When it comes to the world of sports, we tend to misuse the word "mediocre." Sports teams are all trying to win, so being mediocre is generally not a good thing. However, these days I usually see it used as a synonym for being unquestionably bad, and that is incorrect. I've even seen people refer to 2013's D.C. United as being mediocre. That's crazy. Last year, United was horrible. In fact, most of MLS's mediocre teams last season used matches against United as potential slump-busters.
The Chicago Fire? Now there's your mediocre team. They have 15 draws from 27 games, which is both preposterous and indicative of a team that is usually not good enough to win, but often not bad enough to lose. The fact that they're still alive in the playoff race - a win tonight would push them to within 4 points of the red line if they get help elsewhere - does not reflect well on the Eastern Conference, but they're also not the sort of team whose lack of quality will be discussed for years.
When the Fire went about their moves this past offseason, people were high on them. They brought in two different Seattle Sounders center backs, an MLS Cup starter in Lovel Palmer, some useful squad players, and in Harrison Shipp they found themselves with a potential #1 overall draft pick signing as a Homegrown player. Mike Magee's holdout wasn't the best thing, but he had been unstoppable in 2013. Surely this would all add up to something good, right?
Few things have gone as planned since Frank Yallop arrived. The former San Jose boss tried to show that he wasn't just the founder of Bash Brothers soccer by playing smaller, faster players and giving Shipp starts ASAP. The results weren't poor, but ultimately Chicago couldn't get the job done early, so Yallop started tinkering. That didn't move the needle too much, and the Chicago side we'll see tonight won't much resemble anything anyone would have planned on a few months ago.
Right now, Chicago is both the kind of team that has chosen athleticism over skill at forward and yet also has moved defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz back to central defense due to the lack of soccer smarts or passing ability shown this year by the Fire's other candidates for that role. One move meets the Yallop long ball stereotype; the other is the kind of thing you'd imagine Caleb Porter trying out of desperation.
Back to those results: Chicago is actually unbeaten in 9 straight competitive home games, including wins over Dallas, the Red Bulls, and Columbus (twice). As much as it's tempting to think that United should be beating a team that averages 1.11 points per game home or away at this point in the season, the fact is that the Fire are not losing home games. It's also worth noting that United hasn't won a league match in the greater Chicagoland area since 2009 (last year's Open Cup semifinal sure was fun though, huh?).
Granted, last week they needed a completely inexplicable call from David Gantar to avoid conceding a late winner to TFC's Gilberto, but still: Toyota Park is a tough venue to walk out of with three points. It's also a tough place to play soccer due to some disastrous turf management, though apparently new sod has been placed in a few bad spots since the Fire's 1-1 draw last Saturday.
Yallop's tactical moves have been more varied than people think, but he has slowly and surely drifted towards the stereotypical English-style 442 people think he always plays. With Shipp reduced to substitute duty and Mike Magee out for months after hip surgery, there simply aren't any aces up Yallop's sleeve. The Fire don't have a burly target man, though, so instead of playing long in the air, Chicago likes to focus on counterattacking and playing people into space whenever possible.
The only player with any question marks at all here is Larentowicz, who missed a day of training this week due to a groin issue. He will probably play due to the fact that the Fire really need three points here, but if he can't go Patrick Ianni is the probable choice to step in for him. The past 6-8 weeks of (mostly) playing center back are by far Larentowicz's longest stint there as a professional; at this point, it's long past the point where we could declare him a natural defensive midfielder. Moving him back hasn't out-and-out fixed Chicago's tendency to give up cheap, avoidable goals, but it does make them smarter in the back than they used to be.
The rest of the team has been fairly stable of late since Sanna Nyassi - not ex-DCU wide man Sainey, his twin brother - was the man Yallop surprisingly chose to fill in for Magee. They're completely different players, and Chicago plays different soccer as a result. Nyassi and Quincy Amarikwa both have good speed and like to run off the shoulder of defenders. They also have a tendency to want to dribble into the box from the wings rather than through the top of the area.
Defending these two is not a complicated challenge, but their speed means that an error that normally would be small becomes a big problem very quickly. Teams like this particular Fire side force teams to choose between sitting deep (which makes it harder to go forward effectively) or taking the risk of pushing higher up the field. You can be the aggressor against Chicago if you can press with consistency and discipline, but it's a high-wire act.
Home and away against Waterhouse, United had some success by dropping their line deeper than normal. The Fire won't settle for any shot within 50 yards of goal like the Jamaicans did for some reason, but they still struggle to break teams down due to a lack of clever players. Alex has the occasional idea - he'll drift inside from the left and look to create more than get into the box himself - and Romanian newcomer Razvan Cocis looks like a decent player, but without Magee and Shipp this is a team that has attacking success through effort and opposition mistakes more than anything else.
In fact, if Robert Earnshaw is fit to play, the more significant danger will come off the bench. The Welsh veteran has looked sharp since signing with Chicago a few weeks back, but injuries have already kept him out on more than one occasion. A calf contusion kept him out of the TFC match and will likely limit him to yet another substitute's appearance, but he's managed to score twice off the bench since bouncing back to MLS after a
cup of coffee spot of tea with Blackpool this spring.
Earnshaw is fast, has a great leap, and makes more clever runs than Amarikwa - whose main attributes are strength, balance, and grit - or Nyassi. I suppose there's a tiny chance that Earnshaw could get a start given that Chicago should see this game as a must-win, but the aforementioned injuries have limited him to 52 minutes of pro soccer since he left Blackpool in late May. It's highly unlikely that he has the fitness to play an hour, but if he makes the bench United will almost surely see him for the last 20-30 minutes.
Out on the right, young English winger Grant Ward plays pretty much exactly the way one might think of when one reads the phrase "young English winger." Ward wants to beat his man on the dribble, and then cross. Occasionally he'll try to run onto a pass in the left-center channel, but mostly he stays wide and tries to cross. He's smart enough to know not to loft in high crosses most of the time, but beyond that there's not much variety in his game.
Instead, it's about a) preventing him from isolating Taylor Kemp (or possibly Chris Korb) by staying organized and getting help from left midfield and b) being strong 1v1 on the occasions that isolation can't be prevented. Cocis seems to have developed an early tendency to look to Ward early in build-ups, so pressuring him and forcing him to turn elsewhere with the ball will block Ward's supply line.
Centrally, Cocis will be partnered by Matt Watson, who is actually pretty close to what you'd have if you condensed this entire Chicago team into one player. He'll run all day, he'd prefer the game get just a little bit chippy, he doesn't have many ideas, and his technical ability is only so-so. Watson's the kind of guy just about every MLS team has on their roster, but the playoff teams have another player keeping him out of the lineup.
Even with Watson's willingness to run, United should have an advantage in central midfield. Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud don't get too many 2v2 situations, and they need to take advantage here. If they can match Watson's work rate and stay tight to Cocis so that he doesn't have time to play medium-range passes, United can win the middle third.
Going forward, the Fire defense can be had. They're not horrible by any means, but all season long they've shown a tendency towards going brain-dead at the worst moment (this is principally why Larentowicz is back there these days). Bakary Soumare is a great athlete, but his decision-making leaves a lot to be desired these days, and out on the right Palmer is less a natural right back than a utility player who might not even have a completely natural position. He's done alright going forward in recent weeks, but his positioning is shaky and he likes to dive in very aggressively on tackles. Whether that means free kicks or just missing ball and man altogether, it'll be to United's benefit to get after him.
On the other side, Gonzalo Segares is in the process of losing a step. He's 32, and that's what happens around that age to fullbacks (and also bloggers, says the man who will be applying Tiger Balm to his stiff back when he's done writing). I'm a bit wary of Segares, though, because he's had a long history of playing his very best against United for whatever reason. He doesn't get forward as often as Palmer does, but his 1v1 defending is still pretty sharp. United should look to beat him with pure speed - perhaps via Eddie Johnson peeling wide, or maybe with the unfortunately rare Sean Franklin overlap? - rather than trying to take him on the dribble.
When it comes to set pieces, Chicago is an underrated threat. Palmer scored their goal last week with a glanced header at the near post after a corner kick, and Larentowicz is good at finding a way to get on the end of service into the box as well. It's not just the direct threat, though; with a scrapper like Amarikwa in there, United needs to make clearances count. On free kicks in the middle, Larentowicz is a threat given his very hard shot.
At the other end, though, they're not so good (kinda comes with the territory of being a struggling team). Chicago's players seem unsure of their roles on set pieces to such an extentthat even the Fire website notes the team's communication issues. Sean Johnson is an outstanding athlete with a great ability to reach high and claim crosses, so United should aim service towards areas he can't get to. If Johnson isn't grabbing the cross, chances are that there will be a marking mistake.
We should recall Kitchen's goal against them way back in March, a play in which Chicago gave United three cracks at the ball before Kitchen smashed in his first goal of the year. That isn't the only goal like that the Fire have conceded this season, and in fact it wasn't Kitchen's only chance during that game (he was robbed early on by a great Johnson save after a free header on a corner). Bottom line: Chicago is vulnerable on set pieces, and United has the ability to take advantage.
Given the short week and Fabian Espindola's unjustifiable suspension, one can be forgiven for thinking "A draw? Well, I guess that's OK." It would be a bad idea for the Black-and-Red, though, because Chicago still believes they have some kind of chance at a playoff miracle. They may not be very good, but they're going to fight like hell in this game.
At the same time, three points are very much on the table for United. This is a Fire team that completely shut off after conceding TFC's equalizer. Mental strength is not at the top of their list of qualities, and Olsen's Army has been grinding teams with that weakness into submission all season. Even with the travel and the circumstances, United should enter this game with plenty of confidence.