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Red Bulls Matchday Preview: Chicago Fire

Will a simple formation and heroic goalkeeping give the Red Bulls potent away attack problems?

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York Red Bulls
Caden Clark and Boris Sekulic battle during last year’s visit by the Fire to Harrison.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A college professor interviewing me for an honors program I was applying to told me a story about Harvard students as we closed the session. The professor had studied history at the esteemed university, and mentioned how he noticed that many of his Ivy League classmates dropped out of the school after receiving a C on their first test, not being able to cope with what for many was the first academic “failure” in their lives. It was a fascinating insight into the mind of the overachiever and the struggles many face when transitioning into adulthood, but more importantly it was an interesting metaphor for this week’s preview.

For after scoring 7 times in the opening two matches, New York Red Bulls fans were drunk on power. We sung the praises of our boys from Harrison, fully bought into the high press system and rejoiced at the return of goals to New York following a difficult 2021 scoring campaign. But when the goals dried up upon a return to home, the early joys were forgotten. Many, a group in which I ashamedly partially admit myself, hopped off the hype train and lambasted the system, blaming certain Polish strikers and the lack of attacking ideas beyond transition. 4 goals in 5 games felt like a desert in which we could not escape, a pitiful showing from a pitiful club that found itself only third in the Conference. Too soon the fans, spoiled in the early days, abandoned the offensive cause. The good times may be back after the dominant 3-0 win against Orlando City, but we must not forget how quickly we betrayed the team. We are no better than the Harvard students, receiving a C in goalscoring and doubting the larger process. Although in all fairness, many of us have accepted that we’re not better than Harvard students, so perhaps a better metaphor could have been chosen. I’ll stick to tactics. Here are Chicago’s.

TACTICS BOARD

The Chicago Fire have had a rough time of it in recent years, a long MLS history not coinciding with much success at the league level. The organization could be considered the league’s first expansion side, joining in 1998, and unexpectedly winning the MLS and Open Cup double in its first year of competitive play. The league title win would prove to be its only one, despite solid seasons the team fell in the playoffs time and time again, and around 2010 the side had fully lost its luster, settling as a struggling midtable side sliding down the totem pole as years passed. Turmoil with coaching, ownership, and fans saw the team see the playoffs only 2 times from 2010 to 2020, finishing last in the Conference twice in the process. Aside from a fluke 3rd place finish in 2017 no real progress was being made, so the organization turned to art majors in search of an answer.

A massive rebrand was announced in 2019, accompanied by a return to Soldier Field in Chicago where the team had spent its early years, as the head management attempted to cast away the shadows of a disappointing existence riddled with turmoil. Billionare businessman Joe Mansueto had bought the club, and he wanted a fresh start after the decades of fan discontent with longtime owner Andrew Hauptman over poor transfer strategy and a lack of money put into the club. The breeze of change seemed to blow over the Windy City with the new ownership, and hope returned to the club.

Chicago have still struggled since Hauptman sold the club to Joe Mansueto in 2019, but promising signs have shown. Front office has spent money like never before, with 8 of the club’s 10 most valuable signings having come after Mansueto took over. Soccer is a business at times, and if you want to stay at the top you have to be willing to make an investment, something that longtime fans felt wasn’t happening under Hauptman.

The academy started bearing fruit, it had not produced more than 2 Homegrowns in a year since its first promotion in 2012, but 4 Homegrowns were signed in 2019, and 6 in 2020. Things were going well on the surface, but results were still yet to come. The team came achingly close to playoff soccer in 2019 and 2020 under Hauptman-appointed coach Raphael Wicky, missing the postseason line by a point in the latter year. Wicky’s team was stubborn but vulnerable, and the Swiss manager was let go at the end of 2021 after inconsistency left the team with little visible improvement. The club finished the campaign 12th out of 14 in the East with interim manager Frank Klopas, and hired Ezra Hendrickson for 2022.

Hendrickson, a name sure to ring a bell for Red Bulls supporters after his 8 matches for the MetroStars in 1997 that were bizarrely followed by his being cut from the roster in the middle of the season, has had an inconspicuous but promising resume in his brief coaching career. He started his career bouncing around the a Seattle Sounders organization in its peak years, acting as an assistant coach to the first team and then a head coach for the second. He briefly took an assistant role at the LA Galaxy and then moved to Ohio in 2019, where he was once again an assistant at the Columbus Crew, also in its peak years. He’s earned experience at some of the best teams in league history, and certainly is qualified for a Chicago job where his main goal is to stabilize.

Hendrickson is not trying to reinvent the wheel, he’s brought a solid 4-2-3-1 with him from Columbus that’s going to solidify a defense that has been mediocre at best historically. He won’t be pressing too much, so far in 2022 Chicago find themself in the lower half of MLS teams in pressures per game, and the 6th lowest in the league in pressures in the attacking third per game. Chicago prefer to defend in a low block, allowing teams to come onto them and compressing space when they arrive, a more traditional approach that’s not used by all simply because of its passivity when it comes to transitioning into attack. Chicago can rely on their backline and defensive midfielders, as well as star goalkeeper Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina, to keep them safe in the back. And already the new system seems to be garnering results, desite the small sample size, the jump from 1.59 goals conceded per game in 2021 to the 0.63 conceded per game in 2022 is remarkable. Defensively, Hendrickson’s plan was to be compact and solid, and offensively, the plan was to get the ball to Xherdan Shaqiri.

The well traveled Swiss star arrived in Chicago to much fanfare in 2022, the front office shelling out a club record 7.7 million dollars on the playmaker. The idea was that Shaqiri would lie as the classic 10 in the middle of the “3” section of the 4-2-3-1. He’d get on the ball frequently, and use his extraordinary vision and technical ability to create shots for his teammates. Shaqiri has definitely gotten on the ball, having the fourth most touches per game on the Chicago roster.

However the attacking spark hasn’t quite come off yet, with the former Liverpool man unable to bolster an attack with the fifth least Shot Creating Actions per game in the league, the second least shots on target per game, and the least amount of goals in the league. While the ball has gotten to Shaqiri, nothing much has happened past that, leaving Chicago 10th in the Eastern Conference and still looking for offensive answers.

Hendrickson, a former defender, chose the defense as the first subject to his revolution of the club. Attacking play has suffered, but Red Bulls fans will know from Struber’s early days that stabilizing things on the defensive side will eventually lead to the attack working out. Hendrickson has quite the project in Chicago, and it seemed to be going well in 2022 as the team burst out of the gates to go undefeated in their first 5 games, conceding only once. Whatever spell Hendrickson had put on the defense seemed to have worked, and the initial part of his plan seemed to be working. However looking deeper, one can see that issues were evident. In that initial 5 game run, despite only conceding once the team was statistically expected to have conceded 3.8.

High differences between goal counts and expected goals typically indicate luck or extraordinary performances, and looking at the Chicago roster it’s easy to see that young goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina has likely been providing the latter. He’s been in superb form this season, gaining many plaudits for his performances and the age at which he’s giving them, but his run of form may be covering up bigger cracks in the Chicago system.

The cracks have started to show after Hendrickson’s honeymoon period ended with a poor 1-0 loss to Orlando City where the Floridians could have scored many more. The team followed their first loss with a low-quality draw against the LA Galaxy, an embarrassing Open Cup exit to third division side Union Omaha, and a bad 3-0 loss to Minnesota United. The Minnesota game in particular is worrying for Chicago; as all three goals, a long range effort from Emmanuel Reynoso that was closed down not nearly quick enough, a snap header from an unmarked Kevin Arriaga, and an effort from a Robin Lod in far too much space, were all caused by defensive lapses. Slonina cannot hold Chicago together forever, and although the Red Bulls have struggled against low blocks like the one Chicago employs, underlying numbers show that there’s room to break it down. The Red Bulls will likely hold the majority of possession at Soldier Field, and will be tasked with breaking Chicago down without really having to worry about anything going the other way.

KIT CONTEMPLATIONS

Chicago have opted for their home “Water Tower” uniform, the jersey released ahead of the 2022 campaign. It’s a… simple design, the classic blue that Chicago have worn for years adorning the shirt and pants, with a red trim complimenting it and paying homage to the other team color. It’s main calling card is a subtle design that can only be seen in promotional pictures, featuring a drawing of a local staple, the Chicago Water Tower, that runs along the shirt. While a nice touch, it’s the only element of spice to a very bland and unoriginal kit. Going with a single solid color for both shirt and pants is a risky endevour if you don’t have the right colors, as the 1995-96 Manchester United side will tell you, and the blasé navy blue is not the color to break the curse.

One of the less thought out efforts from Adidas earns a 3 out of 10.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Chicago Fire (4-2-3-1)

NY Red Bulls (4-2-3-1)

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Gabriel Slonina

What were you doing at 17? Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina is the definition of a prodigy, made the second-youngest Homegrown in MLS history after signing at the age of 14 in 2019, and making his senior debut last season at the tender age of 17 years and 81 days, the youngest starting goalkeeper in MLS history. Standing at 6’4, one wouldn’t mistake him for a youngster as he’s commandingly taken over the Chicago spot since his debut, garnering attention leaguewide. He’s the latest in a long tradition of American goalkeepers, and his ceiling seems to be sky-high.

As expected for a player of his height, he’s utterly dominant in the air, stopping a higher percentage of crosses than 75% of goalkeepers in the league. He’s capable of spectacular saves, with his incredible reflexes enabling him to stop shots fired from close range and at velocity, frequently keeping Chicago alive. One-on-one saves are a speciality, his incredible stop in the dying moments of the opening game against Orlando City (that ended up being offside and not mattering) impressed online. He’s been compared to the legendary Gianluigi Buffon in ability and prodigiousness, and while he’s likely to head off to Europe eventually, Chicago will be glad to have him around while they can.

Luquinhas

The Brazilian Designated Player has gotten off to quite the start in New York, providing a desperately needed creative spark to the side. Fully acclimated to the side now, he’s taken up a regular role on the left wing in Struber’s 4-2-3-1, given full license to cut inside and roam in the name of wreaking havoc. He’s lived up to the billing with a goal and an assist in his 3 MLS starts thus far, adding another assist in his Open Cup game. It’s been a relief for Red Bulls fans to see an attacking player in such good form, and he’ll be needed against Chicago. Their defense has been one of the tougher ones thus far, desite the high xGa numbers they’ve still managed, and Slonina will be a wall even if the Red Bulls can get through the low block. The combination of the low block and a goalkeeper in form will be tough for a Red Bulls side that has historically struggled when given the ball, so the Red Bulls will need to maximize the amount of shots and chances created in order to give themselves a better chance of beating Slonina. Luquinhas is the most in form attacker on the roster, his vision and dribbling ability will be key to unlocking Chicago.

Dru Yearwood

Yearwood will be wondering what went wrong in 2022 after an interesting turn of fortunes. The Englishman started the first 6 matches of the campaign, pairing with Frankie Amaya to create a highly effective midfield duo. Yearwood has shown flashes of brilliance at his time in the Red Bulls, and even his average days are impressive. He’s an excellent dribbler, able to progress the ball forward almost effortlessly. He’s a very underrated defender, averaging 2.5 tackles winning possession per game in 2021, placing him in the 97th percentile of MLS midfielders in the category. Yearwood can win the ball deep and drive forward, and when he gets in stride it’s very hard to stop him, as his speed and close control enable him to retain the ball until he decides to release a well-weighted through ball or take a shot himself. All of these qualities had been on full display in 2022, his partnership with the fellow dual threat Amaya seemed to be blossoming into something undroppable.

But interestingly, he was droped from the starting XI against FC Dallas in favor of Christian Casseres, who had just returned from an injury that had sidelined him thus far. He returned to the lineup for the Open Cup game, but then was surprisingly omitted again against Orlando City, again in favor of the Venezuelan. Gerhard Struber has long been a fan of Christian Casseres, shunting him in a wide midfield role for much of 2021. And it seems that upon his return to the squad in 2022, he’s been restored to the starting lineup, with Yearwood being an unfortunate casualty. Yearwood will certainly feel hard done by, after such positive performances he’ll be concerned to have been replaced by a player well liked by the coaching staff. Yearwood can function as a playmaker from deep, so while he’ll be looking to help with the breakdown of the low block if he plays, he’ll also be looking to the match as a statement to the staff that he won’t lose his spot without a fight.

PREDICTION

Expect another spectacular, and frustrating, performance from Slonina on Saturday, accompanied by a less impressive Chicago defensive performance that ultimately costs the stubborn side a 1-0 loss to the road Bulls.