The last time this column warned of the coming of what many term a "trap game," fans were confident that the in-form New York Red Bulls would prevail over a woeful Philadelphia Union side. Despite RBNY bossing possession and controlling the tempo of the game, the Union escaped Red Bull Arena with a 2-0 victory and three points, shocking the Harrison faithful. With the Red Bulls riding high on a six game unbeaten streak and in the thick of a competitive Supporters' Shield race, are fans primed to face similar disappointment against the struggling Chicago Fire on Wednesday night?
About the Opponent
As those who follow the league know from this season, the Fire has not been particularly good. It's status as the worst team in MLS was confirmed by recent home losses to Union and the Colorado Rapids, the other two sides competing for the right to be called the league's most terrible team of 2015. The Fire have embodied the scrappy hard-nosed qualities that have defined Frank Yallop's squads throughout league history without achieving the same success he enjoyed with the Earthquakes in the Cup-winning 2001 and 2003 seasons and the Shield-winning 2012 season.
In the early 2000's, Yallop's teams had defensive solidity with Wade Barrett and former Metro Jeff Agoos anchoring the backline, workmen with Brian Mullan, Richard Mulrooney, and Manny Lagos in the midfield, and dynamic attackers with Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario leading the line. In 2012, Yallop relied on the solidity provided by Victor Bernardez and Steve Cronin, the attacking contributions of fullbacks Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow, and the natural chemistry between the Bash Brothers, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart, and the goal machine Chris Wondolowski.
In 2015, the former Canadian national team manager has yet to find any winning formula. The recently departed Shaun Maloney was not the attacking catalyst the team required. Kennedy Igboananike has thus far not been the reliable goal scorer Chicago so desperately needs. In the back, the less said about offseason acquisition Adailton, the better.However, while it is probably too late for this season, the unexpected departure of Maloney and the disappointment of missing out on Didier Drogba may have incidentally put the team in a position to be successful.
Converted right back Eric Gehrig and converted center midfielder Jeff Larentowicz have formed an unlikely partnership in center defense that has offered some promise. Rookie Matt Polster and former LA Galaxy and Stabaek man Michael Stephens have the attributes to form a partnership similar to that enjoyed by RBNY's Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander at the end of 2014. Harrison Shipp is one of the best young playmakers in the league, and the newly acquired Gilberto, after a slow start to his MLS career in Toronto, is rated highly in league circles. And, with heaps of allocation money coming in from the Maloney and Drogba deals, Chicago are in a good position to build around a young corps entering 2016.
With Maloney gone and Adailton and Igboananike destined for the bench, the Red Bulls might be facing the Fire at just the wrong time. Moreover, the team that Jesse Marsch and company will face on Wednesday is likely to resemble a couple of teams that have given them particular trouble this year. In the aforementioned Union game and in the June match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Red Bulls faced teams that were willing to bunker and take chances on the counterattack.
With Brian Carroll and Vincent Nogueira or Matias Laba and Gershon Koffie respectively, the Union and the Whitecaps each had deep lying center midfielders who muzzled Sacha Kljestan and prevented the Red Bulls from creating space between the defensive and midfield lines. These same players, upon recovering the ball, were eager to spring the speed of CJ Sapong or Kekuta Manneh on the counter, a strategy that worked to perfection against the high pressing Red Bulls.
Chicago's Polster and Stephens have the potential to execute this game plan effectively, while David Accam's speed is a dangerous weapon on the counter. Even at home, the Fire may willingly concede the vast majority of possession in order to get a few chances to catch out a Red Bulls defense that, when back and organized, is nearly impossible to break down.
How to Beat
In the center of the pitch, the Red Bulls will encounter a mirror image of its own midfield trio. Polster, like Dax, is a versatile backline shield, the team's tempo-setter, and an underrated chance creator from deep. Stephens, like Felipe, links and switches play, offering an energetic box-to-box presence. Shipp, like Sacha Kljestan, is one of the United States' best chance creators, one who can boss some of the best defenses in the league or go missing for games at a time.
While the attributes shared by the parallel players may be the same, the Red Bulls' midfield three will look to prove that their quality is much superior. If Kljestan can provide consistent pressure and deny Polster from finding time on the ball, the Red Bulls should easily surpass 60% in possession.
When given time to turn, Polster can spray longs balls in behind the defense for David Accam and Patrick Nyarko to run onto. When denied that luxury, Polster dumps the ball off to the fullbacks, especially to the right. Without a reliable player at that spot -- Eric Gehrig has been moved centrally, leaving former Real Salt Lake backup Lovel Palmer as the default start -- Chicago will struggle in this scenario, especially if Mike Grella, Gonzalo Veron, or whoever features at left wing presses and causes turnovers.
This point brings us to the next key for Jesse Marsch's team: making the most of mismatches on the wings. On the defensive side, the Red Bulls should matchup well. Though second choices, Connor Lade and Anthony Wallace are best suited to defend speedy wingers like Nyarko and Accam, as opposed to those who link well in possession. On the attacking side, any of the five options available to Marsch should best their opposite number.
That being said, starting Lloyd Sam and Gonzalo Veron makes the most sense against the Fire. On the right, Sam can provide an attacking threat against Joevin Jones while reliably tracking back, given Jones' tendency to join the attack at every opportunity. While Shaun Wright-Phillips can provide the former, his performance against NYCFC certainly showed that he is far from consistent in providing the latter.
On the left, based upon his cameo appearances thus far, Veron has proven to be a dynamic threat who will challenge the overmatched Palmer. Combining with Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kljestan along the flanks or taking Palmer on one-on-one is the best way to escape the disruption of Chicago's effective double pivot. If Yallop opts to start Polster at right back instead of in the center of midfield -- as he did against Colorado on Saturday -- Veron will be a handful for the rookie, impeding his ability to get involved in the attack.
Most importantly, the Red Bulls must avoid the pitfalls that doomed them in similar games against Philadelphia and Vancouver. In both games, Kljestan was absent -- figuratively in the former case, quite literally from the eleventh minute on in the latter (he was sent off). Thus, the attacking burden fell on Lloyd Sam's one-on-one capabilities, which were contained by surprisingly strong fullback play. In order to show that this team is for real in its chase for the shield, Jesse Marsch's men must combine well in the final third and provide cover against Chicago's speed on the counter.