When NBC Sports reserved tonight's D.C. United game against the Chicago Fire for a national broadcast, I'm sure they were expecting something a little different from what they're going to get. It seems safe to guess that those expectations involved two teams somewhere in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and two teams that would be intensely focused on this game. The Chicago Fire - two points out of 5th with four games to play - have held up their end of the bargain. D.C. United on the other hand is virtually assured of finishing dead last, and mentally the club is likely still thinking about Tuesday night's surreal Open Cup victory.
Nevertheless, the game will be played, and United will hopefully find some use in this game. For the youngsters that will inevitably step in to replace veterans on short rest, it's a chance to prove they deserve the big starts in 2014. For the fringe players who didn't even make the bench in Utah, it's a chance to stay employed as a first division soccer player. And for the club, what better way to cap off the second good week of 2013 - the first being the stadium announcement, obviously - than to throw a wrench in Chicago's playoff hopes?
After all, this is the Fire, the club that has generally been our worst nightmare with elimination on the line. They've eliminated United from the playoffs more times (four) than the rest of MLS combined (two). In the context of history, United's 2-0 victory at Toyota Park in the Open Cup semifinals was even more unlikely than winning at altitude against one of MLS's strongest teams. United had never survived an elimination game against the Fire, and the Men In Red had never lost an Open Cup match played in Illinois.
In other words, if there was ever a team us United fans would want to screw over...well, that team would be the New York Red Bulls. But after the Metros...well, then you have arguments about the Galaxy and Seattle depending on when you became a United fan, but Chicago is in there too. For me at least, there are few teams I'd rather deprive of something than the Chicago Fire, and this is a chance to do just that.
As much as United looks like a particularly easy mark tonight - Graham Parker summed it up best by noting that the whiteboard in United's locker room at Rio Tinto Stadium had been changed to read "Regen: Champagne" - the Fire are hardly looking like the kind of team that rides a late surge into the playoffs. Their 1W-3D-2L record over the past six games is pure mediocrity, and includes four different games in which they took a lead but failed to win. Those nine dropped points (all three draws plus a 2-1 loss to Seattle) are the difference between Chicago needing help to even finish 5th and Chicago sitting just one win from being tied with NYRB in first.
Like most teams who have good pieces but can't quite put it together regularly enough, the Fire simply can't play a good 90 minutes. As Sean Spence from Hot Time In Old Town - SB Nation's Fire blog - noted in our question exchange, Chicago has conceded 22 of their 45 total goals against in the final half hour of games. Once again, game-planning was a big issue. Frank Klopas deserves credit for radically changing his team after a flat half saw them 1-0 down to the Montreal Impact at home, but Chicago seems to always be scrambling for a good Plan B after Plan A didn't work.
On this occasion, he switched from the overly conservative 442 he had started with by bringing in Alex for holding midfielder Logan Pause, moving to a diamond, and yanking the ineffective Dilly Duka to get Chris Rolfe onto the field. The Fire stormed back into the game and took a 2-1 lead via a Mike Magee brace, only for their aforementioned issues in the final minutes to return: Maxim Tissot - an Impact academy signing playing out of position at left midfield - managed to see his weak header get over the line thanks to some utterly shambolic defending in the 87th minute. It was Montreal's only shot on goal in the half.
Sure, Chicago was unlucky: Magee cracked the crossbar on a 76th minute penalty kick, and Juan Luis Anangono later hit the post. Nonetheless, Chicago found a way to lose, and that's what United should focus on. If the Black-and-Red can stay even while shaking off the Cup hangover in the early going, there could be points for the taking in the final half hour.
So you're reading that and thinking Klopas will be tempted to stick with the diamond, right? Fortunately for United, that seems doubtful. Pause was only starting because Bakary Soumare's suspension forced Klopas to move Jeff Larentowicz back to central defense, a spot he's barely ever played in MLS. Despite the fact that the Fire get very predictable when playing with two defensive midfielders, it seems like a safe bet that the diamond will only come out if United is holding a lead at halftime or later. As such, this is what we should expect to see tonight in terms of a starting eleven:
The Fire have no notable injuries or suspensions to deal with, so there should be no surprises in their lineup. The only questions are on the flanks, where no player has firmly taken a hold on a starting job. Duka threatened to for a while, but Chicago just clearly improved by removing him early from a critical home game. The revolving door on the left all season means Klopas could go with Rolfe, Joel Lindpere, Alex, or Patrick Nyarko instead of Duka. It's not quite a toss-up, but it's close.
Speaking of Nyarko, there are few players in MLS whose national reputation is so far out of step with what his reputation amongst his team's fans. In the stands at Toyota Park, Nyarko is a hugely underrated player who has deserved to be in the Best 11 conversation more than once. In the rest of the country, Nyarko is merely a respectable winger who sometimes hides from the game when his team needs ideas and invention. As Nyarko's game log indicates, he has a tenuous grasp on his role. He's started three of the last four games, but in the three games before that was only able to play 20-30 minutes as a sub.
My guess is that Nyarko's defensive work will net him the start on the road, but Klopas might not be able to resist the urge to get United killer Rolfe on the field somewhere. Alex could also turn up at right midfield, though the lack of a frequent overlapping threat from Jalil Anibaba makes that a flawed idea at best.
Going forward, Chicago is not going to re-invent the wheel. Egidio Arevalo Rios is an outstanding player, but when forced to jump into the attack last week alongside Pause, it was proven that he's not outstanding at everything. Arevalo Rios would be best served playing an anchor role, halting attacks with his anticipation and tough-but-fair tackling and then quickly moving the ball on to someone more offensively inclined.
The issue is that Larentowicz also wants to play that role, and currently is having to play higher as a forward destroyer. It's certainly something he can do well enough, but the whole issue with a forward destroyer is that they're usually not adding much to your attack. Larentowicz does have a booming shot for United to look out for, but most of the time he's going to do just like Arevalo Rios and quickly shuttle the ball to a winger or a forward rather than create.
The fact that Chicago's attack is utterly reliant on both wingers making an impact means that United is going to have to play a very different game than the extremely compact strategy that worked against Real Salt Lake. It's also bad news, because for the most part the Black-and-Red have struggled with teams that force us to stretch in terms of width. Defensively, a big part of getting a win will be our fullbacks and midfielders doing well at preventing 1v1 isolation, and then winning those battles when they do happen.
The goal from each winger is different. Duka wants to enter the box by cutting inside further upfield and either dribbling past someone or playing a combination. Nyarko, meanwhile, prefers to get around the fullback and then cut inside along the endline. Lindpere, if he plays, is something of a hybrid of the two. Rolfe and Alex will tend to drift into central spots ahead of the central midfielders, but in Rolfe's case he's also comfortable looking to chip balls into the middle from wide spots.
Up front, Magee and Anangono are a pretty strong pairing. Magee is not an MVP candidate by accident, and unfortunately there's no easy way to stop him. It's a simple problem: The dude is smarter off the ball than just about everyone, and he's a deadly finisher. United will need strong communication throughout the team to prevent Magee from finding himself open, but there's not much advice to give beyond "play really, really well." The best players always put teams in that situation.
Anangono doesn't have Magee's soccer IQ, but he's no dummy. The Ecuadoran DP is big, powerful, and very active. What makes him better than the DP striker he replaced (Sherjill MacDonald), other than just generally being a better soccer player, is that he doesn't let his busy running take him too far out of the middle. Anangono will be a big problem for our center backs, but he rightly leaves the wide play to the wide men and the roving for space to Magee. He hasn't lit up the scoring charts yet, but he's put two or three shots off the post and could break out if he has a reason to start feeling confident.
Going forward, United needs to make Chicago defend with their brains rather than with speed and strength. The Fire back four is made up entirely of guys with the size to play center back, and none of them is slow or lacking agility. If you just try to beat them on the run or through the air, you're going to have problems.
Instead, United would be better off showing some subtlety. The fact that Luis Silva only played a few minutes on Tuesday bodes well, as his more creative game in the hole will likely cause issues for the Fire. Austin Berry can be rash with his decision-making, and Soumare's steady drop in form has Fire fans thinking about letting him go on his way in the offseason. The two never seem quite in sync as a pairing; instead of out-foxing an opponent and then picking up the inevitable turnover, they seem to prefer going for the big tackle or big header all alone.
In particular, I think the channel between Berry and Anibaba could be a happy hunting ground for DC. Anibaba still looks like a center back playing right back to fill in for someone else, and between him and Berry there has been enough miscommunication over the course of the season to assume it's not about to be fixed this week.
Arne Friedrich's leadership is still badly missed in Chicagoland, and there's no reason United should hold back on trying to combine in and around that right-center channel. It would also give Silva a better place to set up shop than in the middle, where he'd see far too much of Arevalo Rios. Silva should stay mobile and play both right and left of center, but if I had to pick a side for him to prefer, I'd choose getting at the right half of the Fire defense.
Chicago is a worrying threat on set pieces. Their size at the back is part of the equation, but so too is Magee's instinctual ability to find the loose ball. Nyarko and Duka draw a lot of fouls, too, so United needs to either a) defend so well that those two never get going, or b) foul far enough from goal that it's not a major threat. Chicago doesn't really have an ace to take the set pieces, but the delivery is generally good enough to give their big targets a fighting chance.
Altogether, this is a rare game where the team in last place is just as likely to see it as a trap as the visiting team chasing a playoff spot. If United can cobble together a starting eleven of guys who aren't spent from the Open Cup final, there is a real chance of victory against a team that has a -14 goal differential on the road.
To keep it familiar, the Fire look a lot more like the 2011 version of United - you know, unable to find good form precisely when it's required - than 2012's "like hell we're not going to the playoffs!" DCU. The similarities are almost eerie. In 2011, after a very bland run of form, United lost their 31st game of the season against the 19th place side in MLS (in this case, Vancouver).
Finally, there's this: We've seen United play better soccer when the pressure and burden of this season is gone. Well, there's no pressure now. This is as happy a United side as we've seen all year. The conditions are in place for United to play a relaxed, positive game of soccer rather than the usual instances of mistakes relating to guys who get trapped inside their own heads or lack the confidence to make a big play when it's required.
Hopefully, tomorrow's Open Cup party isn't spoiled.
More from Black And Red United:
- Dave Kasper offered multi-year extension by D.C. United?
- D.C. United vs. Chicago Fire preview: Behind Enemy Lines with Hot Time in Old Town
- D.C. United versus Chicago Fire lineup: Yes, Virginia, there are more games this season
- D.C. United are your 2013 U.S. Open Cup Champions
- The Last Word On D.C. United's Improbable U.S. Open Cup Win
- D.C. United fans do the Open Cup right