Which Chicago Fire will show up Saturday, the team that gave Toronto a run for its money in the Supporter’s Shield race for two-thirds of 2017, or the team that coughed up a humbling four goals at home to Sporting Kansas City last week? Which Minnesota United will show up, the team that carbon copied their 2017 in a disheartening capitulation to San Jose, or the upbeat and creative team that beat Orlando on the road? Who misses who more, Chicago missing David Accam or Minnesota missing Kevin Molino? The Loons’ home opener has more questions than answers and, as the kids say, we’re here for it.
Minnesota has a perfect MLS record against the Fire, winning 2-1 on the road in their lone match of 2017. The win marked the Loons’ first ever road victory in MLS, snapped a long home unbeaten streak for the Fire, and was then-rookie Abu Danladi’s first brace as a pro. As the Fire seek revenge, Minnesota seeks to prove the win was no fluke.
|VAR||Kevin Terry, Jr.|
It is difficult to get a good read on Alex Chilowicz as his MLS sample size as a head referee is fairly small. Chilowicz helmed only three games per year in 2015, 2016, and 2017 at the MLS level. For what it is worth, the referee did man Minnesota’s 4-1 victory over FC Dallas in September of last year, when Tesho Akindele was sent off for a nasty foul on Bobby Shuttleworth. Loons fans will be hoping the Chilowicz bump continues on Saturday.
M Sam Cronin (neck injury) – Out
F Abu Danladi (left hamstring injury) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Sam Nicholson (left hamstring injury) – Questionable
M Djordje Mihailovic (right ACL surgery) – Out
F Michael de Leeuw (left ACL surgery) – Out
D Jonathan Campbell (facial fracture) – Out
D Grant Lillard (unavailable) – Out
M Daniel Johnson (right ankle injury) – Questionable
D Rafael Ramos (right thigh injury) – Questionable
GK Richard Sánchez (left elbow injury) – Questionable
F Luis Solignac (left hip injury) – Questionable
I said last week that with Orlando City playing a diamond formation, United might be able to exploit the inherent narrowness of the Lions’ shape and have some good buildup down the wings. Seeing Sam Nicholson dribbling past guys like he was Lionel Messi, and watching the night Ethan Finlay enjoyed on the other wing, I feel like this approach to the Orlando midfield was the right call. Chicago, then, brings a whole other opportunity with its midfield shape.
The Fire lines up as a 4-2-3-1. One of its key strengths of 2017 was its wonderful spine of Dax McCarty as a head-busting defensive midfielder that could distribute, the creative playmaking of Bastian Schweinsteiger as an attacking midfielder, and, of course, the finishing of Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic. The central midfield partnership they deployed was key to their success.
Fast forward to Chicago’s season opening loss against Sporting Kansas City last week, and that chemistry is gone. The central midfield triangle of Dax, Basti, and newcomer Tony Tchani was shapeless on Saturday, with each player seemingly unclear about which role they should be filling. That formational awkwardness was augmented by unsustainably poor passing in the first half and an SKC full court press that closed down on the ball quickly and forced errors. It is unlikely that this is simply the new-look Fire; one bad game is not a trend, and the few newcomers will figure each other out. But, in the short term, it may provide a template for how to beat them.
Minnesota coach Adrian Heath suggested this week that with the injury to attacking dynamo Kevin Molino, the squad would experiment with different formations and lineups during practice to find the best path forward. I’ll leave the formational prognosticating to Alex Schieferdecker and simply say that however the team lines up, they would do well to keep a narrow shape that keeps the midfield cluttered for Chicago and play a high pressure defense to force errors. Try it for the first fifteen minutes and see whether the Fire have figured out their issues or whether this could be a way to take advantage of a newfound problem.
Even with Molino out, Minnesota still possess the tools to do the things it did well in week two (not to dishonor his memory, but take a peek at Molino’s passing chart against Orlando and you will see he did not actually connect on most of his attacking passes, although he came close). The wingers were the real stars of that game and, whether the Loons try to exploit the center of the park against Chicago, or whether it sustains end-to-end buildup out wide, I would expect balls into the final third to go through the wingers. For Chicago, it must be said that they eventually scored three against Sporting Kansas City last week. Their attack is fluid enough, Nikolic is an elite MLS goalscorer, and new signing Aleksandar Katai had a prolific week pretending to be David Accam. The Fire will try to play on the front foot even on the road; it is where their strength lies.
Not to beat this dead horse, but if the central midfield keeps its shape and improves upon its shambolic passing rate (it should, last week has to be an outlier, right?) it will make things messy for the Loons. Finish those chances and Chicago has a very good chance to earn some road vengeance for last year’s loss.
One reason Minnesota’s still-opportune defense had a better week against Orlando is because the ball spent a lot more time on the other end of the park for a change. Minnesota, especially at home, still has the tools to repeat that performance, and against another back line that is far from elite like Chicago’s, the Loons can make the most of the time they spend on the money end of the pitch.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Aleksandar Katai, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bobby Shuttleworth, Chicago Fire, Dax McCarty, Ethan Finlay, Kevin Molino, Match Preview, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Nemanja Nikolic, Sam Nicholson, Tony Tchani