The playoffs are in sight for D.C. United. So to preview what might be the first of three consecutive meetings between these two teams, we chatted with Ryan Sealock of the Chicago Fire blog Hot Time In Old Town.
Previewing The Fire
B&RU: It sounds like Pavel Pardo is on his way towards full health. Do you think the team will risk playing him on Saturday? If so, what does he add that wasn't there in the loss to the New England Revolution last week?
HTIOT: Well the other day it sounded pretty likely that Pardo would play. Yesterday I heard a rumbling or two that maybe his status is not so sure. Either way it's a tough choice. Defensively, we are much tougher with Pardo on the pitch. This is a big, must win game for the Fire really. Yes, we are in the playoffs, but being the #2 seed and getting a home game is much better than going on the road for a 1-off, anything can happen qualifier. If we do risk Pardo and he gets reinjured or faces a setback, we could lose him for most or all of the playoffs. If he is held back and we lose Saturday, many fans will wonder what might have been. So, Frank has a tough choice either way and it is not an envious position to be in.
Pavel has missed a chunk of games, and I am sure he is ready to play again. I think if his health is anywhere near 75%, then he will get the nod. While I don't expect him to play a full 90, if the Fire can get an early lead with him on the pitch and bleed some time, that would be a big plus. I think hi sloss has been felt the past few games, including the poor loss to the Revs. If Pavel plays, that goal likely doesn't happen, plus he always is a threat to help kick start the offense too or put in a splendid free kick. One other thing to note about the Revs game is that Arne Friedrich was also rested due to the turf. If he and Pardo are in the game, there is no way Fagundez gets that much space to hit his shot. Arne will be ready and rested Saturday and I don't have to tell anyone how good he and Austin Berry have been in the middle this year.
What has Frank Klopas done to shore up the back line since the last time these two teams faced and the Fire gave up four goals to United?
Well, it's pretty much the same backline that you saw in August. Honestly, that game is more of an outlier than anything. Other than the DC loss, which I chalk up to a bad game all around, the only other time we have given up more than 2 goals in MLS play was against Philly a month or so ago. So I don't think DC fans should be expecting another 4 goal performance from their side. Especially since the game is at Toyota Park, which has been unkind to say the least to opposing East teams since 2010.
The backline has solidified steadily throught the past couple of months since the DC game. With Pardo in the picture in front of them, the defense looks even better. Despite the loss to Philly and New England (both games where the offense didn't do much, if anything), Fire fans are confident in the back line. Friedrich and Berry have consistently been one of the best, if not the best CB duo in the league. I expect the normal Fire defense we are used to seeing on Saturday night, which should things tough on the DC offense.
Despite the recent blips in the radar, I have to say Chris Rolfe. It seems like teams are focusing on him as the predominant target to shut down. Despite this, Chris has the skill normally to still carve a team up. However, if he does struggle to create, the aforementioned names are all capable of stepping up and contributing meaningfully. Sherjill is a great hold up striker, and he showed his skill in the recent New York win. Oduro has been used in the super sub role, but his blazing speed matched against tired legs late in the game can be deadly. Nyarko is not known as a scoring threat, but for my money he is the Fire MVP. He may not get the flashy goals, but he always gives 100%. He can attack, create good service, score here and there, create turnovers (which have lead directly to goals at least a couple of times this year), and drop back and play defense. He is indispensible for us and to be honest, if he is on his game like usual, he will give any team in the league fits. His speed is enough to burn most defenders, so don't be surprised if he wears a trail into the pitch up and down the flanks Saturday.
Bonus: Predicted Lineup
Johnson, Anibaba, Friedrich, Berry, Segares, Pardo, Pause (c), Nyarko, Fernandez, Rolfe, MacDonald. Look for Oduro and Alex to come on later in the match to try to do some damage too.
HTIOT: With Saturday's game being vitally important for both teams, how is DC United entering the match? Any injuries or suspension that could affect team selection?
B&RU: D.C. United is entering the match on a six-game undefeated streak, with the team collecting 16 of 18 possible points in that stretch, while only giving up four goals. Pretty good, right? Some might suggest that its a bit of a counterfeit streak since none of the six teams that United faced are playoff teams, but I'd suggest instead that you just have to beat who is on your schedule, and United has beat some teams that others have failed to (take the New England Revolution for example...). Surely you've heard by now that Dwayne De Rosario is injured for the remainder of the season (at least until the second half of the MLS Cup Final), but there are no other injuries or suspensions to note.
What sort of strategy do you see DC employing Saturday night against the Fire?
During the undefeated streak, Ben Olsen has abondoned his pursuit of playing beautiful soccer like United did in The Good Old Days and instead turned to a more conservative approach, emphasizing work rate and defensive structure. Especially on the road, United has been utilizing a 4-5-1 double pivot formation to limit the number of chances their opponents can create. This tactic is specifically designed to keep the game scoreless for 60 minutes, when Olsen then brings on some attacking firepower with our pair of former Rapid Vienna studs Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi. United did play with two forwards against the Columbus Crew on Saturday with Maicon Santos joining Lionard Pajoy up top, so we might see a more standard 4-4-2 instead of the 4-5-1 in Chicago on Saturday.
Put yourself in Ben Olsen's shoes for a moment. If you had to focus your gameplan on stopping one key Fire player, who would that be?
If I'm wearing Olsen's shoes, can I also have his facial hair? Please? No? Ok. Well I can tell you that I'm not really scared of Sherjill MacDonald. A major reason for United's recent success has been the improved play of Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald, so I think our center backs will be able to neutralize MacDonald's strengths. And our central midfield combination of Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa should be able to keep Chris Rolfe off the scoreboard (Federico Higuain was mostly a nonfactor on Saturday). So if there's anyone I'm worried about, it's probably Patrick Nyarko, for the simple fact that Andy Najar and Chris Korb are slightly more prone to losing their marks on the outside than Jakovic and McDonald are in the middle.
What key matchup dictates the outcome of this game for you?
Do you remember the last time these two teams saw each other? It was Najar's first game starting at right back, a position that he hasn't given up since. Najar's overlapping runs of Nick DeLeon took Chicago by surprise, and he abused Gonzalo Segares throughout the match. I expect the Fire to be more ready for Najar this time around, but look for him and Korb to each get involved on offense by sending in crosses and making late runs into the box.
Predicted lineup and final score
I'm predicting Olsen to stick with the starting lineup that earned three points against the Crew, with Pajoy and Santos at forward, Chris Pontius and DeLeon on the wings, Saragosa and Kitchen in central midfield, Korb, Jakovic, McDonald, and Najar along the back line, and Bill Hamid in goal. I'm predicting a win for the Fire, but only because I just can't visualize a 12-game undefeated streak for D.C. They've got to lose at some point. So I have them losing on Saturday, and then striking up a new five-game undefeated streak in route to their fifth MLS Cup trophy.