Fresh off a 4-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, DC United will hit the road tonight as close to fully healthy as they have been in ages. Ben Olsen's side is justifiably confident due to a strong run of form, a defense that isn't conceding many goals, and an attack that has produced 9 goals in its last 3 games. Given the club's road form - unbeaten in almost four months - there are plenty of reasons to believe this is the start of something good. It's also worth noting that DC has not lost at Chicago since 2007, winning three times and drawing twice.
The Chicago Fire, United's host tonight, is headed in a different direction. Apart from US Open Cup victories over a lower-division club (the Rochester Rhinos) and a disinterested New York Red Bulls reserve side, Chicago is winless since June 12th. They have tied no fewer than 14 games; one more would set an MLS record, and they enter tonight's match with 11 more games to play. Even in a league dominated by parity, Chicago's ability to finish games all square is bizarre.
Despite their current spot at the bottom of the Eastern conference (yes, below even Toronto FC and the New England Revolution), this is not the walkover it might seem to be. Chicago has shown some mental strength in coming from behind to secure a few of their many ties, and any team with as much speed in the attack as the Fire possess can be dangerous.
Frank Klopas will likely stick with the 4231 he has preferred in recent weeks:
The biggest issue in terms of picking a line up for Klopas is in the back. Recent acquisition Dan Gargan started their most recent game at right back, with Logan Pause moving back to defensive midfield and Dan Paladini dropping to the bench. There isn't much to choose from between Gargan at right back and Paladini in the midfield, so Klopas could theoretically go either way.
In central defense, Klopas will select two out of rookie Jalil Anibaba, Yamith Cuesta, and Josip Mikulic. Klopas seems enamored with the erratic Cuesta's athleticism, so out of the group I think the Colombian is the most likely to start. In any case, central defense is a huge weak point for Chicago. United as a group should look to attack down the middle as often as possible, because Chicago has been guilty of both collective and individual errors in that area of the field all season long.
Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa are both very likely to start; the question marks here just indicate that Klopas has played both players on both wings. Look for them to switch frequently throughout the game. Pappa is perhaps MLS's most mercurial player; he can dominate games, but is often guilty of either trying to go it alone too often or disappearing from games entirely. The recent transfer rumors that would see him go to the Netherlands may weigh heavily on his mind as well. Nyarko, meanwhile, has electric speed and is a strong 1v1 player, but is inconsistent with his final pass and can struggle when the going gets rough. Nonetheless, if Chicago is scoring goals, the Virginia Tech product is likely involved.
Grazzini and Pardo are supposed to be the big names that drag the Fire out of the muck and towards respectability. Grazzini is an Argentine playmaker who has shown some flashes of quality (see this through ball to set up Dominic Oduro's goal at Vancouver). However, he has not yet fully integrated himself and is short of fitness, so moments like that are isolated rather than being part of a cohesive 90 minutes.
Pardo finally came to MLS at 35 years old, roughly 2 full years after the first rumors of his arrival. Pardo has a great soccer brain and still looks like he has the legs for the time being, but the one position Chicago didn't need a new player was in central midfield. While it's good for Chicago to add some soccer IQ to their team - Pardo's cerebral approach is more aesthetically pleasing than Paladini's headless chicken/hard man routine - this move seems kind of pointless. Who signs a 35 year old DP at the position they were already strong at?
Still, a defensive midfield featuring Pardo and Pause is an excellent screen for a defense that desperately needs the help. I said earlier that United should attack down the middle, but these attacks should have more nuance than just going straight up the gut. Instead, a pattern of moving the ball to the wings in the middle third of the field, and then trying to play into the middle as we enter the Fire's defensive third would allow us to bypass a quality duo and attack the soft underbelly that is the Fire back four.
Defensively, Chicago's main weapon is speed. Oduro, Nyarko, and Pappa are all very fast, and that allows Chicago to simply play over the top if they struggle in possession. Fortunately, we have a template for success against a higher-quality group of speedsters. Against FC Dallas, the United back four showed a real knack for anticipating things like the midfield wall passes Dallas tried to use to spring Brek Shea, Jackson, and Marvin Chavez from midfield. Simply being aware that this is coming and stepping early to the guy that will become the runner snuffs these plays out in their infancy. An early bump, or even simply taking a line to the ball that prevents a speedster from getting up to full speed, can totally negate this method of attack.
When Grazzini tires, Chicago has been switching to a 442, bringing in either Diego Chaves or Cristian Nazarit as a target forward. It's important that everyone on the field for United anticipates this switch and the change in approach that comes with it. When those players are on, picking up the knock-downs becomes a crucial element in halting attacks before they start. Israeli teenager Orr Barouch has also impressed as a supersub; dealing with his movement and energy may actually be the most complicated task United deals with all night. In recent weeks, Barouch has replaced either Nyarko or Pappa, with Oduro moving to the right wing, so Daniel Woolard will need to take note of how his task changes when that switch is made (and Klopas makes that change in just about every game, so count on seeing it tonight).
Ultimately, Chicago is a team struggling for confidence right now. Their disastrous showing against the Vancouver Whitecaps underlined their ability to self-destruct in the back, and they also lacked the strength in character to finish off the New York Red Bulls after going up 2-1 (and letting a team in the mental state that NYRB is in these days up off the mat is simply unforgivable). This is not a team in a good place right now.
The ideal way for DC to take advantage would be to jump all over Chicago from the opening kickoff. When you have an opponent that is still adjusting to several new faces and is low on confidence and cohesion, there's no reason to let them grow into the game. An aggressive, proactive approach to both sides of the ball tonight will provide a clear path to three points. On the other hand, any team with this kind of speed is just one misjudged ball or one unfocused play away from scoring, so the strong defensive play we've seen on the road has to be on display for the entire 90 minutes.