Chicago Fire is at Red Bull Arena this week, and it has been suggested there might be more to the team than Dax McCarty. Once A Metro is not entirely convinced, but we asked Hot Time in Old Town's Sean Spence to set us straight.
Once A Metro: It's hard to keep up with all the comings and goings around the league. Any interesting additions to the squad this year? How are they looking? Especially the red-headed one.
Sean Spence, Hot Time in Old Town: Ok - for those folks who've completely tuned out on Your Two-Time Defending Wooden Spoon Chaaaaaampeeeuunnnnnns, we are about 18 months into the dukedom of Nelson Rodriguez, who was raised to the station by shadow lord Hauptman, from whom all blessings flow. Rodriguez inherited a roster that could've been made through some kind of randomization process - Gilberto, Harry Shipp, Joevin Jones, Adailton (?), Jeff Larentowicz, etc. - and ruthlessly flushed the entire thing, spinning off players of value for MLS funny-money and cutting the rest. David Accam and Matt Polster are the only first-team players remaining from Rodriguez' arrival toward the end of the 2015.
MLS rules put a timer on all those piles of allocation cash, and this offseason we've seen it result in a money-gusher of an offseason. And you're absolutely right to point to Dax - it was that trade, not signing Bastian Schweinsteiger, that pointed everyone's attention toward the Fire. They'd previously signed Juninho, so suddenly Chicago had a best-XI-ish pair in central midfield, and anyone paying attention to MLS knew just how good Dax is - and (sorry to say) how central he was to the Red Bulls' sense of pissed-off striving. The midfield trio of Schweinsteiger, McCarty and Juninho still seem to be working out their responsibilities, but in prospect it seems like a group capable both of spinning out plenty of killer balls and also turning the center of the field into a maze of blood and bone.
In attack, Nemanja Nikolic, lately Golden Boot winner for Legia Warsaw in the Polish Ekstraklasa, was enticed for a pile of cash (whose dimensions we know precisely, thanks to the MLS Players Union), and seems to be finding his feet. He's a classic poacher who plays off the back shoulder and is very clever at finding pockets of interior space.
OaM: Let's be polite and call it a difficult few seasons for Chicago recently. A couple of months in to this one, what's your impression of the Fire's strengths and weaknesses this season, and what do you think that might add up to in terms of achievements in 2017?
HTIOT: For the first time in years, the 'strengths and weaknesses' talk for the Fire isn't mostly weaknesses. As indicated in the answer to the first question, the Fire's central midfield is composed entirely of eagle-proud warriors. The central defense has responded well to the lightened workload. The attacking players make clever runs and don't stop working. And the entire team displays a refreshing resilience and tactical awareness - this group of players solves problems on the field together.
That said, the Fire's roster still has some weaknesses. Ask anyone who's watched more than 60 minutes of this team, for instance, and you'll hear tell of a man called 'Harrington.' This Harrington feller's gotten up to all kinds'a evil, they say. Givin' th'ball away. Not markin' nobody. Wearin' them man-buns. Got some kinda evil hold on Velko Paunovic, they say - a hex or somelike, 'cause he's still startin' there on th'right. Folks're mad enough t'spit! Also, the Fire don't seem to have settled how they plan to approach attacking settled defenses. Not that the Red Bulls are likely to sit in a deep block, anyway.
I think the weaknesses, if not addressed, will prevent the team from aspiring to the top of the MLS table. Absent an injury crisis, though, this team should make the playoffs, where of course anything is possible. The promising play from Daniel Johnson and Drew Conner, as well as the Fire's increased gameday depth, also makes me think a US Open Cup run is not impossible with this group. So, without further tinkering, the Fire will be dangerous but uneven.
OaM: How do you expect the Fire to approach this game?
HTIOT: I expect the Fire to come out in a 3-5-2 (a/k/a 5-3-2) and invite the Red Bulls press in an effort to initiate simple short-short-long sequences to David Accam. I expect them to play very narrow and cannily without the ball, compacting into a dense ball inside midfield to open those spaces behind up. Dax and Juni will carry water while Schweinsteiger alternates between the 'living fully in the beauty of this beautiful moment' and 'killing a man for his chain' aspects of thug life. The pressure on the respective center midfields couldn't be greater - this is a day where an off-game will get punished in humiliating fashion. I expect Dax to show up with a switchblade in his sock.
(3-5-2) Jorge Bava; Joao Meira, Jonathon Campbell, Johan Kappelhof; Brandon Vincent, Schweinsteiger, McCarty, Juninho, Harrington; David Accam, Nikolic.
Injuries: Either de Leeuw or Solignac could start if Accam's hip is still a problem, although both have small injury complaints of their own. Polster had a setback in recovery from a knee injury and won't be available.