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D.C. United Scouting Report: Chicago Fire

The Chicago Fire call themselves the "Kings of the Cup" thanks to having won the US Open Cup more than any other MLS club. They've also had D.C. United's number this year. Here's how United can turn the tables and get back to where this club belongs: Playing for trophies.

Mike Magee in his natural environment, having just scored a goal.
Mike Magee in his natural environment, having just scored a goal.

It was news that caught no one by surprise. Geography has always determined most US Open Cup pairings, and when Orlando City SC crashed and burned at Toyota Park, there was no avoiding it. For the umpteenth time, D.C. United would have to face the Chicago Fire in an elimination match.

This is a big problem. Since 1998, when Chicago (featuring two former United head coaches in Peter Nowak and Tom Soehn, as well as current United assistant coach Josh Wolff and current Fire boss Frank Klopas) became the first team other than United to lift MLS Cup via a 2-0 victory over arguably the best MLS team ever assembled (with current United head coach Ben Olsen at right midfield), this is the single most troubling team for the Black-and-Red to face with elimination on the line.

Since I'm well-established as a masochist, I had to go back and look at the grisly history. Feel free to skip this next bit for your own good:

1998: Chicago beats us in the MLS Cup final; this is the first time we had not won MLS Cup.
2003: Back in the playoffs for the first time since 1999, we lose 2-0 in both Eastern Conference semifinal legs to the Fire. This one wasn't so bad, as we were clearly the worst team in the playoff field.
2005: It's the EC semis again, and United finally manages to avoid defeat in the first leg at Chicago. The second leg, however, is a nightmare: 4-0 to the Fire at RFK. This is how bizarre that game was: Center back Jack Stewart, playing right midfield due to an injury crisis, scored. Jesse Marsch scored likely the best goal of his entire life. Wingback Ivan Guerrero scored twice. Nothing made sense, except that Chicago had some kind of hex on us.
2006: Somehow, it took two of the best USOC teams in MLS history this long to face each other. A Justin Mapp goal in the 58th minute knocked the wheels off for us, and we ended up losing 3-0 in Chicago.
2007: We won the Supporters Shield, playing utterly brilliant soccer up until roughly mid-August. Things weren't so brilliant down the stretch, and then both Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio picked up injuries in the final week of the regular season. We could do nothing but grimly hold on for a 1-0 loss in Chicago, and despite the best efforts of our (still clearly injured) dynamic duo to return for the home leg, we were down 2-0 by halftime. Christian Gomez then tried to single-handedly force overtime, setting up Clyde Simms before scoring himself in a five minute span. Gomez appeared to score a stoppage-time goal that would have forced overtime, but was caught handling the ball in the moments before he scored. Chicago wins 3-2 on aggregate.
2008: The infamous "Cuauhtemoc Blanco punches or headbutts everyone" game. It's the only evidence that this is not an inexorable curse. With the score 1-0 Chicago, Jaime Moreno - still recovering from an injury at the time - emerged from the bench to create an equalizer for Francis "Grandpa" Doe to force overtime. Moreno's corner was headed home by Bryan Namoff in the 99th minute, and then the brilliant Bolivian was subbed off, having done his job perfectly. Later, Blanco physically assaulted several people but somehow didn't go to jail. Sports!
Total: When we play Chicago with elimination on the line, our record is 1W-2D-6L, with only 4 goals scored and 17 conceded. The Fire scored each and every one of the first 16 goals in these matches! That goal from Simms ended 699 straight minutes without a United goal in an elimination match against Chicago. But hey, on the bright side, since then it's been 4-1 United, so...yeah.

Oh, before I forget: Chicago has never lost an Open Cup match played in Illinois.

Unfortunately, the 2013 Chicago Fire seem to have a firm grasp on how this rivalry is supposed to go when something's on the line beyond regular season points. Our first meeting was essentially a game to see who got to maintain the slightest glimmer of playoff hope; Chicago scored early and late to win 2-0. A couple weeks ago, it was even worse. Chicago scored twice in the first 11 minutes, then grabbed a third on a counter following a United corner. The 4-1 scoreline was, if anything, flattering for United. Oh, and both games featured an own goal by the Black-and-Red, as if this feces pie needed some extra garnish.

Obviously things have gone poorly, but why? One big factor has been the early goals against. For a team that struggles mightily to score goals, conceding in the first 15 minutes is a disaster. Falling behind is already problematic enough, since we have just one solitary point from the fourteen games we've conceded first. Chicago has scored in the 2nd, 9th, and 11th minutes in our two games. Even if the attacking prowess shown on Saturday against the Montreal Impact is the new standard, giving up goals that early is a recipe for defeat.

Another huge issue is the way the Fire like to create their big chances. Chicago loves to play their forwards in behind the defense earlier than usual, either from around the midfield circle or on the wing. When they've stretched us out horizontally, the service is usually a through ball; when that space isn't available, they'll go over the top. The unconventional movement of Mike Magee and Chris Rolfe - both of whom like to drop off the front line and then make their runs from deeper positions - has caused us endless trouble.

Before we get into what to do about all that, let's look at how the Fire are currently constructed:


While Klopas built his roster to play a 4132, it has more or less been completely abandoned for this standard, out-of-the-box 442. If not for the dual withdrawn forwards, there would be nothing tactically interesting about the Fire.

After playing a tense game in Philadelphia - which Chicago won 2-1 despite opting to take the back foot for about 45-50 minutes during the middle of the game - you'd think there might be some rotation, but save for a couple of spots Chicago is in the same boat as us: They can't afford to make changes without a significant drop in quality, and with the playoffs a pipe dream, it's worth the risk to bet on your best players anyway.

The only potential changes are in the midfield. Dilly Duka's injury opened the door for Joel Lindpere's top-notch display against United the last time we met, but since then the Estonian has drifted back towards the ineffective form he's had for most of the past two years. Duka was fit enough to play the final 23 minutes against Philly this weekend, and could be in line for a recall on either flank. Patrick Nyarko is unlikely to sit, but Klopas could use Duka on the right and may think that he needs to get someone fresh into the team.

In the middle, Brazilian playmaker Alex has been adequate in a deeper role since the diamond was abandoned. However, "adequate" usually doesn't keep you in the starting lineup for long, and club captain Logan Pause has been pushing for a recall. On Filibuster this week, our guest Sean Spence of Hot Time In Old Town said that he was actually expecting Pause to play after the Chicago midfield seemed rudderless for much of their game against the Union.

Daniel Paladini is also an option, which gives Klopas three very different cards to play. Alex is the most skillful but least athletic, and is not exactly a strong defensive player. Pause has the highest soccer IQ and is easily the choice for defensive security, but he offers little going forward. Paladini is the most dynamic and grittiest of the group, and is also very underrated as a free kick taker. However, he's also by far the least disciplined (both positionally and in terms of cards). We'll know a lot about how the Fire want to play this one by who gets the call alongside Jeff Larentowicz. I don't think Klopas will risk starting Paladini, but between Alex and Pause he has a clear choice between attacking United or staying solid and playing it safe.

Against the Impact on Saturday, I said United should play a deeper line to help cut off the inevitable through balls for Marco Di Vaio. However, United finally showed that they can stop teams from succeeding with that sort of pass without having to drop into a bunker. The pressure on the ball from our front six denied Montreal the chance to slip Di Vaio through, while our defenders actually kept track of runners for most of the game.

Against Chicago, the job is rather similar. If United can pressure the ball quickly and effectively in the midfield - that is, pressuring it without leaving giant gaps elsewhere - there's no need to drop into a bunker, which makes attacking very difficult. Plan A for United needs to be based on compressing Chicago's space in the midfield so that they can't send Magee and Rolfe through in the first place. If we're not as good at that tonight, Plan B will unfortunately have to be the bunker. I hate to recommend it, but I'd rather win this game ugly than lose it and have neutrals tell us we played good soccer.

Effective pressure will have a domino effect for United. If we can dominate the midfield, Chicago's wingers will have to help defend. Nyarko won't have an issue there, but Duka and Lindpere are both lacking in that department. In particular, Lindpere loses his edge when forced by circumstance to do more defending; it's almost like the game ceases to be interesting for him if that's the job on the day. We need to make sure that tonight is precisely that sort of occasion, rather than one where he can rampage forward (see: Our last visit to Toyota Park). The tone needs to be set early and maintained.

Defensively, the main danger is dealing with the deep runs from Magee and Rolfe. Magee is MLS's top goalscorer, while Rolfe has a history as a United killer (that walk down awful memory lane earlier contained several Rolfe goals, and he scored twice against us back on July 20th). Magee has a preference for the left-center portion of the field, but has the freedom to drift wherever he pleases. United will see his runs come from deep, but if the through ball isn't on he'll look to either play a combination in tight confines right down the middle or move out wide to bring the ball into the box himself.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for Magee. The challenge is simple: He takes up unusual angles, and he has a great sense of how to arrive right on time when everyone else is too early. Focus and communication will be vital, as no one player is going to shut down the current MVP frontrunner.

Rolfe is a different case. He stays more central, and likes to check back before then making his run from a deeper spot. In his case, United's central midfielders can help out quite a bit. If Rolfe checks back deep, someone in our engine room should get near enough to either a) mark him for as long as is necessary during a given move forward or b) just obstruct his run enough that he's out of the play. Perry Kitchen and Jared Jeffrey both have significant strength advantages over Rolfe, who is notoriously soft when it comes to physical play. If he's having second thoughts about making these deep runs, he'll be far less of a factor.

Going forward, United needs to make use of the fact that we'll have a player between the lines while Chicago won't. Our "442" really acted as a 4411 against Montreal, with Luis Silva usually being the nominal forward to drop into the hole underneath Dwayne De Rosario or Conor Doyle. Chicago's flat 442 has worked in part because it lets Larentowicz play higher than he gets to when having to be the anchor man underneath the rest of the midfield. Larentowicz has always played his best soccer when alongside another holding player rather than alone and deeper.

That's great for United, because Silva's positioning will be the main way we can unsettle the "two banks of four" you always hear announcers droning on about. If Silva is drawing attention from the Chicago midfield, guys like Jeffrey and Kitchen should be open or have space to make a dangerous run into. If the midfielders are occupied, we'll probably see Bakary Soumare stepping out of central defense to get after Silva (Austin Berry, the other center back, is less mobile and thus usually stays at home). Chicago's defense lacks a real organizing presence, and if Soumare wants to step into the midfield, the gap he leaves behind will probably not be filled.

If Silva (or De Ro, or anyone else) can draw him forward, our next move needs to be into that space. Either the other forward needs to make a run there, or our right midfielder, or someone from central midfield needs to make the right run, and the rest of the team needs to find a way to get the ball to that runner. Having a third man jump in to offer a combination would help immensely.

United also needs to prey on mistakes. Berry and Soumare have both served up some horrific back passes in recent weeks, and nerves might be a factor on this big occasion. Choosing the right moments to high-press - like when the pass to one of those two is slow, or forces the recipient to have to adjust his feet as the ball is arriving - is key.

The Fire are not a great set piece team, but they do have some very good targets (including noted United killer Gonzalo Segares), and their attackers tend to draw a lot of fouls. If United can come through on the anticipation side of things, there shouldn't be too many situations where our defenders need to go to ground to make a tackle. The key here is cutting down on the number of fouls, especially given our penchant for own goals and other disasters.

At the other end, I think Chicago is a bit weak defending set pieces. Sean Johnson isn't the sort of character that demands intensity from the guys in front of him, and half of the likely Fire starting eleven are on the shorter, slighter side physically. As the road team, DCU will need to make something out of this advantage. Since we don't have a group of towering players, the focus needs to be on good service, hard runs, and good ol' fashioned hunger for the ball. Philly scored a set piece goal on Saturday based on those principles; in fact, Sheanon Williams more or less scored by accident charging onto a good ball from Sebastien Le Toux.

On the mental side, United might have a surprising advantage. For us, this game is either the last or second-to-last truly meaningful game of 2013. Lose, and our season is essentially over. Win, and we have a shot at somehow getting our hands on some hardware. For Chicago, things are less clear: They're five points outside the playoffs, and would pull even on points with the Union in 4th place if they win their two games in hand.

In other words, this game isn't their last chance to make something out of this year. While their playoff hopes look like a stretch at this point, they're far from dead. Tonight's match will be important to them, no doubt, but they don't have everything on the line like we do. United needs to turn that into a positive (i.e. demonstrating just how much more important a win for us is by winning the battle side of the game) rather than let it become a negative (i.e. crumbling under the pressure).

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