There are a lot of positives surrounding D.C. United hosting the Chicago Fire, believe it or not. The Fire have a 0W-2D-3L road record in 2017, which comes with a -7 goal difference. They’re not just losing away from home; they’re getting crushed. That’s nothing new for them, either: since Veljko Paunovic took over before the start of the 2016 season, Chicago’s road record is 1W-4D-17L, with 21 goals for and a whopping 49 goals against. That’s 2.23 goals against per game over 22 games, and the 2017 portion is actually worse (2.33). Chicago, in other words, is a terrible soccer team away from Toyota Park.
The Fire are also coming off of a mid-week game (a 3-0 win over Colorado that was equal parts Chicago playing well and Colorado being dire). That’s great for them and their morale, but they’ll only have Thursday and Friday to rest, prepare, and travel to DC. All of this comes as the first spell of upper 80s or higher temperatures has hit, and Chicago’s improved roster did not really add depth across the back four or in central midfield. It was easy for Paunovic to roll out a first-choice team on with four days between their win over Seattle and their game with Colorado. It will be a lot less easy on three days rest.
Of course, none of this will matter all that much if United comes out and is not significantly (significantly) improved. But still, if you’re going to have to play this improved and in-form Fire team, this is the time to play them.
Paunovic is a tinkerer at heart, and he hasn’t quite settled on a lineup. They’ve tried a 433, but in the past two games (with Juninho carrying a nagging ankle injury) they’ve rolled out what they’re calling a 433 but what actually plays as a 4231. With a lead to protect in each of their last two games, Paunovic has also moved his team into a 532 for the final 20-ish minutes.
Throw in the issue of player rotation, and that makes tomorrow’s game a bit tricky to predict. There are some sure starters, but there are enough question marks that it’s not clear what United will be up against. Let’s assume, though, that the 4231 that has seen them win two games by a combined 7-1 will be retained:
That’s a lineup that would see just one player (Bastian Schweinsteiger) rotated, which seems nuts. Call it a hunch that Paunovic will choose continued good morale over fresh legs, or that he’s seen United’s struggles in zone 14 and wants someone in that zone tormenting whoever Ben Olsen starts at defensive midfield.
Matt Lampson has started two straight in goal. At first I figured this was just down to Jorge Bava being MLS’s worst starting goalkeeper, but the Uruguayan veteran is actually on the injury report with a “head injury” (side note: I sincerely hope this is not a case of a team trying to dodge a concussion diagnosis). Befitting a player that hasn’t pushed Bava to the bench, Lampson looks pretty vulnerable right now. He doesn’t catch and hold everything he should, and in general he tends to give up a lot of goals where he gets a hand to the ball but can’t keep it out. United needs to fire away and really test Lampson, because he’s a clear weak point right now.
Speaking of weak points, the Fire have issues at right back. Matt Polster did well on Wednesday, but the Rapids essentially opted to never attack him or anyone else, so his job was less right back and more deep-lying playmaker on the right side. Polster is not a natural right back, but the position is an issue for the entire Chicago roster. Homegrown midfielder Drew Conner has played there a couple of times as well, because Michael Harrington is simply not an MLS-caliber solution there.
All three of those players could start, but Paunovic could also opt to give Jonathan Campbell a start at center back, which in turn would free up Johan Kappelhof to move to the right. Kappelhof has been better as a center back this year than he was playing mostly right back last year, but Campbell is better at center back than Polster, Conner, or Harrington are at right back. Most likely, Polster gets the nod, in which case United needs to draw him into space and make him defend with his brain. He’s a great athlete who will be hard to beat with raw speed.
Kappelhof and Joao Meira have been the preferred center back duo, and it’s symptomatic of why Chicago do well at home (when opponents sit deeper) and struggle away, when opponents will push up and tend to put more crosses in. The presence of Patrick Mullins and the aerial issues Kappelhof and Meira have may force Paunovic’s hand in rotating Campbell - who is quite good in the air - in for a start. For United’s sake, it might be better if Paunovic opts to stand firm with his normal pairing.
On the left, Brandon Vincent has made some real strides in his second pro season. He’s looking better with the ball, and he’s relying less on athleticism to do his defending. If he starts this one, though, he’ll probably be gassed early due to already having played 180 minutes this week. Chicago is unprepared for being without the Stanford product, and in fact will have to turn to Harrington if Vincent needs a rest. Let’s hope that’s the case.
In the midfield, I suspect Schweinsteiger will only play as a substitute in this one. He played the full 90 against Seattle, and went 76 minutes against Colorado Wednesday. With Juninho held to just 30 minutes, I think he’ll be rotated in to rest the German superstar. However, a) that’s no sure thing, and b) Juninho is still a really good soccer player. If Chicago opted to just let him stay here and play for United, I’d throw a party.
Dax McCarty will start next to whichever of those two gets the nod, despite being another on the list of those who have two full games on their legs this week. If Schweinsteiger starts, don’t be surprised if he ends up as a regista with McCarty roving around looking to facilitate play and destroy. If Juninho gets the start, McCarty will be Chicago’s main reference point moving the ball from defense into the midfield.
The Fire play with someone in the #10 position, but generally no one plays there in the style of a traditional playmaker. Michael de Leeuw is best as a second forward, and if he starts (he played 161 minutes in Chicago’s two games coming into this one), he’s more of a threat to score than get assists. The Dutchman’s movement and ability to combine with others is his best trait.
Schweinsteiger could start here too, which would offer a bit more of a tempo-setting option, or we could see Luis Solignac moved in from the wing. Solignac is a hard-working and combative player, but in this role he’s basically just a lesser version of de Leeuw. It’s an odd fit, but Paunovic has used it before and the Fire have options on the right flank.
Speaking of which, if Solignac - who is doing pretty well as more of a battler who does some grunt work for the more talented members of the Fire front four - needs a rest, Paunovic can turn to Arturo Alvarez. Alvarez had a surprisingly good 2016 on a bad Fire team, and is a bit unlucky to lose his spot due to the influx of talent. Last year, he played over 1900 minutes; in 2017, he has just 236 minutes, and has only played 12 minutes (split among three different games) from April 2nd to today. He’s still a good player, though, and his craftiness as a passer might open up some counter-attacking opportunities if he’s given a start.
On the left, David Accam is a lock to start. Paunovic subbed him out within three minutes of the Fire taking a 3-0 lead (on a goal by, you guessed it, David Accam) on Wednesday, and it’s not hard to imagine the thought was to have him available tomorrow. Accam is a spectacular player, blessed with enough speed to worry any defense and the dribbling ability to make things happen when there’s no space to run. He’s the kind of player who can single-handedly undo all of a team’s good work. United’s injuries at right back couldn’t come at a worse time.
Up front, Nemanja Nikolic has proven to be worth the investment from Chicago. He’s sitting atop the league scoring table with 10 goals, and it seems pretty likely that Paunovic will ask him to start a third straight game (he’s also in the 180 minutes group coming into this one). Nikolic is a bit of a goal poacher in the Luciano Emilio mold. He’s not a particularly involved player defensively, he’s not a strong hold-up target man, he’s not that fast, and he’s not that good in the air.
So how is he so effective? Nikolic excels at the good old fashioned art of losing his markers. It’s that simple. He loves a good run off the back shoulder of defenders, which should worry United fans immensely because the Black-and-Red have struggled with that sort of run all year. In the box, he’s just one of those guys who is able to drift away from his marker at precisely the right moment, and he’s an ace finisher to boot.
If he’s rested, Solignac - far more of a blue-collar player than Nikolic - will move up front. That comes with its own dangers for United, as Solignac tries to get under the skin of anyone around him. His physical play and willingness to sacrifice for others could be a difficult thing to account for, particularly if de Leeuw is making runs off of him from deep in the midfield.
Off the bench, I’ve mentioned anyone that would be a reasonable option to sub into this one. However, it’s worth noting how that 532 I brought up earlier would work. Campbell (or Kappelhof, or Meira) would generally be expected to enter for one winger, with the other moving up as a forward.
However, for Paunovic this is a purely counter-attacking system, and whether it’s Accam, Solignac, or even de Leeuw supporting the #9, that second forward will drop off the front line and play right or left of center. The idea is to find pockets that go unprotected so that the counter has somewhere to go beyond midfield, and for the second forward to likely have a good passing angle to send Nikolic or Solignac in behind the defense. It sounds simple and predictable, but it’s turned out some goals and big chances so far.