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NYC FC Weekly Opponent Scouting Report: the Chicago Fire

This week’s opponent finished last in the Eastern Conference last year, but made life hard on NYC FC in both fixtures.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Hudson River Blue’s weekly opponent scouting report. We’ll use this column to preview our upcoming opponents and provide some insight into what to expect.

Last Time We Played

It’s been a long time since NYC FC and Chicago met up. The two clubs got their home and away fixtures out of the way in 16 days last season, with their more recent meeting coming on May 15th of 2015. In that game, NYC FC were poised for yet another disappointing display as the team fell down two goals and were down a man after only 26 minutes. A Medhi Ballouchy goal in stoppage time of the first half and a Khiry Shelton strike in the 91st minute leveled the score at 2-2 as the teams shared a point.

What’s Happened Since Then?

In short, a lot. Chicago went on to finish last in points in all of MLS, which prompted a complete overhaul of the team this winter. The entire technical staff, including their general manager and coach Frank Yallop are gone. Nelson Rodriguez is now running the show, while Veljko Paunovic, fresh off of his win at the U-20 World Cup with Serbia, is now coaching the team.

Now, take a look at what they did with the squad:

Out: Adialton, Jon Busch, Jason Johnson, Alec Kann, Jeff Larentowicz, Lovel Palmer, Chris Ritter, Daniel Cyrus, Ty Harden, Mike Magee, Matt Watson, Patrick Nyarko, Joevin Jones, Harry Shipp

In: An entire new technical staff except for Logan Pause, Matt Lampson, Joey Calistri, Drew Connor, Brandon Vincent, Jonathan Campbell, Michael Harrington, Patrick McLain, Joao Meira, Nick LaBrocca, Johan Kappelhof, Rodrigo Ramos, Arturo Alverez, John Goossens

That’s a lot, let’s break that down. Adialton, Larentowicz, Palmer and Jones were the choice back four, so that has been replaced by Superdraft selection Brandon Vincent, Joao Miera, Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos. Shipp and Magee were counted on for creating and scoring, and their absence, especially that of Shipp, will be felt. The team will rely on incomers John Goossens and Arturo Alvarez alongside David Accam, Kennedy Igboananike, and striker Gilberto to pick up the slack this season.

The team finished the preseason with a spotless record, winning all of their matches save one and looking sharp, which bodes well for the team coming into the 2016 season.

How they Play

The Fire used a direct style of play last year under Yallop. The team was constantly looking to spring its athletic wings and forwards through long balls on counters. In our first encounter with the Fire, David Accam absolutely torched our defensive line as this strategy worked to perfection. As the season wore on, their style of play proved to be ineffective as the team found itself almost always defending.

Under Paunovic, the team has adopted a more proactive style this preseason that favors controlling the ball and holding up play when appropriate. Look for Dutch new signing John Goossens and second year star Matt Polster to be the main engines of attack as they look to spring their quick and athletic forwards.

Player(s) to Watch

Normally we would cover one player in this section, and originally we planned on covering Ghanaian forward David Accam, who scored 10 goals, contributed 2 assists, and created 44 chances last year. However, Accam is likely to miss out on our fixture. Here’s what coach Paunovic told Chicago Now at his press conference.

"We have to see how [Accam] feels. We're still not ready to say if he's going to be ready for the game," Paunovic said told press Tuesday. "He had some small muscular problems but we believe he is going to be fine soon, but we are not going to push him because he is very important for our team. We don't want him to feel under stress now when we are starting. When he's ready, he will be great for us."

In light of this, we’ll look at second year man Matt Polster, who excelled in his rookie season with the Fire and is more than deserving of being the player to watch (like it’s somehow an award).

Polster was selected 7th overall in the MLS Superdraft and went on to make 30 appearances and 27 starts for the Fire. He sits deeper in the midfield and defends well, making up for size disadvantages with an exceptionally high work rate. Offensively he can spring the attack immediately following a tackle with precise long balls to his forward players and excellent vision when spotting runs downfield. On the ball Polster is crafty in traffic and adept at pirouetting and pivoting away from defenders to create space.

A Q&A with Jeff Engelhardt of Hot Time in Old Town

Each week we plan on having a Q&A with our friends around the SBNation soccer world to get thoughts on their team from those who know them best. This week assistant editor at Hot Time in Old Town Jeff Engelhardt helped us navigate our way around the Fire.

Q: The team made plenty of moves this off-season, letting several established players and fan favorites like Mike Magee and Harry Shipp walk in favor of new talent. How has the fan base responded to these moves in aggregate? Is there more optimism or resentment?

A: Overall there is more optimism. Make no mistake, the fan base will always love Mike Magee for 2013, Patrick Nyarko for being great on and off the field and Jeff Larentowicz for trying his best to captain a broken ship. Other players like Lovel Palmer and Jon Busch were well liked but we all knew they would not be part of a needed rebuild. As the Fire said goodbye to those players, I think most fans were ready to embrace the new. Harry Shipp is a different story. Some believe he is overrated, others are HIGHLY skeptical. The club has yet to really make a splash in the international market, and considering cash came back for Shipp, that can be concerning.

If the cash is spent wisely, I think the move will be seen as a win, potentially. But there is a very real chance that Shipp blossoms in Montreal, and that could be the downfall of an otherwise promising start to a new front office structure.

Q: I was going to make the same observation about the Fire's new coaching situation. What do you think about Veljko Paunovic so far, and how does his style, tactics and formation differ from that of Frank Yallop?

A: Veljko Paunovic is different from Frank Yallop in almost every way and it is very exciting and refreshing. Yallop, despite having the likes of Harry Shipp, would often bypass the midfield and have full backs bomb long balls up the field to forwards ill equipped to play that hold-up style he wanted. Paunovic came in hot from day one, fresh off a U-20 World Cup victory with Serbia. He showed off his youthful energy, coaching a hands-on style during training camp. The players have responded very well and his high pressing style gives the midfield a chance to shine. Right after the first day of practice, players commented on how they appreciated Paunovic’s willingness to stop play during practice and coach them up.

Formation wise, Paunovic has deployed both a 4-2-3-1, which is likely what you will see, and a 3-5-2. Both have yielded positive results and the team showed a real ability to make the important transition from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 as they go from offense to defense in that formation. But if I were an NYCFC fan trying to understand what might be awaiting their team Sunday, I would say look for the 4-2-3-1.

Q: Preliminary reports say David Accam is in danger of missing the match on Sunday. What is the latest on Accam, what does he do for the team, and how would the tactics change if he missed the match?

A: David Accam looks likely to miss the opener, which is a real downer for the Fire. There is little doubt Accam is the most dangerous player for the Fire. He is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, players in the league. The silver lining is the Fire learned to play without him during the preseason since he did miss a few matches. Both first-year homegrown Joey Calistri and designated player Kennedy Igboananike showed well in the midfield during the preseason, but neither are close to Accam’s quality. The attack will be far more toothless without the speedy Ghanaian. Expect to see John Goossens play quarterback in the center of the pitch with Arturo Alvarez and Igboananike or Calistri on his other flank. Attacks will be built up the middle.

Also of note, Matt Polster is apparently a bit of a question mark. If he doesn’t play, the Fire is in DEEP trouble as he is one of the best defensive midfielders in the game.

Prediction: Opening day is always fun and players are always jacked up. With that said, neither team sports a very good defense and I see a handful of goals in this one. If Matt Polster is out, I think New York City FC wins. But I assume Polster will find a way to get on the field. In that case, I see a 3-2 win for the Fire. David Villa and Thomas McNamara notch goals for NYCFC (it should be noted McNamara scored his first pro goal against the Fire, so I always expect him to score against us.) For the Fire, newcomers John Goossens and Arturo Alvarez keep up their red hot form with a goal each while Gilberto puts one in from the spot.

Fire Facts

-The Fire played their inaugural season in 1998

-Chicago has not reached the postseason since 2009

-11 of the Fire’s 23 players are 25 or younger

-They have a team DJ, DJ Step, who released a playlist for opening day

-If you search "interesting Chicago Fire Facts" on google you will learn about the great Chicago Fire which nearly burned the city down

Our Prediction

An early David Villa goal gets NYC FC off to a great start in 2016. The Fire level as new signee John Goossesn gets his first goal and the teams go into halftime all square. NYC FC take it to Chicago and get the breakthrough around the 70th minute when Poku (POKU!!) finishes from a Pirlo ball and the club see out victory to take the three points.

Have your own prediction for the game? Want to review DJ Step’s mixtape? Let us hear it in the comments section!