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3 Chicago Fire Questions with SB Nation's Hot Time in Old Town

This week, assistant editor Jeff Engelhardt helps us navigate our way around el Fuego.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Each week we do a Q&A with our friends around the SBNation soccer world to get thoughts on their team from those who know them best. Know your enemy!

NYC FC faces off against David Accam, Matt Polster and the Chicago Fire this Sunday at 7:00 PM Eastern Time in a showdown of Eastern Conference foes.

New York and Chicago met on the opening weekend of the MLS season in a game full of offense. The Blues got on the score-sheet first following a lovely Tommy McNamara goal in the 10th. Chicago countered with a Razvan Cocis goal 9 minutes later, but New York had an answer and then some, getting goals from Tony Taylor in the 29th and Khiry Shelton in the 36th. Mix Diskerud got the fourth for New York on a beautiful volley in the 63rd, and while David Accam's 72nd PK made things interesting, New York eventually took the points.

Only five games later, the two teams meet again. This week, we welcome assistant editor of Hot Time in Old Town Jeff Engelhardt (again) to answer three Fire questions. Jeff helps us navigate what's happened since opening day and why we might expect a different result this time around.

Q: Since our score-fest on opening weekend, Chicago has allowed only 1 goal in three matches. In our first Q&A, we discussed the changes made in the off-season, including those made on the defensive side of the ball. What have you seen following the NYC match from the defense that has contributed to this fantastic 3 game run? Which player or players have been integral to this effort? Do you expect this to continue or is the sample size still too small?

A: I want to take nothing away from the defense, which has played better than expected since the New York FC game, but the scenarios the team has been in have lent themselves to defensive oriented play. Against Orlando, the Fire went down to 10 men and defended with five in the back to preserve a draw. Against Columbus, both teams faced incredibly windy conditions and the Fire again came out with five in the back and looked hesitant to go forward. Against Philadelphia, the Union went down to 10 men and the game was played in blustery wind and snow.

That being said, the emergence of Jonathan Campbell at center back and Rodrigo Ramos (who did not start against NYCFC the first time) at right back has been tremendous. Campbell is turning out to be a stout and difficult center back for offenses to solve, while Ramos has the pace to recover and give fits moving forward.

I think the defense will be a significant improvement this season over the long term and put up respectable numbers, but it likely won't be top-five or anything. The Union still rattled the woodwork three times in the last game, so there was a bit of luck to the clean sheet.


Q: Building on my first question, which player or players have you been most impressed with in general to start this season? Has there been a new signing that has played better than you expected? Is there a player that has disappointed thus far that you expect to improve as the season progresses?

A: I'd have to go right back to Campbell and Ramos as the two real standout new guys. Ramos, at only 20 years old, looks like the sky is the limit. He provides good crosses into the area and his pace alone makes him dangerous. Campbell already looks like a veteran leader in the center of defense with excellent positioning. I did not even expect Matt Lampson to start, so I'd have to say the goalkeeper has been better than expected, though still shaky in some aspects.

The disappointment is Gilberto. The Brazilian striker generally gets to dangerous areas but he either fails to create separation or misses his shot badly enough that the keeper doesn't even need to make a save. As a Designated Player and the presumed target man, Gilberto needs to improve. He played well at the end of last season, so improvement is still possible.

Q:  In our first conversation you mentioned that Coach Veljko Paunovic employed both a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-5-2 in preseason and both were fairly successful. If I remember correctly, we saw a 4-2-3-1 in our first encounter, and I'm wondering if that changed at all since that first match up. If it has, is it now 3 at the back? If it has not, as there been a personnel or tactical change that has altered the strategy of the team and allowed them to find success?

A: As I mentioned above, the Fire did spend some time in the 3-5-2, which quickly morphs into a 5-3-2 when on defense. However, against Philadelphia most recently, Paunovic reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 with good success. As Johan Kappelhof and Campbell continue to build chemistry as center backs, there is less need for Joao Meira to stand in as a third for more coverage.

The question Sunday could be whether Michael Harrington or Brandon Vincent starts at left back. As you may recall, Khiry Shelton was pretty darn good attacking the left side of the Fire defense in the opener. Harrington had a very strong game at left back in his first start there this season on Saturday, so it is possible the journeyman gets the nod over the promising rookie Sunday.

So, got a prediction for the match on Sunday?

Chicago should be feeling good after the first win of the season and coach Veljko Paunovic has publicly discussed how the team had its pride hurt in the season opener. The team also knows a loss here sets the record for longest win-less road streak in MLS history.

While it's hard to imagine New York will drop yet more points at home, I just think the timing is right for Chicago. The Fire take a 2-1 victory after Gilberto finally finds the net and Kennedy Igboananike strikes again. Thomas McNamara will of course score New York's goal because he is the Fire's worst nightmare.

Thanks again to Jeff Engelhardt for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our "reverse fixture" over at Hot Time in Old Town, in which we answer three queries on NYCFC!

Have a prediction? Let us hear it in the comments section!