We’re finally here.
It’s been a strange and extended off-season with lots of uncertainty, but with just a few more sleeps remaining, we are finally here.
It’s opening week of the 2021 MLS regular season for Chicago Fire FC, one that at last features you, the fans.
For the first time since Sep. 29, 2019, Fire supporters will have an opportunity to see their club in Chicagoland. Even further, it will be the first time they’ll see their boys at Soldier Field in person since October 21, 2005.
Any way you slice it, this has been a LONG time coming, and I don’t think there’s a better way to kick off a new season and welcome you all back to Soldier Field than with a fixture against Bruce Arena and the New England Revolution.
So without any further ado, here is the first scouting report of the year….
It’s the start of the second year of the Raphael Wïcky era in Chicago, and we know what to expect at this point. 4-2-3-1, high press, possession-based, clean football. Play through Álvaro Medrán and Gastón Gimenez in the middle of the park and see if you can find Robert Berić in some fortuitous areas to finish off moves.
That’s how it looks from about 30k feet heading into O’Hare…
Back down on field level, it is a bit more complicated than that.
Injuries are of a concern at the moment. We know for a fact the Fire will be without the services of new signing Stanislav Ivanov and midfielders Fabian Herbers and Elliot Collier. We are still not sure about the status of Miguel Navarro and Ignacio Aliseda after both picked up knocks in the final stages of preseason.
Right off the bat, the depth at the wide midfield positions becomes almost non-existent. That moves Fire homegrown Brian Gutiérrez way up the depth chart, and most likely forces new signing Chinonso Offor to contribute in other areas of the field.
For those of you that haven’t read it, Hot Time in Old Town’s Patrick McCraney had a great article this week on Offor. He’d actually played centrally and out wide before experiencing a major growth-spurt and was converted into a true No. 9. That’s where he was utilized primarily in Latvia before coming to MLS. That’s just the least interesting thing in an article that describes a wild journey for “Chino” as he made his way from Nigeria to the United States.
Injuries are something that every team needs to deal with over the course of any season, but it seems like the Fire’s have piled up this preseason. Whatever the case may be, Wïcky’s group will have to be ready and some younger guys will have to step up.
This is a New England side that the Fire drew early last March before being defeated 2-1 at Soldier Field in the Fall on a wild Teal Bunbury cross that ended up in the top bins.
Both games were underwhelming from a quality standpoint due to missing pieces on both sides, particularly the March fixture. The Fire had only just welcomed the likes of Aliseda Gimenez and Miguel Navarro into the fray at that point. Boris Sekulić and Luka Stojanović had yet to even arrive.
At no point after the draw or after the 2-1 loss did I think the Fire were facing a potential Eastern Conference finalist. I don’t think anyone else did either. They finished eighth in the East and had to win a play-in game against Montreal just to get into the postseason proper. Former Aston Villa man and Designated Player Carles Gil finally got healthy, and the three-headed-designated-monster of Gil, Gustavo Bou, and Adam Buksa got to work knocking off both Supporters Shield winners Philadelphia Union as well as Orlando City SC on the road.
It was amazing to see what New England were capable of once Gil was healthy and match fit. The Revs went from a fringe playoff team (in a normal 7-team field) to a conference finalist and became one of the most efficient sides in the league. They were touch-tight with eventual champions Columbus Crew SC in the conference final, and if not for a beautiful Artur finish, who knows what could have happened.
It was much more than just New England’s DPs that got them to that point, though. Rookie defender Henry Kessler emerged as a reliable and consistent centerback. Tajon Buchanan settled in nicely at the fullback position. Former Fire man Matt Polster and veteran Scott Caldwell were solid in the middle of the field. Arena then upgraded the engine room this offseason by signing Barcelona academy product Wilfrid Kaptoum.
The Revs proved themselves as a title contender last year, and it should come as no surprise under Arena’s tutelage. Arena has proven time and again that he knows how to win in this league. He is constantly adapting, like the league, to maximize the potential of his players. They’ve returned every starter from that conference final appearance a year ago, and – having added a few new pieces - this is no doubt going to be another strong year for New England.
Let’s Get Tactical!
Thanks for indulging me in the first of many punny headers this season…
As we talked about before, the Fire will be set up in a 4-2-3-1, very similar to New England. The biggest difference is that the Fire like their wingers to play in the “half spaces” as Wicky likes to say. This means the wingers come in about 5-10 yards from the sideline and make room for the overlapping run of the fullbacks. They are not reliant upon deliveries from out wide, but rather interplay and creating overloads and keeping the ball on the deck. This means you need to have the ball, and have a lot of it.
This is the big difference between the two sides. New England want you to have the ball. They LOVE for you to have the ball. This allows them to utilize their pace and quality in more space to hit you on the counter. In their two postseason games last year, they did this to Orlando and Philadelphia almost flawlessly.
It'll be intriguing to see how Wïcky and the coaching staff set up with this in mind. It might mean that Sekulić and Jonny Bornstein get forward a little less to make sure the two centerbacks aren’t stranded on an island by themselves dealing with the likes of Bou, Gil and Buksa running at them.
This is where that buzz phrase “defensive-attacking” comes into play. It simply means your central midfielders and fullbacks are mindful of the space around them in preparation for a counter-attack, even when in possession. It also means you need to limit the mistakes in the middle of the park. Medrán and Giménez dictating the tempo will be key per usual, but ensuring that they are as close to mistake-free as possible will lead to good things and force the Revs to defend for long stretches and prevent the counter.
This is a rivalry game. This is opening day. This is the first time Fire fans have seen their side, in person, at home, in almost 19 months.
This is going to be an emotional game for the Fire. Even though the capacity at Soldier Field is limited, the fans that will be there will make plenty of noise and give the players their first experience with real crowd noise inside of their home venue. That is a big deal, and cannot be underplayed.
From a tactical standpoint, I think it is pretty straightforward. If the Fire can limit their mistakes and make sure they’re not too exposed when New England get forward, they can pull off a big result. They’ll need some stellar performances from Medrán and Giménez, and I do think Chicago has more quality in the 6/8 position compared to New England.
We know what this Fire team has to offer. With the staff’s commitment to retaining the core group from last season, it’s going to be all about the increased level of cohesion from year one to year two under Wïcky.
And that’s it. Enough chatter, speculation and anticipation. It’s time for live football along the lakefront with the life-blood of our sport….YOU.