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New York City FC vs. Chicago Fire: 3 things to watch for

Can the Boys in Blue nail down their fourth straight win against CF97?

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York City FC Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC rides into Chicago with hopes and dreams still very much intact following Wednesday night’s 1-0 victory in Montreal. In advance of a quick turnaround trip to Toyota Park to take on Chicago on Saturday, let’s identify the three big narratives Hudson River Blue is following.

The Wrath of the Schneid

MLS: New York City FC at Montreal Impact
El Guaje’s absence has been devastating for the Blues’ attack.
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

NYCFC have managed, some-crazy-how, just five goals in their last six games. It’s utterly stunning that they still hold the second-best record in MLS, what with Eastern Conference challengers Atlanta sporting 22 freaking goals in their last six and Chicago with eleven in theirs. For good measure, Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic became become the second player in MLS to beat David Villa to 20 goals, joining Golden Boot co-leader Diego Valeri with a second half brace in Wednesday night’s 4-1 decision over San Jose.

The funny stuff has got to stop: if Villa and a generally revitalized, back-to-health NYCFC roster can’t start dumping goals right now, they ought to up and bid farewell to a first-round playoff bye. This is a team, despite significant defensive improvements over its first two campaigns, that utterly depends on scoring in bunches. And outside of their captain and reigning league MVP, pickings are too slim for comfort— el Guaje’s 19 goals are as many as New York City’s next three highest scorers combined.

As we saw after July 30th’s 4-0 destruction at the hands of Toronto, it only takes one game to get back on track: the Blues went on to score a dramatic victory over the Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium just one week later, the start of a four-match unbeaten run that saw them take thirteen of a possible fifteen points.

Of course, that feels like ages ago now.

But it really only takes one big game to change a whole hell of a lot.

Back in Town

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

While we’re wary of putting stock in immeasurable concepts like “momentum” and “confidence boosters” and “statement wins,” all of which only matter or even exist if you believe in them, Sean Johnson’s first trip to Chicago wearing the visiting team’s shirt is kind of a big deal.

The Fire drafted Johnson out of the University of Central Florida in 2010 when the player was 20 years old, with his debut coming seven months later. He would go on to make 191 total appearances for the club, including 41 clean sheets, and caught the attention of U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley, who made Johnson a full international in January of 2011.

Today, the hometown Fire will have to face off against the man they named as their MVP just three seasons ago.

“It’s going to be really special for me returning to this stadium. It’s where I started my career and had the opportunity to become a professional soccer player, so I’m really thankful for that and the fans, along the way, have been tremendous,” Johnson told NYCFC.com.

Let’s just hope that this homecoming goes better than his last: Johnson’s first professional trip to his native Atlanta back on May 28th felt over almost as soon as it started.

Power Trio Reunion Tour

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York City FC
Just put a Ring on it.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

How rare is the on-field combination of Maxi Moralez, Alex Ring, and Yangel Herrera?

So rare that I literally couldn’t find a single photo in the Getty or USA Today databases that included all three of them, aside from full starting XIs.

But get this:

NYCFC have never, ever lost a game in which all three of those operators started together in midfield.

Ever.

It’s incredibly revealing in itself, but still worth analyzing. The division of labor is utterly perfect when these three are together— Maxi can go all enganche without tracking back into no-man’s land to gather the ball, Ring can get dirty whilst cleaning up every single teammate’s mess as it happens, and Herrera can raise hell for his opponents and force them to throw their pathetic little gameplans out the window.

Given how perfectly suited this trio is to play alongside one another, it’s an outrageous shame that they’ve spent less than a quarter of the season together as a unit, whether due to injuries, suspensions, or international absences: Maxi is the true attacking mid the team had never quite had for a full season’s worth of work, all due respect to NYCFC’s absentee father, Frank Lampard. Ring is the marauding, blood-drinking menace that Andrew Jacobson and Andoni Iraola just couldn’t manage to be. And Herrera, through his rare combination of physicality, vision, and athletic prowess, will forever be known as the teenager who took Andrea Pirlo’s starting spot.

Given what we know of these bad boys, there’s no reason to believe that their best work isn’t still ahead of them. And for a team much in need of a shot in the arm, that’s just about the best news a New York City fan could ask for.


Which stories are you following in the run up to Saturday evening’s Eastern Conference clash? Are you bullish about the Blues’ chances at a second-place finish and a first-round playoff bye? The comments are yours.