In recent seasons, the Chicago Fire would face D.C. United in one of two states: Riding high because their new formation was really working out, or wondering why their new formation wasn't working like it was last month. This roller coaster pattern cost Frank Klopas his job, and it also made the Fire somewhat predictable.
During the same period of time, Frank Yallop was in San Jose making enemies around the league by crafting an Earthquakes team built around the long ball. That may be a popular baseball strategy, but in soccer it's frowned upon for aesthetic reasons. Ugly or not, though, the Quakes won a Shield bombarding the opposing box and watching Chris Wondolowski mop up the various messes made by large forwards crashing into defenders.
So now that Yallop is in charge of the Fire, it should still be easy to scout them. Just take Yallop's tactics and adapt them for the Fire's roster. Simple. We're done here.
Except Yallop has always been more of a pragmatist than anyone gives him credit for. His Quakes teams were built to play on the tiny surface at
the Thunderdome Buck Shaw Stadium. It makes sense: You play half your games under certain conditions, so why not build your side to be effective in those circumstances first and foremost? The Bash Brothers mentality in San Jose made people forget that Yallop's first Quakes team played a bit more like today's Toronto FC, while his time managing Canada saw him tend towards a very conservative style.
The other problem with expecting Yallop to remake the Fire as Quakes East is the fact that the roster simply wouldn't allow it. There's not a single burly forward, the wingers don't play like Shea Salinas, and there's generally just a lack of large, angry men willing to play large angry man soccer. Mike Magee may be another late-blooming American withdrawn forward/midfielder who scored a ton of goals, but a kinda-sorta-maybe-not-really Wondo-ish player doesn't define a team's tactics alone.
The early evidence as to what Yallop plans to do with the Fire has been inconclusive. Without Magee available for the first couple of games, he played a 4141 mostly made of starters from last year's team. The Fire lost 3-2 at Chivas USA, and for Yallop it was time to follow through on some things he likely noticed in preseason: The new, young players Chicago brought in this offseason may actually be better than guys like Chris Rolfe, Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka.
We actually got a good look at this in the preseason, when a Fire midfield containing Benji Joya and Harry Shipp ripped our reserves apart while Chicago's alleged starters looked a bit ponderous. Sure, our depth is a clear step down from our best eleven, but it was the nature of the Fire's play in that second half: Decisive, confident, and more technically gifted.
Still, that's not to say that making one (fairly obvious?) decision means that Yallop has done the hard part and is now down to fine-tuning his team. Magee's not-a-holdout has left the Fire weeks away from even letting the idea that they're the finished product cross their minds. Last week, at home against an out-of-form Red Bulls, the Fire never seemed certain what they were up to as a unit. Their formation wasn't really a 4141 or a 4132. Magee debuted between the midfield and Quincy Amarikwa in an oddly pronounced 41311, then spent some time wide right, and then finally started actually playing like a second forward.
Normally this might come across as Magee simply being allowed to wander and find the game, a luxury often given to star players. However, to me it looked more like the Fire treating the game like a dress rehearsal, moving pieces around almost arbitrarily to see if something might click. It's not working with Magee as an attacking midfielder? Try him on the right. That didn't work? Push him up front. There was a "run it up the flagpole, see who salutes" air to the whole game.
If there is one element that seems certain, it's that the Fire will prefer a more fluid team than in the past. Joya can play virtually any midfield position, Alex has played all over for the Fire, and Shipp was drafted as a forward/playmaker but has now become more of a crafty right midfielder. Magee, meanwhile, became famous for his versatility in LA, which means the Fire will likely send out a back four, Jeff Larentowicz as an anchor man, Quincy Amarikwa doing the grunt work up top, and a rather nebulous group of players between.
One thing that should jump out right away is that neither outside back is a big name. Longtime United killer Gonzalo Segares is doubtful per Orrin Schwartz of the Daily Herald. Greg Cochrane, who got a handful of starts early last year for the Galaxy, will continue at left back after last week's adequate debut against NYRB. On the right is recent acquisition Matt Watson, who in Vancouver was primarily an enthusiastic but limited defensive midfielder. Last week was the first time he'd ever played right back in MLS, and the object was to play it safe. Thankfully for the Fire, Mke Petke made a tactical blunder by asking Thierry Henry to stay central rather than play his normal game left of center, letting Watson off the hook.
The center backs, despite the concession of three goals to the Goats, have been a marked improvement. Bakary Soumare was stuck with a redundant partner in Austin Berry last season, and he looks more comfortable next to Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. Football Manager players would have no trouble recognizing their tendencies: Soumare has stopper duties, while Hurtado has been told to cover. Last season, no one was sure who should step and who should chase, and the Fire were often confused as a result. This year, Soumare's job is primarily to anticipate play and step forward to make interceptions and tackles, and he's been making a lot of those.
Of course, that's a double-edged sword as a stat. Soumare is getting a lot done, but if the Fire were playing well he wouldn't be so busy. Larentowicz has always been more comfortable in a double-pivot than as the lone defensive midfielder, and he's playing behind a midfield that features three guys that want to go forward at every opportunity. There's little cover, in other words, which means the Fire back four should be very busy for as long as they don't have much of a midfield balance.
United showed some actual possession chops through the midfield, but against Toronto FC the Black-and-Red repeatedly stopped moving forward within 30-40 yards of goal. That should be an easier task this week; the Fire have no Michael Bradley out there being smarter than everyone, and they also don't have defensive leadership like Steven Caldwell and Julio Cesar. Soumare and Hurtado are both probably better off next to a more vocal partner, and Sean Johnson's main attributes as a goalkeeper do not include his organizational ability. In other words, if United can't turn a decisive possession advantage into a respectable number of shots and chances in this fixture, we have real problems.
In particular, United is going to need to take advantage of the uncertainty both fullbacks will have. With Chris Pontius still injured, we need our wide midfielders and outside backs to be a more complicated proposition. On the right, that means not just hoping for Sean Franklin to overlap every time. On the left, it's sort of the opposite problem: We've seen that Christian can hit a decent cross, but against TFC he didn't get into the attack much at all. Watson isn't going to get much help from Shipp defensively, so I'd prefer to see Christian and Nick DeLeon repeatedly looking to combine along the left flank.
Last week we saw too much of Eddie Johnson moving wide to help with build-up play; tomorrow, we need him in the middle making positive runs with conviction instead of drifting around trying to help a team with over 60% possession keep the ball more. On this site, we've compared Hurtado more than once to Dejan Jakovic, who would often get confused and had to respond with emergency defending. That's EJ's mark for this game: Pose enough questions for Hurtado that he makes a mental error, and then take advantage.
Defending through the midfield, United is going to have to be sharper in transition. I know this is something of a broken record, but until the problem is fixed teams are going to run through us on the counter. Luis Silva was more of a factor in possession at BMO Field, but he and DeLeon looked a bit naive whenever TFC sprung a counter attack. Chicago's midfield is set up to play a bit like the New England Revolution, using their technical ability to move the ball quickly forward. That means that if United can't be sharper in terms of anticipation and more responsible about getting into good defensive positions, we could have problems whenever we don't have the ball.
Up front, Amarikwa is never going to win a skills competition. However, he'll never be criticized for lack of effort, and his speed and physical strength let him turn lost causes into actual attacking moves. Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke should have a distinct advantage over Amarikwa when it comes to soccer IQ, but they're going to be tested on that over and over again due to Amarikwa's work rate and fearlessness. That's the downside of life as a center back: You have to pass that test over and over again. Amarikwa is a classic quantity over quality striker, but his job is mainly to sacrifice so guys like Magee, Joya, Alex, and Shipp can do their thing.
The biggest issue defensively will obviously be Magee. Even with his uncertain role, we're still talking about a guy that virtually single-handedly dragged this Fire team into the playoffs last year with both his goals and his lead-by-example role off the field. We are playing the Fire at a good time, since Yallop is clearly uncertain as to what the best use for Magee is within his system and is unlikely to build a system around Magee. Nevertheless, his ability to escape marking is right up there with anyone in the league, and we saw last year that he can make difficult chances look easy.
The job for United is to make sure Magee is playing more of a set-up role than being the guy receiving the service. It's still potentially dangerous, since Magee will look to combine with others to get himself on the ball inside the box, but it's far preferable to simply trying to deny service and hope we can keep Magee marked up. That's a test for any defense, much less one that has only played two competitive games together. Perry Kitchen will also have to be very strong tomorrow afternoon, as Magee often starts his deceptive runs from deeper spots. Communication throughout the defense and the midfield is the best way to ensure that someone else is taking the Fire's shots (and, hopefully, there aren't many to be taken in the first place).
One thing United might consider is to apply a bit more of a high line against the Fire. Chicago doesn't have a single starting defender who I'd rate as truly comfortable with the ball, and for all his qualities Larentowicz mostly looks to play as simply as possible. Despite being a midfielder by trade, Watson gets hurried very easily on the ball, which is also a problem for Hurtado. We've seen around MLS that high pressure can create chances when possession alone isn't doing the job (see also: Portland).
It's something of a risk given Boswell and Parke's speed compared to Amarikwa's, but United has been playing too safe in just about every facet of the game. if there's anything Ben Olsen's United needs, it's an increased willingness to take risks. If United can't turn possession into actual danger, maybe it's time to look for a different avenue for chances. Sporting Kansas City's withering pressure might not be something we can replicate, but we can and should make it difficult for Chicago to spend any time on the ball.
That will not only test their defenders' ability to connect passes, but it'll also benefit United from a psychological perspective. Chicago doesn't have a bunch of fighters on their roster, and if this becomes a game defined by high pressure, there will generally be more battling for loose balls and more moments where the meaner team will likely triumph. I look at Chicago's projected lineup and see a group that's, quite frankly, soft. I'm not sure United is made of the same kind of steel that we were in 2012, but I do think we have an edge if this game has an edge.