog is the key for the Galaxy. He is surrounded by worker bees and really enjoys the freedom he gets in the midfield. He has been the most dangerous player on set pieces and corner kicks that I think this league has ever seen. He's smart and skillful. I really enjoy watching Andy Herzog play ... when he shows up. If you watched him in the friendly against Sao Paulo of Brazil you would have thought he made a run to the local pub before the game, but all in all he has been a steady performer for the Galaxy this year when it counts.
I hate making predictions when it comes to the Fire, but I think it should be a pretty good game. It will prove that you don't need stars to make MLS exciting. Even though a losing coach will say that he didn't have his full squad when the match is over, good teams, the ones who are usually there at the end, figure out a way to win these kid of games. Which is why I think this is a preview to this year's final. It's going to be a game we will all re-visit in November. Mark my words.
Catch Eric this weekend as the analyst on RadioShack Soccer Saturday on ESPN2. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.