The Colorado Rapids are looking to keep it going after a big 3-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes last weekend. Meanwhile, the Chicago Fire are having an impressive season, having pulled themselves up from the bottom of the league last year to 6th in the Eastern Conference. I talked to Sean at Chicago’s SB Nation blog, Hot Time in Old Town, to find out what they’ve done to improve the team and how the Rapids might be able to break them down today.
Burgundy Wave: It seems like Chicago is having a similar turnaround this year as the Rapids did last year. What has been the "secret" to the Fire's success this season?
Hot Time in Old Town: I actually think Colorado's season last year was more remarkable than the Fire's turnaround this season. Let me explain:
This is year two of a three-year tear-down-and-rebuild project, we are given to understand. 2016 was essentially sacrificed to get rid of bad contracts, collect funny money and bring in a few LigaMX-level starters, Europeans who make around the league max and let them bed in. I really think that the plan this year was "Dax + Juninho + Nikolic + patch the biggest hole in the summer," and then the opportunity (made real by their previous legwork) to acquire Bastian Schweinsteiger came around, and they're trying to make it work on the fly. Which is a bit of a digression, but it's simple enough to see the difference here between this season and previous seasons - I'm mentioning two MLS Best XI midfielders, a potential Golden Boot winner, and a German legend in my 'acquisitions' conversation, not draftees or obscure Eastern European signings.
Put simply, the difference is money - the resources expended to assemble this roster dwarf the expenditures of previous seasons.
BW: Chicago seems to have the complete package this year when it comes to defense and offense, but there have been a couple big losses. How did teams like Atlanta United and Toronto break them down?
HTiOT: Those two losses were pretty distinct from one another. Toronto is a balanced, talented team in good form, and the Fire didn't play well for stretches on the road. The margin was down to Giovinco scoring a free-kick goal that is a goal 100 times out of 100 against any keeper in history. The tactical takeaway from this match, for me, was that *if* you've got a world-class trequartista playing alongside a striker and *if* you can feed sharp entry passes to that trequartista very early in possession (as Vazquez did constantly), then our centerbacks will struggle to contain the 2-on-2 that results for a couple of seconds. That's true of basically every club in the world, though.
The Atlanta game was the one real shit-down-your-leg performance from Chicago this year - they came out pressing with wild abandon, and the Fire hadn't worked out their 5-2-3 solution-to-the-press formation yet, hadn't really integrated Dax yet, hadn't found Solignac as a solution on the right yet. It was ugly. Even before Johan Kappelhof got sent off for a last-man tackle in the 11th minute, the frickin' expansion team was all over the Fire. It could've been more. In the aftermath, the squad seemed to properly affronted by being depantsed by Atlanta on national television.
Burgundy Wave: Rapids fans always like to hear about past players. How has Luis Solignac fit into the team, and do you think we'll see him on Wednesday?
HTiOT: Luis Solignac has been FANTASTIC. Before this season, it was easy to see what scouts and coaches saw in Solignac: two soft feet, good ideas and movement, a graceful, durable athlete - but something never seemed to quite click. Watching him, one was left thinking about potential while wincing through errors. As of this writing, he seems to be putting that almost-not-quite thing behind him. Solignac is making the right midfield position his own. In the last few games, Solignac has grown and grown in that position, showing incredible passion to win the ball, a clever streak in combination with teammates, and a varied toolkit with the ball at his feet. His teammates trust him.
The only reason you wouldn't see Luis is squad rotation. Chicago has a conference matchup with DC United on Saturday, so there will surely be at least a bit of rotating.
Injuries: Juninho missed the Seattle game with an ankle knock; no idea if he's better or not. I'm assuming 'not' below. Jorge Bava hurt his head in training last Thursday and didn't even make the subs bench. No idea if he's better or not, so I'm assuming 'not' below. Matt Polster finally returned last week after recovering from a knee injury for the first 9 games; he should be available.
Predicted lineup: This is a midweek MLS game - a midweek Chicago v Colorado game! - which usually means heavily rotated squads, resulting in an over-abundance of caution. Both sides stand off warily as the crowd goes quiet. Eventually it ends 0-0 and everyone - players, officials, staff, supporters, fans, other folks - wanders off into the evening. SO! I present this very lightly rotated Chicago Fire side, in the hopes that we don't play all the subs and make this crazy boring.
Fire (4-2-3-1): Matt Lampson; Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Matt Polster; Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Daniel Johnson, Michael de Leeuw, Luis Solignac; Nemanja Nikolic.