The Red Bulls are in a dogfight for a spot in the MLS Cup play-offs and have to contend with the Chicago Fire to keep a top-four spot in an increasingly tight Eastern Conference table.
After getting some deep dish pizza and lamenting that it's not as good as NY-style pizza, we spoke to LEGO Soccer enthusiast Sean Spence from Hot Time In Old Town about the upcoming clash between our two clubs.
Q1. We're all familiar with Chicago's big names - Dax, Basti, Accam, Nikolic, Juninho - but who on the Fire lineup has been an under-rated part of the team's success this year?
Sean S.: Newly-converted right back Matt Polster. A week ago this answer would've seemed a little more left-field than it now does, because Polster's inclusion from the start clearly opened the field for the Men in Red in the 1-0 road win over Montreal. A steady supply of tactical and positioning instruction has harnessed the former first-round draft pick's considerable strengths - stamina, passing range, ballwinning - to increasingly powerful effect in a right wingback role. It's no coincidence that the Fire lost their mojo right around the time Polster went down with an injury. Without Polster, stopping the Fire becomes pretty simple - play deep, gum up the middle, break hard on turnovers, which leads us nicely to the next question ...
Q2. What kind of formation and tactics are the Fire currently using, and how might the Red Bulls counteract them in this game? Asking for a friend...
Sean S.: The Fire have flirted with the 5/3-man backline (so hot right now), but are built as a team that plays four at the back and three in the middle of midfield. But how potent Chicago is going forward is deeply reliant upon the personnel starting in front of that midfield trio - if David Accam misses out again, the likely forward line of Michael de Leeuw-Nemanja Nikolic-Luis Solignac is extremely hard-working but (despite Nikolic's gaudy goal numbers) not that great at converting possession into real chances. The general framework is extremely fluid possession football, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty's general excellence underpinning a confident group ethic - but, as Red Bulls have learned, group confidence can be a fragile thing, and that is where I'd attack if I'm Jesse Marsch.
Schweinsteiger has been phenomenal this season, but in recent weeks the strain is starting to show - where in the early season Basti was virtually impregnable on the ball, more recently he's been a bit turnover-prone, giving the ball away in startlingly bad positions a few times. Especially if Accam doesn't start, I'd try to break the Fire's spirit immediately, pressing hard and focussing on running at Schweinsteiger and eliminating all his easy decisions. If he's turning the ball over or banging it downfield blindly, the Fire will look much less imposing. If Accam starts, the risk/reward math on this changes quite a bit - if he's in, 'bang it long and hope' becomes one of the better choices available. Basically, at full strength, this Chicago XI is no joke.
Q3. The Fire made a few more additions this summer, so I get the feeling they're going all in on this year being the one they get the Cup. From your perspective, is this the Fire's year?
Sean S.: I think that the Fire, after missing out on Basti in January, put together a side designed to challenge for trophies on all fronts in 2018; the holes at keeper and iffy depth all over the field were survivable, as not everything can be fixed at a stroke (or so the thinking goes). Then the Men in Red had Schweinsteiger fall into their laps in March, and those expectations got raised without the holes first being patched, giving us what we've seen - a team of astonishing amplitude, capable of playing undeniably spectacular football and numbingly banal football in turn. If they catch the playoffs on an up-cycle, they could sweep all before them. But the Shield rewards consistency, and this team ain't that.
Predicted XI (4-3-3): Matt Polster; Brandon Vincent, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Matt Polster; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Juninho; David Accam, Nemanja Nikolic, Luis Solignac.
This lineup includes Accam, who is weirdly missing from the preview on chicago-fire.com, neither mentioned among the XI nor in the injury sheet. I'm going to assume that's a bit of gamesmanship, and that he will start against Red Bulls. If he's not in the 18 again without a listed injury, that's a story in and of itself. Schweinsteiger is listed as questionable after getting his calf stomped in Montreal, but he's a gamer and this is a big game. I wouldn't be surprised to see him limp off early, though.
Int'l duty: None.
Injured: OUT - João Meira, Christian Dean, Jon Goossens, Jorge Bava, Matej Dekovic, Daniel Johnson. QUESTIONABLE - Bastian Schweinsteiger.