Fans can be forgiven for thinking that D.C. United should be game-planning for a significantly changed Chicago Fire side given that Frank Yallop is no longer their head coach. However, interim boss Brian Bliss has come down from the front office to lead the Fire, and he has stopped far short of a full revamp. Instead, Chicago is sticking with the same formation and the same general emphasis on their team speed providing the main threat.
So what has changed? Leading scorer Kennedy Igboananike has been moved to the bench so that Gilberto can take his more preferred role as the spearhead of the attack rather than having to play off of someone else. Igboananike's speed has given way to shiftier players like Mike Magee and Harrison Shipp drifting off of the Brazilian. And...that's about it. Michael Stephens still plays well whenever given a look in central midfield, but Razvan Cocis has maintained his rather inexplicable hold on one central midfield spot, and Matt Polster should hold onto the other role in the engine room.
Other than giving some young faces minutes that they weren't getting before, it's less about tactical shifts for Bliss and more about an improved approach to preparation. Chicago has improved since the coaching change, but much of that appears to be down to the normal jump in focus and effort that every club gets when there's a new person picking the starting lineup. Players who had little hope of seeing action are suddenly back in contention, and players who were being misused suddenly see a path toward playing a role they'd be better in.
All of which is to say that the 442 that Yallop was using, broadly speaking, has been maintained:
Veteran Jon Busch will start in goal as Sean Johnson's season was ended last month so he could undergo shoulder surgery and recover in time for the 2016 season. Busch has 11 starts on the season thanks in part to Johnson's odd year (which has also included an eye injury and an infected forearm) and appears to have lost little despite turning 39 back in August. There are full-extension saves Busch just can't make due to his height - having stood next to him, I can confirm that the 5'10" he's listed at is at least 2" too generous - but when it comes to reflexes he's as sharp as ever. His size may be an issue on set pieces, though Busch is aware enough to know that he should stay on his line most of the time.
Chicago has a big problem defending up the middle. A lot of this has to do with a double pivot that hasn't really worked all season, but United should not ignore the fact that converted defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz has often looked like the only Chicago defender who gets the idea of anticipating danger rather than just reacting to it. Eric Gehrig is a pretty good emergency defender, but he's out with a broken foot.
Daneil Cyrus appears to be the preferred choice here, but that could just be because he's on loan and the Fire just want to give him an audition for a full transfer. Personally I don't think Cyrus offers anything at this point that the Fire couldn't get by drafting a center back this January beyond his international experience with Trinidad & Tobago. United needs to test his slow anticipation skills as often as possible tomorrow afternoon. Bliss could theoretically use Polster as a center back, but one would hope that the US Olympic team defensive midfielder gets to play his natural position now that the games have no real meaning for Chicago.
Polster could also line up at right back, which has happened several times this season. However, this is not where he belongs on the field, and Chicago has a veteran for the job in Lovel Palmer. Palmer isn't anything special, though, and United should be able to create opportunities against him. The Jamaican was a defensive midfielder before being converted to fullback a couple of years ago, and his positioning shows that the job is still new to him. Furthermore, Palmer has a tendency towards rash tackles that get him in trouble with referees while also giving away dangerous free kicks. United's set piece prowess might benefit from Palmer's presence as a result.
At left back, Joevin Jones is as good an attacking fullback as you'll see in MLS. It's not just his high-end speed, but his skill on the ball (Jones has played numerous CCL games as a forward or winger, and has been used in the midfield by the Fire from time to time). United needs to be constantly aware of where Jones is in transition, and he may be the person who adds width during the occasions that Chicago tries to build things up slowly.
Speaking of speed, the Fire attack relies heavily on their pacey wingers. Patrick Nyarko isn't quite as fast as he was before his ACL tear, but he'll still be among the fastest players on the field. On the left, David Accam will be either the fastest or second-fastest person in the game (with Jones the other contender). Chicago's attack is predicated on either giving their Ghanaian duo balls to chase down in space or to find them isolated 1v1 with space in behind to do damage. If United isn't vigilant when it comes to denying these two space and preventing Chicago from switching the point of attack, they're going to have a big problem on their hands.
I mentioned early on that Cocis appears untouchable despite not really offering much, and that's in contrast with what Stephen would bring to the table. Cocis is decent enough with the ball at his feet, but he's a defensive liability. He doesn't have the dynamism that the formation requires, and he doesn't have the positional IQ to make up for it by simply out-witting the opposition.
Polster, on the other hand, is very good at the job when he isn't shuffled into a spot on the back four. In particular, Polster has shown some chops when it comes to long-range passing. Cocis wants to combine and pile up short passes, while Polster's job will include swinging the ball out to either flank. United is going to need to pressure him so that these crossfield balls are inaccurate and to keep the number of attempts down.
Shipp has largely been thought of as a #10, but in the modern game the lines between "playmaker" and "withdrawn forward" have blurred significantly. This second forward role might be the one that keeps Shipp in the central position he is clearly best at. With Shipp now free to drop off the front line and look for gaps between the lines, the Fire attack looks more creative as a result. United's job as far as Shipp goes is going to be to suffocate him and ensure that his lack of mobility is a bigger story in this game than his inventive play or his skill on the ball are.
Anyone following me on Twitter has probably noted the fun I like to have with TFC-supporting friends when it comes to Gilberto (a.k.a. Poor Ol' Gil). That's not to imply that Gilberto is a bad player at all; rather, it's just that he has had some pretty bad luck in MLS. 2014 TFC and 2015 Chicago are both dysfunctional clubs, and in Toronto he was seen as a problem for not immediately being brilliant. Gilberto's career numbers on two bad teams point to a 34 game season in which he'd have 10 goals and 7 assists; given that he has 4 goals and 2 assists in just 501 minutes for the Fire, it seems that those already solid returns are going to improve.
Gilberto is an interesting player, because he's more of an all-around center forward than the more specialized options we usually see in MLS. He can do target man things, but he's not a target man; he can drift underneath, but he's not a withdrawn forward. He has decent athleticism, with his agility catching the eye in particular, and he's a sharp finisher. With Gilberto it's not about forcing him to do what he's bad at, but rather to defend well enough that none of his varied strengths come to the fore.
Off the bench, Chicago has some options. Stephens could come in to add some craft to central midfield, while Igboananike will probably replace Gilberto around the 70th minute mark and bring more raw speed into the fold. Magee is always a possibility in multiple roles, while Jason Johnson is yet another speedster who could line up as a forward or as a left winger. If Bliss wants more bite, Matt Watson could be brought in to clog up the midfield with his work rate. A final option, defensively, would be to bring in Homegrown product Patrick Doody at left back, pushing Jones up to left midfield and locking things down with a more conservative approach.