Here's the good news for D.C. United: In the middle of a long run of home games, their one away trip is to face the Chicago Fire, currently tied for 9th place (with the lowly New York Red Bulls) in the East. The Fire have just 6 goals on the season and take the fewest shots per game (9.8) while giving up more shots per game (16) than anyone in the league. New head coach Veljko Paunovic and GM Nelson Rodriguez put the Chicago roster through a full-scale rebuild, and they look some ways away from figuring it all out.
On the other hand, the Fire had last weekend off. Getting a break from their early struggles probably helped in terms of morale, but the real work for "Pauno" surely had to come on the training field. The Fire have a ton of deficiencies to make up for, and they haven't yet seemed cut out for the high-pressure, high-tempo game their new boss claims to prefer. It will be fascinating to see whether they spent more time working on that approach, or if the time off revealed that a more simple focus on being defensively sound.
The Fire have mostly played in a 4231 formation, though they spent about two and a half early games in a 532. However, for the sake of brevity, let's start with the assumption that the 4231 is far more likely:
If you're thinking back to Chicago teams of recent years, you won't see many familiar faces at all. Seven of the above starters are new to the team, while three more only have a year's service. Razvan Cocis, who signed with Chicago in 2014, is the Fire "stalwart" in this team right now.
In goal, Matt Lampson is keeping Sean Johnson - the only remaining longtime Fire player on the entire team - on the bench. Johnson has been dealing with a wrist injury recently, but even before that he was second choice. On Filibuster this week, our guest Sean Spence cited Lampson's comfort with the ball at his feet as the main reason Paunovic went this way. In Columbus, Lampson - a former Crew homegrown - looked pretty shaky in his few appearances. He can be rash coming off his line, and he gives up rebounds on shots that should be smothered. However, those issues have been a bit less of a problem this year, and while Johnson is considered fully fit now, it looks like the younger GK will remain first choice.
The original plan with the fullback positions was for Michael Harrington to play right back and rookie Brandon Vincent - who got a USMNT senior team cap while still in college - to take over on the left. That's not how things have worked out: 20 year old Brazilian Rodrigo Ramos has forced his way in on the right. Given that Harrington has never been a solid right back, that's not a huge surprise. The fact that Harrington has pushed Vincent to the bench is, though, given Harrington's struggles for playing time in recent years and the pre-draft hype for Vincent.
Ramos, on loan from Brazilian side Coritiba, looks very raw in his decision-making (which is no surprise for a 20 year old). However, his speed and his attacking approach fit the profile of what Paunovic says he wants, and the other candidates for time have simply not been good. United should be able to outfox Ramos, and he may also struggle if Lamar Neagle takes a physical approach.
Still, United will want to attack more on the opposite wing. Harrington isn't particularly quick, and his attacking instincts often cause him to make positional mistakes. On top of that, he can make some pretty poor decisions with the ball, so look for United to funnel Chicago's possession towards him. If Vincent is recalled, United will still want to press him - his first touch is shoddy at best - but should put more of an emphasis on movement in attacking him than with Harrington, who is more vulnerable to simply being beaten for pace.
In central defense, Johan Kappelhof - signed from Dutch side FC Groningen this offseason - and draft pick Jonathan Campbell appear to have decisively pushed ahead of Joao Meira, another newcomer. Campbell provides the size and leadership, while Kappelhof brings some speed and has shown a knack for emergency defending. However, both players seem to not have the best understanding of when to step forward, and drawing them out of position might well pan out for the Black-and-Red.
Central midfield has been an odd situation for Chicago this year. Cocis has played all three roles - defensive, linking, and attacking - after previously only being seen as a linking midfielder who could fill in as a #6 only in emergencies. Matt Polster has been seen as far less essential than anyone expected, and in fact he seems a bit doubtful to start this game.
Instead, look for Cocis to start as the #6 and for Michael Stephens to retain his place as the #8 in this set-up. Paunovic has had some positive things to say about Stephens, who very quietly does a good job of being the Fire midfield's connective tissue. Still, without Polster, we're talking about a central midfield that lacks in the ball-winning department. This figures to be a promising opportunity for whoever plays as United's withdrawn forward.
Further forward, Dutch newcomer John Goossens appears likely to stay in the middle as the #10. However, he's more of a natural left winger, and Paunovic could easily recall Polster in defensive midfield and move Cocis up. That would be a pretty conservative look, as Cocis is not exactly a creative hub. Right now, Chicago doesn't have a lot of options in this position. Goossens has plenty of skill, but thus far in his MLS career he has had some trouble applying that skill to a useful end.
On the right wing, Arturo Alvarez seems sure to start once again. Despite his years of MLS experience, Alvarez has never quite looked the part of a starter, and his time in the Portuguese and Hungarian leagues does not appear to have changed that. Alvarez is all about his left foot, so if United can simply force him to stay wide he will likely struggle to have an impact on the game. Chicago would probably like to drop him for David Accam, but the Ghanaian appears to be about a week or so from returning from injury.
Kennedy Igboananike is the only returning Chicago regular who looks to have improved under Paunovic at this point. Playing inverted on the left side, Igboananike has 50% of Chicago's goals on the season. Whereas last year he seemed bereft of confidence, he looks to be full of self-belief right now. He's also added some elements to his game - including some long-range shooting chops - that weren't there in 2015. Sean Franklin is going to have to be sharp, as Igboananike can slash inside or stay wide and use his speed to get to the endline.
In terms of confidence, Igboananike is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Gilberto, who is essentially Chicago's only true striker. The Brazilian DP has 5 starts, yet only has 1 assist and 2 shots on goal to show for his efforts. He has tried gamely to help out in other ways - mostly by being a target and laying the ball off to on-rushing midfielders - but in front of goal he seems to get the "deer in the headlights" look every time right now. Still, United needs to make sure he can't connect with the midfield, as he's still just a couple of confidence-boosting moments away from being dangerous.
Off the bench, Chicago doesn't have much in the way of diversity. Along with Polster and the resulting midfield shuffle that could result if he comes in, they can call on a pair of young speedsters in Joey Calistri - who would play on the right wing - or Alex Morrell (who can fit in on either wing or up top). If Gilberto is struggling, don't be surprised if Goossens is shifted to the left so that Igboananike can move up front. MLS veteran Nick LaBrocca has also made some appearances off the bench, though on a team with Cocis and Stephens it's hard to see what he adds beyond fresh legs.