The Chicago Fire are an enigmatic bunch at the moment. This is a team that has lost three of four, including a home game against the Philadelphia Union and a road loss to a short-handed, talent-deficient New England Revolution. On the other hand, this is a team that had won six straight home games before that loss to the Union, five of which were against Eastern Conference foes. That one outlying win in their current four-game streak just so happened to be at Red Bull Arena, where the home team only lost one other time all season.
There's also a confusing air around the team. Ask a Fire fan, and they'll tell you they're borderline MLS Cup contenders. The predictions for this game from Hot Time in Old Town writers we've talked to on Filibuster and Behind Enemy Lines included scorelines of 3-2 and 4-1 Fire. To say that they're confident in the Windy City is like saying Branko Boskovic's pass to Lewis Neal was "good:" A huge understatement.
And yet, ask a non-Fire fan who observes MLS, and the portrait is different. SB Nation's weekly Power Rankings seem to often provoke howls of outrage from Fire fans; personally, I never placed them higher than 5th (and that was only for one week). That's not an unusual perspective. The general opinion in the other 18 MLS cities is that Chicago is a good, but not great, team. It's an intriguing disconnect, regardless of where you fall on the issue. It's rare to see one MLS team feel so overlooked like this.
A look through the Fire schedule underlines something that isn't as debatable: Chicago plays tight games. Of their 33 games thus far, 22 have been ties or one-goal decisions in either direction. The Fire don't blow people out - they only got to three goals in a game five times, and in each of those games conceded one or two - and they don't get crushed, either. One of D.C. United's signature wins in 2012 was over the Fire at RFK, but even then Chicago managed to turn their only two chances into goals to keep the score closer than the play on the field would appear.
Speaking of that lovely night in late August, the outlook from Chicago is that it was an outlier. They might have an argument: The Fire have only given up four once all season, and other than that recent loss to Philly have kept opponents to two or fewer in all of their other games. Plus, this was our first look at Andy Najar at right back and our first use of the current double pivot midfield. The Fire were ambushed at RFK that night; expect them to be prepared this time around.
Moving away from circumstances and onto the field, let's look at how the Fire will line up:
Interestingly enough, Chicago also uses a double pivot. It hasn't worked that well of late due to the absence of Pavel Pardo, but the Mexican veteran says he's fit to play 60-70 minutes tomorrow. If head coach Frank Klopas decides to use him and risk a recurrence of the muscular injuries that have kept him out for weeks, the Fire will be a much stronger side. While Arne Friedrich is the brains of that strong back four, it's Pardo who organizes the rest of the team (both defensively and going into the attack).
Without Pardo, Chicago's players have been having to make more decisions on their own, and they simply don't compare when it comes to soccer IQ. Their resulting play has been a bit incoherent and disjointed, with individual players trying to do it alone because there's no one connecting one guy's idea to the rest of the group. Pardo is the glue that keeps Chicago playing as one, and his potential replacements - Dan Paladini most likely, with Alex as the other option - can only duplicate other, less vital facets of his game.
The only other question marks are the wingers. Patrick Nyarko and Alvaro Fernandez will almost certainly start, but Klopas has switched them back and forth throughout the second half of the season. It's a big decision this week, since the left midfielder on the day will have to cope with Najar (something Chicago did abysmally at RFK in August). Nyarko is supposedly the better defensive player, but he was also playing wide on the left that night. Fernandez was seen as responsible enough to play wide for Uruguay's 2010 World Cup team, but in Chicago at least he hasn't figured out the balance needed and can be caught out of position.
Since his return from Europe, Chris Rolfe has been the most likely threat for Chicago in terms of goals and assists. Playing as a withdrawn forward with a lot of freedom - the same role as Dwayne De Rosario, basically - Rolfe had a lot of success during the early part of his season (once he got over the injuries that kept him out during the spring). However, in recent weeks teams have figured him out and the Fire attack has slowed down as a result.
Interestingly, the above article mentions that, from Chicago's point of view, Rolfe was essentially man-marked by Marcelo Saragosa in United's 4-2 home win. That isn't really an accurate way of looking at what happened (nor is the "it won't work on a bigger field" idea, since Toyota Park's surface is a whopping three yards wider than the pitch at RFK). Saragosa was covering the space that Rolfe likes to play in. Rolfe and the Fire failed to adjust, so Saragosa just kept being near Rolfe. It was a zonal assignment, in other words, rather than a man-marking job.
In any case, the talk in the Fire camp is to push Rolfe higher upfield as a true second forward rather than letting him play a trequartista role. How will United deal with that change? The key is not to always pressure Rolfe - though giving him space is dangerous - but instead to deny him the ball in the first place. If Rolfe plays high up the field, United needs to work as a unit to take Rolfe off the list of options when other Chicago players are on the ball. Considering some of the rather desperate quotes coming from players like Nyarko, we may see the Fire try to force the ball to Rolfe anyway. If Chicago wants to get tunnel vision and only think of Rolfe going forward, let them. If United cuts off those passes as options correctly, forcing the ball to Rolfe will equal a turnover barring absolutely perfect passes (and the corresponding run from Rolfe to boot).
This game strikes me as one that will be won in the central midfield. DC conclusively outplayed Chicago in that department in the previous meeting, and the Fire never found a way to get over losing that section of the field. United's pressure has to be excellent, particularly if Pardo plays. If Pardo and Logan Pause are forced to pass under duress, the Fire rhythm will be thrown off, and from there we could see the disjointed, individualistic stuff they've been guilty of recently take over.
If, on the other hand, Chicago's double pivot can outsmart ours - or if United's pressure as a whole isn't quick enough and from the correct angles - Chicago will be able to engage their wingers in the attack as part of a coherent structure. When that happens, we might have problems: Nyarko is fast and clever with the ball, and both he and Fernandez win a ton of fouls (sure, in Flaco's case that comes from hitting the deck whenever someone's within two yards of him, but I'd rather not give him the chance to con the referee than moan about diving). When the Fire wingers are running at opposing fullbacks, they can then stretch the whole opposing team out, and that's where guys like Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald will find gaps and get looks at goal.
I mentioned the number of fouls Chicago's wingers tend to win, and it's a real issue for United. Pardo's return means that Chicago has their best set-piece taker back on the field, and the Fire are very underrated when it comes to their ability to turn those situations into goals. The starting back four we should expect to see has produced 8 goals in 2012. Sometimes it isn't as clean as the stuff we see from KC or Houston, where the service is right to a great target who heads it in, but Chicago's ability to cause chaos and then pounce onto the loose ball has created plenty of goals. United must defend intelligently, and when Chicago does get a set piece or corner kick, the clearances need to be high, wide, and far from goal.
Going forward, United needs the quality of wide play that we saw against the Columbus Crew. Lost in all this discussion of whether Olsen's tactics are the best choice for the team at the moment is the fact that our uglier games have also included a lot of bad individual play with the ball. There is no tactical system in the world that can overcome sloppy turnovers, bad decisions, or a lack of movement off the ball.
However, if the Black-and-Red can maintain the kind of ideas and focus with the ball that we saw against Columbus, we can stretch the Fire back four. Nick DeLeon might not have as much fun against Gonzalo Segares - a top-notch 1v1 defender - as he did against Josh Williams, but he doesn't have to. if DeLeon can draw Segares in, the Najar overlap should be available over and over again. On the opposite wing, Jalil Anibaba isn't a natural right back and can be exploited in terms of spacing. However, for that to happen there has to be enough going on in the attack that Friedrich can't solve all of Anibaba's problems for him. An active, diverse attack will open up space down Chicago's right; a plodding attack (looking at you, Lionard Pajoy) will allow Anibaba to figure things out and get plenty of help from Friedrich, which will make things a lot harder.
Another good idea for United will be to play direct. Against a similarly slow Crew team last week, United attacked with pace and with early passes and cross-field balls. Chicago's back four and central midfield is at a distinct disadvantage against United when it comes to speed, and this may be the ace up our collective sleeve. If United can break out into the attack effectively and bypass the central midfield - where Pardo and Pause will find a way to slow things down or commit the small foul that forces teams to reset - we will put one of our best assets against one of Chicago's worst qualities.
Psychologically, this is a tricky game. United is coming off the high of qualifying for the playoffs, which makes this the first game we've had to play after accomplishing a big goal. We'll learn a lot about this team: Is this a side that is content with having achieved a goal, or are they still hungry for more? On the other side, Chicago will be desperate to go into the playoffs on a good note. Who wants to play the biggest game of the season after going 1W-0D-4L or 1-1-3 in their previous five? Both teams are playing for the right to have a good feeling surrounding them as the games become life-or-death.
Plus, there's the more obvious issue hanging over both teams: Avoiding the 4 vs. 5 first round game. In Chicago's case, the need is huge: A loss to United opens the door for them to fall into 5th place, meaning a trip to the house of horrors that is BBVA Compass Stadium to face the Houston Dynamo (who have the best playoff head coach in MLS). For United, it's almost the same, since a loss would mean hosting either Houston - who have mostly had our number for years now - or the hated New York Red Bulls, who in Thierry Henry have a player that can destroy a team by himself.
Losing this one isn't the same as losing a playoff game, but it could be what sets up a playoff loss in the very near future.