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Opposition 11: Likely Chicago Fire starters to face D.C. United

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Veljko Paunovic has a bunch of tough choices to make after already playing two games this week

We have been complaining a lot about D.C. United’s schedule over the past week, and for good reason. Three games in six days is a ridiculous amount of soccer, and in scheduling games like this MLS has essentially told United and its fans - as well as fans league-wide, really - that things like preserving the competition or player safety are just not high up on their list of priorities. It’s one thing to have some rotation enforced by having a pair of games three games apart; to have that situation repeated for a third game is unsafe, and forces teams to rest their top players (i.e. the product on the field is worse).

All that said, Chicago may not be in a much better situation than United. Like more than half the league, they’re playing their third game in a week, but they did get four days between games one and two. It’s not much, but it’s something. However, Chicago’s schedule is the opposite of United’s: the Fire were in Montreal last Saturday, returned home to play LA on Wednesday, and are now in the District to play in weather conditions that may necessitate cooling breaks. United had one less day of rest this week, but at least they’re getting two home games.

Veljko Paunovic opted to do very little rotating between his team’s first two games. There’s a good reason why: Chicago looked competent, arguably for the first time all season. The Fire put on a textbook defend-and-counter road performance to win 3-0 over Montreal, and if they were sharper in front of goal their 2-2 draw with the Galaxy would have been a comfortable, high-scoring win. A team that has had no momentum at all in 2016 suddenly had reason to feel good about themselves, and Paunovic surely wanted to harness the confidence from the Impact win on Wednesday night.

However, that’s left him with a major problem for today. Here’s a list of minutes played by Fire players this week:

Player Minutes
Sean Johnson 180
Johan Kappelhof 180
Jonathan Campbell 180
Joao Meira 180
Brandon Vincent 180
Matt Polster 180
David Accam 180
Luis Solignac 177
Michael de Leeuw 170
Khaly Thiam 113
Arturo Alvarez 91
John Goossens 89
Razvan Cocis 59
Michael Harrington 10
Michael Stephens 8
Joey Calistri 3

Seven players have played every second of two games, while two more played all but a handful. That includes both fullbacks, a defensive midfielder, and a winger (the positions that do the most sprinting). Paunovic has to choose between to pretty unpleasant options in a game his side realistically can’t lose if they’re going to make any sort of pursuit of a playoff spot: either he sends the same group out again and hopes they can overcome very heavy legs in the heat to beat a team that rotated mid-week to avoid just this scenario, or he can bring in a bunch of reserves who will have energy, but have thus far failed to convince even for MLS’s 19th best team.

Personally, I expect Paunovic to try and rotate only in certain spots. David Accam, for example, is a player Chicago simply can’t play without. There’s the potential wrinkle of a formation change in there as well - no one has tried more different formations this season than Paunovic - but the 4231 that has worked well lately seems like a fairly reasonable look to expect tonight:

Sean Johnson will probably start in goal, but that "probably" is there for a reason. Matt Lampson has 11 starts this season, and was who Paunovic trusted in their US Open Cup semifinal defeat. Johnson has started 13 of the Fire’s last 15 league matches, but that Cup choice has left just enough room to question whether Paunovic has settled on a #1. In any case, Johnson is clearly the better shot-stopper, but both keepers are shaky with their feet and can make positional and technical errors that could hand United a freebie if they’re lucky.

Johan Kappelhof is one of the group that has played 180 minutes, so he’s a candidate to be rested out of necessity. The Dutch defender has spent most of the year at center back, but has been shifted right in an effort to beef up the Fire’s defense. He’s not the fastest - as is often the case when center backs move wide - but he did deal with Emmanuel Boateng on Wednesday by taking intelligent angles. Still, it would not surprise me to see 21 year old Rodrigo Ramos stepping in just to add fresh legs somewhere in a lineup that needs that energy.

Of course, Ramos and Kappelhof could both play, as Kappelhof could move into the middle to replace one of Jonathan Campbell or Joao Meira. Paunovic has been willing to make changes in central defense all year, and Meira could also be called upon as a defensive midfielder. No matter the pairing, the Fire have a tendency to lose runners either by dropping too deep or by not paying attention to the gap between their center backs. Despite not giving up that many goals for a bad team, it’s been a theme all season long.

Brandon Vincent has had a pretty good rookie season, but 180 minutes at a position requiring repeated 50+ yard runs up the flank is draining for even the fittest player. Veteran Michael Harrington doesn’t have Vincent’s defensive chops or speed, but rotating him in would make a lot of sense. Harrington could also swap flanks if Paunovic opts to split the game for Kappelhof and Vincent (like Ben Olsen did with Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp).

Despite his reputation as one of American soccer’s better young defensive midfielders, Matt Polster has spent some stretches on the bench this year. He’s playing his best soccer of 2016 right now, but we’re talking about yet another player with 180 minutes played this week. Razvan Cocis will probably start over Polster if he’s fit, but he was subbed on Saturday with a knee injury that kept him out against LA. Of the trio, Polster tends to open the field up more, while Cocis and Meira look for shorter passes.

In the #8 role, Paunovic has leaned on high-energy midseason signing Khaly Thiam pretty much since he arrived from MTK Budapest. Thiam only has 113 minutes in the two games, but 82 of them came on Wednesday. Cocis could also return in his place, but don’t forget the possibility of Michael Stephens. The Fire, like LA did during his first stint in MLS, have not used the 27 year old often enough, and he has a history of good performances against United.

Chicago has been moving people around all year, but recently they’ve settled on a front four. That’s not to say they always play the same role, though; Paunovic has given the entire group the freedom to change positions, and they do so frequently. I counted at least six different spans of 5+ minutes in which this group switched spots. Some of them, I’m sure, are commands from the bench; other times, it’s the players trying something new on their own.

All that said, the starting look is fairly predictable. John Goossens and Arturo Alvarez have split this week’s two games nearly evenly, with Goossens playing only 17 minutes off the bench Wednesday. That makes him the more likely starter tonight, but in both cases we’re talking about left-footed players who cut inside from the right wing religiously.

Of the duo, Goossens is less of a creator and more of a goal-scoring midfielder. He’s got a good shot from long distance, and when he does look to pass, it frequently means he’s going to move briefly backward on the right before whipping his left foot around to swing the ball to the back post. Alvarez, meanwhile, has trickier footwork and a wider array of passes. Historically, he’s more of a complimentary piece than the creative hub, but he’s in good form right now and is getting into dangerous goalscoring positions. Paunovic could also bring in speedy Homegrown player Joey Calistri here, or Luis Solignac (though he’s probably needed elsewhere), or he could opt for the more conservative Nick LaBrocca.

The central role could go to Goossens, or Alvarez, but most likely it’ll be handed to Michael de Leeuw. Initially, he was brought in to be a striker, but since the Fire acquired Solignac from Colorado they’ve been interested in the former Groningen man as one of their attacking midfielders. I’m not convinced that’s his best position, but Chicago makes sure to rotate him up front for chunks of time regardless. Cocis, if fit, could play here as well, which would signal a particularly conservative approach.

Normally I’d tell you about who should rotate in for David Accam, who has played 180 minutes this week, but realistically the Fire a) can’t afford to lose this game and b) can’t expect to get a result without him. Accam is Chicago’s most vital player by a wide margin, as his speed and dribbling ability are their only remarkable attacking weapon. He’s in great form right now, too, so United’s focus needs to be tilting play towards the opposite flank. Paunovic will move him around to get him involved, so this will be an ongoing tactical battle.

Solignac appears to be Paunovic’s preferred striker, which takes him back to his natural position after Pablo Mastroeni mostly kept him on the wings this year in Colorado. Still, he has rotated into all four attacking positions in recent games, so expect to see him all over the place. It’ll be interesting to see how long he can go, as he played 177 minutes in this week’s games. de Leeuw probably should be playing up front, and Accam can slot in there as well, but in any case we’re talking about some very tired options.

New signing David Arshakyan has his US visa, but only arrived Wednesday night. Paul Tenorio, during the Fire broadcast of the Galaxy game, said he would travel to DC, but he’ll have just one training session with his new club. If he plays, it’ll be as a late-game sub.

Speaking of subs...well, we’ve already brought up just about every Fire player. I’ll note Calistri again, as having him and Accam on opposite flanks could be a major problem to contend with. He’s a pretty raw player all around, but his speed will buy him time and space to cover for some of those issues. If Chicago gets out in front, don’t be surprised to see very defensive substitutions, like fullback Harrington playing as a wide midfielder. Finally, Chicago has switched from a 4231 to a 532 (or vice versa) more than once this season, so the possibility of a major formation change during the game is possible.