It was only a little while ago that D.C. United was right near the top of the Eastern Conference, while the Chicago Fire were scrapping it out with Montreal and New England to be the team that could take a run at the Columbus Crew in 5th place. The Fire offense was mostly reliant on Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko, and disgruntled players like Sebastian Grazzini were leaving fans and management flummoxed.
To say that things have changed is an understatement. It's now United barely clinging to 5th place in the East while relying on Chris Pontius and the set pieces of Branko Boskovic - who won't be around to bail us out after whatever it is he did during Mark Geiger's circus act got him a red card - for offense. Chicago is now the team close to the top; a win tonight will leave them just 2 points back of Sporting Kansas City having played the same number of games.
To put this role reversal in more stark terms, Chicago's league record since June 17th is 7W-2D-2L. United's record since June 16th? 3W-1D-4L. Even if DCU were to have played the same number of matches over that spell and won those hypothetical three games, Chicago would have 23 points to DC's 19. While United has been thrown off by a start-stop schedule, Chicago has roared up the standings.
They've done so while replacing malcontents with quality. Grazzini never replicated the outstanding form he had upon arrival last season, and is now on loan in Argentina. Rafael Robayo and Federico Puppo never delivered, so they're also on loan in South America.
In their place, the Fire have added Chris Rolfe (who already has 5 goals in just 879 minutes), Alvaro Fernandez (a starter in Seattle and a guy that got major minutes for World Cup semifinalist Uruguay in 2010), and new Designated Player Sherjill MacDonald, who notched his first goal last week against New England. Head coach Frank Klopas deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a mid-season overhaul that most teams dream of.
All of this is my way of saying that this very significant game is also going to be extremely tough. A win tonight would go a long way towards signalling that United's mid-season malaise is ending precisely because the Fire is not a team you beat with anything other than quality performances all over the field.
I've seen Chicago's current formation called a 442, as well as a 4231. In all honesty, there isn't much difference. Rolfe drops deep plenty of the time, and the wingers will push far ahead of two holding central midfielders. Either way, it'll look like this:
There are three question marks here, and both are significant. Club captain Logan Pause will be out for weeks after suffering from a collapsed lung and two broken ribs against the Philadelphia Union (Pause is unlucky that the Union weren't too busy time-wasting to crash into him, I guess), and will likely be replaced by Dan Paladini. Mike Videira is another option, but Paladini's abrasive style and underrated skill on the ball will give him the edge.
Nonetheless, Paladini is a big step down in terms of soccer IQ from the quiet, dependable Pause. United might be able to take advantage if they can maintain the speed of play they had in Sunday's second half. Videira might still make an appearance centrally as a sub - with Paladini moving wide - if the Fire are trying to protect a lead in the latter stages.
Up front, MacDonald is a typical mid-season signing from Europe, in that he's not quite at peak fitness due to the differing schedules of MLS and leagues elsewhere. If he's not up for a game on short rest, former starter Dominic Oduro would get the call and present an entirely different challenge (see below).
The other question mark is on the left, where Marco Pappa - who will no longer be a Fire player come winter, having signed a pre-contract agreement with Dutch top-flight side Heerenveen - looks likely to start. Patrick Nyarko is the more reliable player, but a nagging hamstring problem flared up against the Revs last Thursday. Nyarko will probably make an appearance, but the unpredictable Pappa is who I expect to see at kickoff.
As much as the Chicago attack is getting attention for being so full of quality players, the real star of this team is actually the defense. On a goals-per-game basis, they're the third stingiest outfit in MLS. Former German national team defender Arne Friedrich, when not injured, has been a big plus for what is a young group in terms of organizing, and Louisville product Austin Berry is a rookie of the year contender. There's also Gonzalo Segares at left back, with his history of providing goals and assists against United; it will be most likely down to Andy Najar to shut down the Costa Rican's threat on the overlap.
They're not flawless, however. Jalil Anibaba is not a true right back, but tries to do his part in terms of getting forward. The problem for Chicago is that he's not particularly good at picking his spots, and he's also not very skillful with the ball. Funneling the ball his way should result in turnovers and aimless crosses (or at least, more than it would if we funneled the ball to Segares).
Berry is also not the best on the ball, and he's a very right-footed player in a left-central position. United's attackers should try to force him to use his left foot whenever possible. Even if he doesn't cough the ball up directly, the ensuing pass will likely be awkwardly placed for the recipient.
Attacking any team with a stout back four and two holding midfielders requires strong wing play. Najar and Nick DeLeon are going to have to have big games tonight to stretch the field out; otherwise, there will be little room in the center for Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius. Speaking of Party Boy, we need to see him throw in some moments attacking wide areas (for width) as well as some sprints in behind (to give us more vertical space). Friedrich and Berry are not the fastest center backs, so Pontius would have the advantage there if we want to go over the top.
Set pieces will also be important. Most of Chicago's defenders are a bit too comfortable with fouling as a solution, and the addition of Paladini will add to that. With Boskovic out, someone in a black shirt will need to set up and provide the kind of service to make the Fire regret these fouls.
Otherwise, Chicago will continue playing physical, risking the minor threat of a foul instead of the larger threat of letting us play. Good service will not only potentially turn into chances, but it will also reduce the fouling, which means more fluent attacks for United. Hopefully tonight's referee Ismail Elfath is less tolerant of persistent infringement than Mark Geiger was of Michael Lahoud's constant hacking.
When the Black-and-Red don't have the ball, a big key to throwing the Fire off their rhythm is not allowing Pavel Pardo to play. The Mexican veteran is as smart as they come, however, so this is no easy task. De Ro, Pontius, and whoever ends up at striker (probably Lionard Pajoy, but possibly Hamdi Salihi) need to form a defensive triangle around Pardo. This will serve a dual purpose: It'll make it much harder for Fire defenders (and Paladini, for that matter) to get Pardo the ball, and it will also provide an easy platform to pressure Pardo when he does get a touch. If Pardo can be forced off his game, Chicago's possession will break down time and again.
Remember how I said set pieces would be important? It's the same for us defensively. Berry and Anibaba are great targets in the box, and I've seen Pappa, Pardo, and Rolfe all score direct from free kicks. Throw in the ease with which Fernandez, Pappa, and Rolfe all hit the deck, and this becomes a tricky problem. Particularly in wide areas, United will have to strike the balance between appropriate physical play and avoiding unnecessary contact.
How big of a threat is this? The starting back four for the Fire has combined for 7 goals on the season (over 23% of Chicago's goals), and we've seen United's rather mediocre set piece marking of late. If you can't defend free kicks well, you certainly can't go around giving away set pieces without eventually getting burned.
In the run of play, Chicago's newfound width has allowed Rolfe to blossom. He's a threat just about everywhere: He can score from long range, he can score poacher's goals, and his dribbling ability and cleverness make him a good set-up man as well. Rolfe is mobile, so communication across the back four has to be top notch when handing off the responsibility of marking Chicago's top player.
Further, since he drops underneath, Perry Kitchen will be seeing plenty of Rolfe, who is the closest thing Chicago has to a central attacking midfielder. However, he can't just be Rolfe's shadow, because Pappa (and Fernandez, to a lesser extent) will pop up in the abandoned central space and wreak havoc.
The target forward possibilities couldn't be more different. MacDonald is a traditional target man, and he looks like a good one. If he plays, United defenders will need to both impair his hold-up play and also deny him any options when he does manage to keep the ball with his back to goal. Without runners, MacDonald will probably have to play backwards to the central midfield duo, and that would signify a job well done.
On the other hand, if Oduro plays, United will have to be sharp in pressing high. Chicago will look for early through balls and long balls from the back four all game long, because Oduro is faster than just about anyone (maybe Marvell Wynne could catch him, but Wynne is not a United player). Bodying up on Oduro early is also important, since it stops him from getting up to speed.
To get the win we need tonight, United should take a note from what Ben Olsen said after Sunday's game. He noted that we played an "inspired" second half, and if we could play like that more often we'll win games. After all, it's only by sheer luck and bumbling referees that Philly didn't come off 3-1 losers. The key here is to find that inspiration when the clock reads 0:00, not when it says 45:00. Ideally, United can turn the anger and frustration experienced against Philly into the fuel needed to have that buzz and energy going forward.