The Chicago Fire pretty much ended D.C. United's playoff hopes in 2013 back in early June. Oh sure, United was pretty much out of the race at the time, but Chicago's 2-0 win on June 2nd looks more and more like an early-season elimination game, given what has followed since (and the fact that the two sides entered that match with a combined 13 points on the season). In a match between two bad teams in need of some reason to believe, the Fire got the lucky break - an early own goal by an unsighted Ethan White - and then sat on their lead against a toothless DC attack until a late counter finished off the game.
Since then, Chicago looked much improved...until they suddenly didn't. Like most Fire sides under Frank Klopas, inconsistency has been an issue. Chicago opened the season by losing seven of their first ten games, scoring just six goals in the process. A Klopas hallmark major mid-season adjustment followed, keyed by the acquisition of MVP candidate Mike Magee and center back Bakary Soumare. The Fire won four and drew two in a span of six league matches, while also winning three straight US Open Cup matches to advance to the semifinals (they'll host United in the most important soccer game on earth in 2013 on August 7th).
However, that streak shuddered to a halt in a 2-1 home loss to Sporting Kansas City on July 3rd, and last weekend the Fire failed to make their good start count on the scoreboard in Vancouver. The Whitecaps survived the opening half-hour, and eventually took complete control of the match to win 3-1 (a scoreline that, frankly, could have read 4-1 or 5-1).
The odd thing is that not too much has changed for the Fire to cause a sudden loss in form. Instead, the issue is something we see all the time in MLS: A coach of a middling team comes up with some needed adjustments that work, but said changes only work for a month or two before teams sniff out the new weaknesses. Most of the time, we're talking about a 6-10 game boost in form, and the Fire are right on schedule in terms of people knowing their flaws and exploiting them.
We'll cover all that, but we should start with the current formation. Klopas started the season with dreams of a very attack-minded diamond 442, and then moved to a more conservative implementation of that initial plan, and has of late settled on a flatter 442 that will look rather familiar to United fans:
The main difference between our 442 and theirs is that Magee and Chris Rolfe will alternate on who should be the withdrawn forward based loosely on where the ball is. If the ball is to the right, Rolfe withdraws into the hole. If the ball is out on the left, Magee will drift off the front line and into a left-center role. This isn't so much a tactical requirement from Klopas as it is simply what these two natural withdrawn forwards are more comfortable with doing.
There aren't many questionable starters here, and for good reason. The Fire lineup has been consistent, the roster is low on depth players capable of challenging for starts, and Klopas probably hasn't come up with Plan C yet (in the past, Plan B has usually gotten him through to the end of the season). Gonzalo Segares will return at left back after missing the game in Vancouver due to yellow card accumulation, while Italian keeper Paolo Tornaghi will continue to deputize for Sean Johnson during the Gold Cup.
The one spot that is up for grabs is the second central midfield role alongside Jeff Larentowicz. Back when Klopas wanted to play a diamond, he thought Joel Lindpere was the man for the job before rapidly discovering what drunk uncle Hans Backe could have told him: No matter how much Lindpere wants to be a central attacking midfielder, he's just not very good at it.
Of late, Alex and Dan Paladini had been alternating as the starter, a rotation that seemed to depend on whether Klopas wanted the vision of the erstwhile playmaker from Brazil or the combative style of Paladini on the field for a given opponent. That choice is off the table tomorrow, as Paladini has one game left on a suspension for this despicable and foolish tackle from behind on Dom Dwyer back on the 3rd.
However, Alex has hardly convinced lately against two sides that get in your face in central midfield, and Klopas was so desperate to change things up that he gave Lindpere another shot centrally (though in roughly the same deeper role as Alex has in the diagram) against the Whitecaps. Then again, fourteen minutes later, Klopas abandoned that to move Lindpere back onto the wing, pull Magee into a true high-point position, and send on Maicon Santos (remember him? Striker who actually enjoyed shooting at the goal?), so it's safe to say Lindpere didn't exactly convince right away.
My guess is that Alex stays in the job due to a lack of a serious alternative. Magee is too valuable as a forward, Rolfe has shown that he wilts whenever he has to take on the responsibilities of playmaking, and club captain Logan Pause has been struggling with a difficult back injury for quite a while now. While Pause is no longer on the injury list, it would be something of a surprise if he were fit enough to start in a position that will truly test his fitness.
Chicago's promising start in Vancouver was mostly due to taking an attacking mindset from the opening kickoff and playing lots of balls over the top for the forwards to chase after. The idea was to force the Whitecaps to abandon their preferred high line, and it worked up until Vancouver remembered that a high line must be paired with high pressure on the ball. Once the Whitecaps got that part of the equation right, the early balls in behind - something United struggles with defending - vanished.
The issue for Chicago was that they simply had no response once the Whitecaps got their central midfield to think about forcing turnovers first and foremost. Alex is not a natural in this deeper role and lacks the physique to hold off robust challenges (which is another way of saying I want to see Perry Kitchen around Alex for 90 minutes on Saturday). Larentowicz doesn't have that problem at all, but he's a classic water carrier. His job is to win the ball and circulate it to others. He won't turn the ball over as often as the rest of the Fire midfield, but he's also not going to be the supply line for the attack.
Chicago is also struggling with spacing right now. In both of their previous losses, the Fire seemed unsure of what their shape should be when defending opponents in a 433. While United would probably be better off playing a 4231, the spacing issues in that case won't really change for the Fire. Players wouldn't follow Magee's lead when he stepped up to pressure defenders, and there were big gaps both between the lines and between the wide players and central players on a regular basis. If United can be organized and smart about seeing these gaps and taking advantage, we should have more time and space on the ball than we're used to.
In the back, Chicago is having some real issues. Austin Berry is in the midst of a terrible run of form that is seeing him make huge, avoidable mistakes while also getting hit with bad luck. The main issue for Berry has been his distribution. He's badly under-hitting passes out of the back under modest pressure, and his touch to set up passes out of the back has also been problematic. As a result, DC should focus on trying to force Chicago to exit out of the back at the feet of Berry. If he gets nervous and serves up another awful pass to the foot of an opponent, great. If he oversimplifies and just starts booting long balls to no one in particular, the Chicago possession game will suffer. Given the lack of size in the Chicago midfield and front line, possession is a must for the Fire, so United could end up removing the platform on which Chicago's success is built.
In addition to having a starting center back with no confidence, the Fire collectively seem to be nervous with Tornaghi in goal. Tornaghi is a very average MLS back-up goalkeeper, and if he has a weakness it's that he doesn't project a particularly strong belief in himself. Contrast that with Johnson, who the Fire have unflinching trust in (despite his derpy reputation). The result is a less confident Fire back four that over-thinks things and generally looks in need of leadership. Thinking and playing quickly would be to United's benefit here, as ponderous defending is usually beaten by decisive attacking.
Going forward, the presence of Magee is clearly a strength, but also reveals a weakness. The fact that Magee is even in this game and not at the Gold Cup is ludicrous. He isn't just Chicago's leading scorer; he's everything for them in the attack. Every Chicago player's first look is to Magee, who ends up bearing the weight of having to construct Chicago's attacks and also finish them off.
For United, Magee is probably not a player we can stop by beating him as an individual. Instead, we need to prevent the rest of Chicago's attack from finding him very often. Everyone else in the likely Chicago line-up wants to set Magee up rather than take the responsibility themselves (though Dilly Duka is, finally, starting to add some tangible results to his flashy dribbling). If left to be the man on a given move forward, most Chicago players will look to avoid the responsibility, which can result in the kind of toothless attack they had in Vancouver during the second half.
Earlier I mentioned that the Fire like to try balls in over the top. Usually the target is a forward, but the runs aren't what we expect from a traditional #9. Magee and Rolfe both drop off the front line, so the runs usually come from a deeper spot. Furthermore, the Fire usually let the run dictate the pass, so players focused on the ball will only register the danger when Magee or Rolfe is running past them. Smart communication and reading where those guys are headed will be vital to prevent an all-too-familiar situation where United's defense is chasing the play.
The other pattern to look for is that both Chicago wingers create off the dribble, and both are at their best playing as left midfielders. Klopas has correctly figured out that Patrick Nyarko is closer to his best on his unfavored right flank, but like virtually every MLS boss, he will switch his wide men if things aren't going well.
The difference between Nyarko and Duka is what they're trying to accomplish on the dribble. Nyarko wants to get in behind the fullback and within 10 or so yards of the endline before crossing. Duka, meanwhile, almost always attacks the top corner of the box, either to dribble into the area for a square ball or cutback, or to set up a pass from outside the area. In other words, Duka is looking to freeze his defender and then exploit the space, while Nyarko is looking to get to the space right away. United's outside backs will need to be aware of that distinction, as neither does very well when forced to shift away from their bread and butter.
On set pieces, the Fire have of late showed a strong tendency to let services bounce in the box, and have also found themselves having to mop up chaotic situations rather than clearing the ball with authority. DCU fans know this look well, as it comes from individual players lacking the dogged "there is no way in hell I'm letting my man beat me here" mindset that good set piece teams all have.
Throw in Chicago's lack of size - their defenders are all pretty big and athletic, but outside of Larentowicz the rest of their starting team is the smallest in MLS - and you have a real weakness. Vancouver created danger without even having good service on the day. When we get looks from corner kicks or free kicks, we need to see hungry United players going hard after the ball. Brave players like Kitchen and Ethan White could do a lot in this sort of environment.
Oddly enough, Chicago has also struggled mentally after their own set pieces. Mostly, the issue is with a disorganized transition game that leaves huge holes for counterattacking teams to exploit. The latest example: Vancouver scored their opener on a counter that came directly after a Fire corner kick. If Joe Willis claims a lofted service, or if a United player picks up an initial clearance with space to attack, the mindset for the Black-and-Red needs to be "full speed ahead."
As much as United lacks confidence, the pressure is off this team right now. Meanwhile, Chicago has seen a run of form that put them back into the playoff conversation turn sour. That means expectations are still there to push for a playoff spot, but belief that those expectations can be filled is probably not. The new acquisitions at RFK have felt like a breath of fresh air, and if marshaled correctly we could see United with the rare psychological edge, provided we're able to match what is typically a strong-ish starting Fire side in the opening 25 minutes.