Folks, I’m here to tell you that playoff soccer is on its way. This Saturday, the Boys in Blue travel to Chicago to take on the Fire in a game that will undoubtedly have a postseason vibe.
NYC FC dispatched of Chicago when the teams met in the Bronx in July. Despite losing Yangel Herrera in the twelfth minute after two yellows, New York played with confidence and came away with a 2-1 victory.
Hot Time in Old Town’s Sean Spence answers our Chicago questions ahead of the match tonight. Sean shares his thoughts on Chicago’s summer slump and German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger before answering a fill-in the blank.
Q. Since smashing through the league to start the season, Chicago has come back down to earth. The team has amassed a meager 13 points from 12 matches since the NYC FC game and we are getting closer and closer to Postseason play. That said, Chicago stomped out a San Jose team in desperate need of a victory, on the road and without key players Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and David Accam. That is more like the team that ripped through MLS in the spring. What kind of issues led to the disappointing run of form in the summer and what did you see against the Earthquakes that reminds of how good Chicago can be?
The Fire can spread the field as well as any MLS team I've seen when they have Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster on the defensive flanks - injuries to both of those players deeply hamstrung the team's ability to play through pressure, which was a hallmark of that swaggering early-season run. Another aspect of the downturn was a dip in form for Schweinsteiger; fatigue and injury had blunted his previously imperious command of the ball, while the absence of Dax McCarty increased his defensive workload considerably, ending with him broken down physically over the last four games. Add to that the fact that Juninho has essentially been a non-factor since May, apparently struggling with a foot ailment the club hasn't officially acknowledged, and you've got two-thirds of the most expensive central midfield in MLS history pulling a no-call no-show for the month of September.
That said, Wednesday's patient mauling of San Jose was exactly the turn in form we'd hoped to see now that Vincent and Polster are back in the lineup. The Quakes tried several different pressing schemes, but the Men in Red were able to control the ball and the tempo throughout.
The biggest difference, though? A positive game state - the Fire scored first, and that makes all the difference. This Chicago side is one of the great frontrunning teams I've ever seen - but put them down a goal and settle your defense in two boring banks of four, and they'll struggle.
Q. Talk to me about Bastian. I had so-so expectations for the seasoned German midfielder after I saw his form in the Premier league and I wasn't super impressed in NYC FC's 2-1 victory down a man. However, I read good things about him, and his match rating is very strong on whoscored (7.23 - second best among your outfield players). What has Bastian excelled at in his first MLS campaign and how have the results stacked up against your expectations?
There's so much to say, but it could be summed up with 'Basti is still an elite player despite rumors to the contrary.' His technical excellence means he's almost imperturbable with the ball at his feet, and that sense of well-being emanates outward from him like sunshine. His ability to quickly solve tactical problems is impossible to overstate, and the combinatory effect of his intelligence with that of Dax and some others means no particular approach is likely to work for long against a Fire side with Basti in it. In short, he's been much better than I thought he'd be, and I thought he'd be pretty good.
He had struggled a bit in the month before his injury, and we started to see the fraying edges of the German legend's patience with teammates he considers under the required standard. The word we're hearing is that he should be available for the Fire today, as well as Accam - the promise of a full-strength side means we should see less frustrated gesturing from Basti today.
Q. Fill in the blank: Chicago will make a run in the MLS Playoffs and surprise some people if __________ happens.
... Homegrown Player Djordje Mihalovic can play at the level he showed Wednesday, game-in and game-out.
The Fire's great weakness, as currently constituted, is that it doesn't do good things with the ball in Zone 14 - if the offense isn't in transition, it's not dangerous. That's why they're so dependent on a positive game-state - get the Fire chasing, and it's all so much easier. If the Men in Red can start to unlock settled defenses, they're going to be hard to beat.
Starting XI (4-3-3): Lampson; Vincent, Meira, Kappelhof, Polster; Schweinsteiger, McCarty, Mihalovic; Accam, Nikolic, Solignac
Ugh, I hate predicting. 3-2, Fire? I'd guess Chicago bosses it but Villa is still Villa.
Thanks again to Sean for answering our questions— be sure to check out the “reverse fixture” over at Hot Time in Old Town. Have your own take on the match? Let us hear it in the comments section!