Oh, why hello there Chicago. It’s been a while! How are the kids? Distant you say? I’m sure I saw Gaga running around somewhere, wasn’t he hanging out with that Chelsea girl? Oh, it’s a sensitive topic. I see. My apologies. My Caden used to do these things too, I understand your plight. Young men recognize the value of family and home soon enough, I’m sure they’ll never leave.
The Red Bulls welcome old friends in a deja vu matchup against the Chicago Fire, an entire 18 days after facing off in Soldier Field. This time the Fire visit Harrison, eager to see the sights and sounds of New Jersey. Since New York saw them last, Chicago Fire have continued their slide, falling 4-1 to Atlanta United and disappointingly losing 2-1 to 2022’s surprise package FC Cincinnati. Currently bottom of the East and winless in their last 7, the floundering Fire are far from fantastic.
Years of disappointment and bad seasons led the organization to try and spark a fresh start in 2022, signing former MetroStar Ezra Hendrickson to the head coaching position. The idea was that the former St. Vincent and the Grenadines international would stabilize a club that had long been defined by chaos on and off the field. As a former defender he’d steady the ship, get the defense working again and guide the club to a solid midtable finish. The hire was always a long term move, with the organization preferring to look towards the future rather than immediate title pushes, and use 2022 as a transition year. The plan was fine, however stability in the present is always needed to work towards success in the future. And 2022 has certainly not been stable.
Offensively the club has been a disaster. Despite the big-money signing of Xherdan Shaqiri, the club has failed to create anything sustainable, scoring a league-lowest total of 8 goals in 11 games, their Expected Goals not much better at 10.6. Part of it has been a lack of chances, they are among the lowest creative sides in the league using the Shot Creating Actions metric; but a lack of efficiency can also be cited with a pitiful 25.8% shots on target percentage, the second lowest in the league. Personnel is not the problem, Shaqiri and new signing Kacper Przybyłko have both shown their talents at high levels, while fellow signee Stanislov Ivanov and homegrown Brian Gutierrez are both promising, having shown great ability in the Bulgarian league and youth levels respectively. Rather it seems to be a systematic issue, the Fire struggle to impose themselves in dangerous areas, their touches in the attacking third total the 6th lowest in the league, and their touches in the attacking penalty area the 4th lowest. Moves simply break down too soon, a stray pass or a lack of options leads to a loss of possession and a loss of the opportunity. Offensive stagnation is certainly an issue, but the defensive side of the ball is what really leaves Chicago in the state that they’re in.
Hendrickson was not concerned with a complex tactical setup to stop the sinking ship, the defense was an immediate priority so he came up with a simple plan. A low block. Simple, but frustrating when done right. Not too much pressure on the ball is necessary, the Fire prefer to play in transition and absorb any attacks that come their way, with a 4-2-3-1 the deep-lying midfielders can sit in front of the center backs and provide vital defensive support. If executed well this is a boring but effective system, however the Fire have not been able to find the levels of focus and discipline necessary for this to work. Too often simple mistakes have cost them, looking at their most recent loss to FC Cincinnati, the first concession, a freak own goal by Rafael Czichos, was caused by a wild back pass that was forced by an inability to play out of the Cincinatti press. The second was a misplayed pass by young goalkeeper “Gaga” Slonina, who erred in possession and played a pass straight to Luciano Acosta, who finished clinically inside the box. Both were easily preventable, a theme that can be applied to many of Chicago’s conceded chances. Slonina has saved them on many occasions, as the 13 goals conceded are actually among the better totals in the league, but an ultimately average dfense and a completely stagnant offense have been the recipes for disaster for Chicago.
Meanwhile (in case your forgot) Red Bulls are still winless at home, and the poor Fire are exactly the team the Red Bulls will want to face to try and break the duck. Poor under pressure, not a threat going forward, if there’s any time to break the streak it’s on Wednesday night. The Fire can still cause problems on their night, as the crazy matchup 18 days ago will attest to, but Struber’s men are more than capable of earning an important victory, both psychological and literal. With the depth chart starting to gel, the Red Bulls have a great opportunity to make a statement to the league that they’re here to stay, and a team for the present rather than just promise.
The Chicago Fire did not strike gold with their home kit this campaign, as expert reporters have expounded upon. Chicago will likely ignore my warnings and opt for the “Water Tower” design once more, a choice made slightly more reasonable by the atrocity that is their away kit. It’s a white shirt. Nothing more, nothing less. Some Adidas designer earned their paycheck by adding thin blue stripes that run horizontally across the kit, which look fine on promotional photos but can’t be seen unless you’re a hopeless defensive midfielder chasing after Xherdan Shaqiri. Released in 2020 as part of the club-wide rebranding campaign that included a change in stadium, name, and controversially the logo, the jerseys meant to signify a new era for the organization evidently were forgotten. It’s a white shirt. Maybe the Water Tower wasn’t so bad after all.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The former Orlando City player must have forgotten his wallet in the States, returning to MLS four months after he debuted for Scottish Premiership side Hibernian FC. Perhaps distraught he wouldn’t be able to receive head-shaving tips from Alexander Gogic, perhaps affected by issues at a club struggling to keep up with Scotland’s elite, the Chicago native has returned to his hometown club in an effort to turn around an offensive slump that has largely affected what was supposed to be a stabilizing year for the organization. The lowest goalscoring total in the league has been a big part of why the Fire are fighting for the Wooden Spoon this year, and the return of a player who was a fearsome opponent in his Orlando days will hopefully spark a turnaround.
Mueller’s career has been an unconventional one, a late bloomer thanks to his lengthy collegiate career, he quickly went from afterthought SuperDraft pick to mainstay in the starting XI in his debut year, and was a large part of why Orlando was so successful in 2020. His pace, directness on the ball, and fantastic finishing was put on display in his excellent 2020 campaign, as he scored a career-high 10 goals to drag the club to a silver medal at the MLS is Back Tournament and a Conference Semifinal at the end of the year. Despite struggling for playing time in Scotland, the 25-year-old can still be a threat, his fringes of the national team quality is a headache for any MLS defender. In a World Cup year where the USMNT is still in need of some finishing touches, the once-capped Mueller will be looking to showcase his quality this season as one of Chicago’s new main men, and start his new journey against the Red Bulls.
A gem from the moderately successful Chicago Fire academy, the American youth international is in his third year as a professional, having made his debut at 16. He’s been used intermittently so far by coaching staff, but his ceiling is sky high and he seems to be making a breakthrough in a Chicago Fire side slowly becoming more youth-centered. Gutierrez is a highly technical player, excellent on the ball and has an eye for a pass. Central midfield is not for the faint of heart at such a young age, but the teenager has made it work, earning plaudits for his creative spark from coaches and pundits alike. He is capable of playing as a traditional 10 or as a more reserved 8, however in his brief time at Chicago’s first team his quick feet have made him an option at winger. Gutierrez is far from the finished product but can still make an impact now, and it seems Hendrickson has decided that there’s no time like the present, starting him in Chicago’s last 4 matches. Expect to see him against the Red Bulls, as Chicago’s free-fall means that coaching will be trying new things in an attempt to turn things around. And expect Brian Gutierrez to be mildly annoying for New York’s fullbacks, likely adding to his quickly growing highlight reel.
Cristian Casseres Jr.
Back from his brief vacation, the Venezuelan will have a tough task in the midweek fixture, his fresh legs likely to be tasked with containing the ever-dangerous Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss playmaker has not been great in 2022, but his undeniable quality always makes him a focus for opposing teams. Staying with him throughout the game and making sure he doesn’t have enough space to cause problems will be vital in making sure New York doesn’t have too much to worry about defensively. As half of the defensive midfield duo, he’ll either be tracking Shaqiri’s runs or cutting off passing lanes to prevent any chances, and he’ll need to have a high-energy performance in order to stay focused and attentive. With Dru Yearwood and Daniel Edelman ramping up the pressure behind him, Casseres will be looking to make an influence on the game as well as make a statement for the rest of his season.
Chicago is sure to be low on confidence after the heartbreaking loss to Cincinnati, and with the Red Bulls flying high after an exhilarating draw to Philadelphia expect the cracks to show as New York storms to a 3-1 win, a Mueller goal serving as consolation for Chicago as they grant Red Bull Arena its first win for the home team of the year.