D.C. United has fought through a bizarre schedule to seal a playoff berth, but they’re not the only team in MLS dealing with a calendar packed with oddities. Last weekend, the Black-and-Red faced an NYCFC side that hadn’t played in over three weeks. This week, they’ll play a Chicago Fire side that has played just once since coming to Audi Field and falling thanks to a brace from Wayne Rooney.
That’s the same Fire club that had three weeks off to end the summer, which just feels so foreign to anyone focused on United in 2018. Weeks...off? How could this be? You don’t have a must-win game every 3 days until the heat-death of the universe?
In any case, it’s not the schedule’s fault that Chicago is where they are, trying to hold off a truly horrible Orlando City side so they avoid finishing last in the East. They were a middling 6W-5D-7L side — not good, but still just a brief winning streak away from relevance — at the end of June, a month in which they went unbeaten. And then it all went to hell: an eight-game losing streak that saw the Fire concede at least 2 goals seven different times effectively ended their season by mid-August. Chicago is in all likelihood about to blow up their roster for the second time in three years, and may end up letting coach Veljko Paunovic’s contract expire to boot.
That makes Chicago sound like a pushover, but following their aforementioned summer vacation, the Fire have been...I’ll stop short of “good,” but they haven’t been outright bad. They stomped Orlando like a good team would, they beat LAFC, they picked up a credible draw in New England, and their three losses were all on the road against playoff teams (NYCFC, D.C., and Atlanta). They were a stubborn opponent at Audi Field, and against the Five Stripes they fought back from an early deficit, only lost via an own goal, and fought the possession battle that ATL normally dominates to nearly a dead heat.
So suffice it to say, there’s more than a little of a “trap game” feel to this one for United. Chicago hasn’t been bad lately, they have motivation to a) avoid last place and b) will most likely want to send Bastian Schweinsteiger off with one final positive note (the German legend’s future with the club seems doubtful). It also doesn’t hurt that the Fire have had more time to improve the fitness of players like Djordje Mihailovic and Michael de Leeuw. Treating this game as a mere formality would be a huge mistake for United.
Paunovic’s relentless tinkering is a problem for Chicago, but in recent weeks he has at least resisted formation changes. All signs point to the 4231 that the Fire deployed in the District to be used once again tomorrow:
Goalkeeper has been a soft spot all year, and it’s not entirely clear what Chicago’s plans are. It seems like they’ve decided that Richard Sanchez isn’t the answer, and Stefan Cleveland has not necessarily seized the job in his last three starts. Patrick McLain started in Atlanta last week, and this might be one last shot to make a statement for the 30 year old.
Most of the defensive spots are clear. Brandon Vincent will start at left back, and Schweinsteiger will be joined by Jonathan Campbell in central defense. Johan Kappelhof is the normal starter, but he’s suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Campbell has been the center back making the bench of late, so it feels like he’s going to get the start. That will mean more aerial ability (Campbell has frequently subbed in to help Chicago protect late leads when teams are desperately hoofing the ball into the box), but less quickness and experience. All in all, probably good news for an attack built around a bunch of guys that are safely under 6’ tall.
Right back feels like it’s up in the air, though. Matt Polster was very good there in 2017, but injury robbed him of virtually all of this year. After starting their opener, Polster was injured late, and only just made his return off the bench at Atlanta last week. He probably doesn’t have more than 45 minutes in his legs, but that’s enough to make him a possible starter. They could also go with Diego Campos, who is more of a conversion project. Jorge Corrales, who started against United a few weeks ago, is more of a left back but remains in the mix here as well.
There’s more stability at defensive midfield, where Dax McCarty and Brandt Bronico have started seven straight games as a duo. McCarty may no longer be at the height of his powers, but he’s still very solid. Bronico may be an unspectacular role player, but he’s largely earned these starts through hard work and keeping the big mistakes to a minimum. In a midfield built around fluidity, it’s his job to selflessly do the running on both sides of the ball that allows the more talented players some freedom.
Paunovic always wants his attacking midfielders to have some ability to swap roles on the fly, and he has four players contending for three spots. Aleksandar Katai is the most likely starter, and while he can play any of the three attacking midfield positions, we’re most likely to see him start on the right or in the middle. He’s been Chicago’s secondary goal threat after Nemanja Nikolic all season, but it’s more through quantity than anything else. Katai has 93 shot attempts, which would be a good thing if the Fire were often on the front foot, or if Nikolic were also getting a ton of looks. Instead, Katai’s shot total is an indicator of a player who, despite clear talent, calls his own number far too often. United loves to see opposing players get impatient and have a contested shot from 30 yards, so don’t be surprised if they try to cut off Katai’s passing and dribbling options first.
Mihailovic is the next most likely starter of the aforementioned quartet. The teenager is a wonderful talent, and unlike so many American teenagers, he seems self-possessed and confident. He’s not just being given these late-season minutes because it’s a lost year; he is Chicago’s best #10, and they should really try to build around him rather than see him as a player to replace. Mihailovic has the mix of creativity and bravery with the ball that we don’t see too often in our youth prospects, and United needs to be dialed in as a result. The more they force him to play safe, the better off they’ll be.
The third spot, which will probably end up being the left winger, will go to either de Leeuw or Raheem Edwards. They’re different players: de Leeuw has a past as a forward, and he still makes the runs of a forward despite playing in the midfield. He’ll slash inside looking for gaps to split, and he’s also more than willing to get physical. Edwards, meanwhile, is a more traditional winger, and his speed is a major threat. Normally Paunovic seems to prefer de Leeuw, but given that Edwards was arguably Chicago’s biggest threat against United in the last meeting, this is very close to a coin flip. Ben Olsen and United’s coaching staff should be preparing the defense (particularly the starter at right back, no matter who it ends up being) for both players.
Nikolic will start up top, and while he hasn’t come close to duplicating his Golden Boot exploits from 2017, you can hardly say he’s been bad. 15 goals in 30 appearances for one of the worst teams in MLS, especially with few games with a true chance creator underneath him, is still a very good strike rate for the Hungarian. On the other hand, this image on the right is everything Nikolic did in his 72 minutes when United beat Chicago earlier this month.
United seemed to have a very good grasp of where he wants to go last time out, and they completely controlled him in the last meeting. That has to happen again if they’re going to get themselves the home playoff game they want.
Paunovic will almost certainly bring the non-starter from de Leeuw and Edwards into this game, and we will definitely see him use a sub on Polster if they give him the nod at right back. Yura Movsisyan has played just 45 minutes since Chicago claimed him off waivers just before the roster freeze, and the Fire probably need to give him some real minutes to figure out whether they want to keep him around for 2019 or not. However, they may also choose to keep one sub in their back pocket to give Schweinsteiger a curtain call in the closing moments (which would probably mean something like Corrales coming in and Vincent moving to center back).