Deep in the bowels of RFK Stadium following last week's "MLS Primetime Thursday" game you couldn't imagine two more different locker room scenes. There was the D.C. United locker room, complete with hanging heads and a sullen atmosphere that bordered on funeral-like. A few yards down the hall, in the visiting Chicago Fire's locker room, you could hear the thumping bass of rap music accompanied by laughter.
Chicago has every reason to celebrate its impressive start. New coach Denis Hamlett has helped Chicago make a seamless transition following the departure of former coach Juan Carlos Osorio and has the Fire playing its best soccer in years. Perfectly meshing disciplined defense, with a tireless midfield and the creative genius of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the Fire have fans believing that the second MLS Cup in team history could come a decade after its first.
"I think it goes back to our preseason," Hamlett said of the team's early success. "In that two and a half months we became a team. There was great team unity and a good team bond and that has carried us into the season."
No group is a better example of players coming together than the Fire's back line, which has been virtually impenetrable this season. Heading into 2008 the Fire's defense figured to be imposing, but it was also assumed that the back line would be led by Wilman Conde, C.J. Brown and Dasan Robinson. Injuries to all three, coupled with Conde's own publicly-expressed desire to leave Chicago, forced Hamlett to construct a defense without them.
Hamlett turned to second-year defender Bakary Soumare and veteran midfielder/fullback Diego Gutierrez to anchor the central defense, while Gonzalo Segares and journeyman fullback Brandon Prideaux manned the fullback spots. The result has been the stingiest defense in MLS. Chicago has allowed just three goals in seven matches. With Soumare blossoming into an all-star caliber center back, and Gutierrez playing like someone much younger than a 35-year-old set to retire at season's end, the unlikely tandem serves as the perfect example of Hamlett's successful balancing of veteran experience with youthful energy.
"Baky's learning a lot from Diego because Diego has a lot of experience and is a good organizer back there," Hamlett said. "Baky brings some bite, some presence and is very good with the ball playing out of the back."
While Blanco is the unquestioned leader of the Fire's offense, Soumare has emerged as the Fire's most imposing defender, using his 6-foot-4 frame to erase most of the attacks that make it to the penalty area.
"He's just finding out he's 6-foot-4," Gutierrez said of Soumare. "It's like when horses are born, and they learn how to stand up and get galloping and get real fast.
"That's what he's doing. He's growing up right in front of our eyes. He works hard, listens to advice and I think he's going to be around for a long time."
"We're doing it as a group and that's the best part," Soumare said. "Playing with veterans like Diego and Jon makes my job so much easier and we're all putting in the work and we're seeing the results, so that just makes you want to work that much harder."
The strong play of the back line, coupled with Jon Busch's stellar form in goal, has helped keep pressure off an attack that has struggled at times early on, but has combined for five goals in a pair of shutout road wins against New England and D.C. United.
Chicago has been bolstered by the presence of a group of players who were only around for a fraction of the 2007 season. Forward Chris Rolfe and midfielder Justin Mapp played in just 31 of a possible 60 regular season games in 2007, while Blanco didn't arrive in Chicago until after the midway point of 2007 (playing in just 13 matches). In 2008, Mapp and Blanco have been key figures in all seven matches, including the win against D.C. United where both scored goals. Rolfe has settled in after missing the season's first three matches and looks like a dangerous option at forward, after spending most of his limited time playing on the right wing in 2007.
No player has seen his contributions for the Fire increase like John Thorrington. The one-time Manchester United trainee played in just one match for the Fire in 2007 (scoring a vital goal in that match), but in 2008 he has blossomed into the type of relentless two-way player Chicago has been searching for in a right winger for years.
As good as things have gone for Hamlett and the Fire, he has also had to deal with his share of adversity and controversy. The uncertain status of veteran C.J. Brown continues to be a major concern while Conde's public unhappiness with his status in Chicago could become an even greater distraction than it already has been.
Hamlett has handled both situations with aplomb. He has sold his team on the value of competition for places and he has also given young player such as Stephen King and Daniel Woolard a chance to contribute.
"We think we did a good job during the draft in bringing some good young players who could compete and challenge are other players," Hamlett said. "Now that made our veteran players raise their level.
"It's a good mix, we have guys who like each other and want to challenge each other. We have a lot of competitors and those are the guys that make a difference when the games get tougher."
The result is a deep team that, while it still may be a tweak or two from being a true championship contender, certainly has the look of a team that can be playing for a title in November.
"If you look at the depth that we have, and the way Denis is using everybody, I think we have one of the deepest teams in the league," said Fire technical director Frank Klopas. "That doesn't mean we won't be looking to improve the team and add something when the time comes, but Denis deserves a lot of credit for taking this group and getting it off to such a great start.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that he's been able to do this because he's always been a good coach who just needed a chance," Klopas said of Hamlett. "You look at what he's been able to do with this team and you realize that he was definitely the right man for this job."
It would be easy to get caught up in the early success, but Hamlett has been around long enough to know winning runs don't last. Even with that in mind he didn't stop his team from celebrating its consecutive road wins against New England and D.C. United (Chicago finished a combined 1-5 in those same venues last year and did not win consecutive road games since 2006.) Hamlett and his veterans are fully aware that things will only get tougher and the true measure of how good Chicago is still lies ahead.
"Winning is great, but losing is always around the corner so we have to keep working hard as a group because things aren't going to get any easier," Gutierrez said. " I'm confident in this group because what Denis is instilling in this group is something that our team is buying into in a way that you don't see with a lot of teams."
You can call last week the awakening of the sleeping forwards. Juan Pablo Angel, Taylor Twellman and Brian Ching all scored their first goals of the season, leading their teams to victory and giving hope to three attacks that have been desperately awaiting their returns to form.
And this week? Call it the week of testing mettle. The league's two hottest teams, Columbus and Chicago, face off against quality opponents, while the most surprising struggler of the season, D.C. United, faces Chivas USA in a battle of underachieving squads.
Columbus Crew at Toronto FC
The Crew is rolling, with an attack that is shredding opponents, but the toughest test of the season awaits in a Toronto FC squad that is very tough at home. Toronto is coming off a bye week and should test a Crew defense that has been vulnerable. Toronto FC 2, Columbus Crew 1.
Kansas City Wizards at New York Red Bulls
The Wizards come off a sorely-needed bye week after struggling through a long stretch of road games. It won't get any easier against a stingy Red Bulls defense and forward tandem of Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore. Look for the Red Bulls to win the battle on the wings and run their unbeaten streak to four. Red Bulls 2, Wizards 0.
San Jose Earthquakes at New England Revolution
What is wrong with the Revs at home? They have lost two straight at Gillette Stadium, being shutout both times. The perfect cure for home woes arrives in the form of San Jose, which is winless in four straight. Taylor Twellman won't play after injuring his ankle last week, but Steve Ralston should carve up the San Jose attack. Revolution 3, Earthquakes 1.
Houston Dynamo at Chicago Fire
If you look at the records, this game shouldn't be too tough to call, but when you have a defending champion coming off its first win of the season, anything is possible. Chicago has been rolling thanks to an airtight defense and streaking offense. The Dynamo got some luck last week to score a first win, but it won't get lucky again as the Fire keep on rolling. Fire 1, Dynamo 0.
D.C. United at Chivas USA
Talk about a must-win for D.C. Anything short of a win here and D.C. falls into an even deeper hole in the loaded West, with a trip to Toronto looming. Luciano Emilio is unlikely to play as D.C. will likely be without Fred and Marcelo Gallardo as well. The good news is Chivas USA's defense is awful these days. Jaime Moreno finds a goal and saves D.C. for another week. D.C. United 2, Chivas USA 1.
Los Angeles Galaxy at FC Dallas
Two teams with shaky defenses and dangerous offenses square off in what should be an entertaining match. If Landon Donovan is healthy, his speed will create major problems for the FC Dallas back line. On the Hoops side, Kenny Cooper is playing very well and has the size to create problems for an L.A. defense that has surrendered at least two goals in five straight matches. FC Dallas 2, Galaxy 2.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.