The Chicago Fire will look to put the first six minutes of Saturday’s match at Sporting Kansas City behind them as they head to our nation’s capital to take on D.C. United in arguably the biggest game of the year.
The Fire have a steep mountain to climb if they want to reach the postseason, and D.C. United are a team they will most certainly need to leap frog in order to do it. United currently sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, tied with Montreal on 31 points. The Fire are eight points off of that mark in 12th place with 11 games remaining.
Here’s what to look for ahead of Wednesday night’s fixture at Audi Field…
This is Hernan Losada’s first season in charge of D.C. United. His players have already bought in to his high-tempo, pressing philosophies, and it has paid off. A team that was in true turmoil last year has turned into a potential playoff side with virtually the same roster.
Forward Ola Kamara leads the team with 13 goals. Five of those tallies have come from the penalty spot, where Kamara has been a perfect five-for-five from 12 yards away.
D.C. possess a lot of technical, skillful players that can play the killer pass or finish off a move themselves. Players like Kevin Paredes, Julian Gressel, Yordy Reyna, and Paul Arriola have all benefitted from the change in philosophy from “Benny Ball” - the much more defensive, sit back and counter mentality from the Ben Olsen era - to the heavy metal, high-octane style of Losada.
This is the third and final meeting between these two sides this year. D.C. took round one at Audi Field back on May 13th when Edison Flores scored his first (and only) goal for the black and red in the seventh minute for a 1-0 win for the home side.
Chicago then suffered one of their most disappointing draws of the season in round two of this fixture, when they squandered a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes on July 21 at Soldier Field. Gastón Giménez scored a brilliant header in the first half and Andy Najar put one in his own net early in the second. The Fire seemingly had control of the game, but then Losada made two substitutions that drastically changed the game in Paredes and Reyna. Paredes scored the first goal off a feed from Reyna and then Najar drew a penalty from Jonathan Bornstein. Kamara converted the spot-kick and the Fire only earned a point in a game that felt like two points lost rather than a point earned.
Chicago required a lot of emergency defending and key saves from goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth over the course of those 90 minutes and will likely be under a lot of pressure again.
Obviously, surrendering two goals in the first six minutes of the Kansas City game made the Fire’s chances of garnering any sort of result at Children’s Mercy Park extremely slim. I promise you that Shuttleworth will be hard on himself about the opening goal, but will move on and respond because he’s a quintessential professional.
Despite the slow start, the switch to a four-back and introduction of new signing Federico Navarro were really promising in the second half. The Fire hit the crossbar twice and Luka Stojanović missed a fairly easy chance by his lofty standards. The opportunities to get back into the game were there, but at this point in the season, moral victories don’t do anyone any good.
Navarro was as advertised and then some. He won duel after duel and even offered some quality in the attacking third. His work rate on the defensive side of the ball and close-down speed is something the Fire roster just didn’t have prior to his arrival, and it is a breath of fresh air. Whatever role he ends up playing Wednesday night will be a big one to disrupt D.C.
Giménez is back from international duty and we could see the midfield we’ve been waiting for with Navarro, Medrán and Giménez on the field together. Ignacio Aliseda was re-introduced to the side for the first time in a month against SKC, which was also encouraging.
It’s all hands on deck for the last 11 games of the season. The Fire will need to be sharp in the attacking third, strike the proper balance of playing out or over the top of the D.C. pressure, and will most likely need some Shuttleworth heroics. D.C. are fighting for a playoff spot the same way the Fire are, so expect that type of environment. With that in mind, it is a quick turn-around for both teams in a mid-week game. The more the Fire can control the tempo and slow the game up, the better for Raphael Wicky’s side.
We’ll see you at 6:30 PM CT on WGN and CFFC Live for arguably the biggest game of the year.