The Fire finally return home to Soldier Field on Wednesday night after a 45-day road trip in which they played six-straight games away from Chicago.
After three losses, head coach Raphael Wicky and co. will look to get back in the win column against the runaway leader in the Supporters’ Shield standings, the New England Revolution.
Here’s what to watch for as the Fire take on the Revs for the second time this season…
LAST TIME OUT
The last time New England visited Soldier Field, there were fans bundled up from head-to-toe in mid-April and it ended in a 2-2 draw on the season’s opening night.
The Fire couldn’t have had a better first 15 minutes, as they dismantled New England for two early goals. However, they saw the lead evaporate in 16 minutes. Both teams had two clear-cut chances in the final five minutes of the match, with Robert Berić missing a 1-v-1 opportunity and Edward Kizza rocking the crossbar on a free header off a set piece. A draw was probably a fair result, but - looking back on it - it was actually quite a good result for the Fire against a team that has been the class of Major League Soccer for close to the entire season.
The Fire struggled with set pieces and restarts for the majority of the 90 minutes against Bruce Arena’s side, who typically thrive from dead balls. The Revs had a difficult time dealing with the movement both on and off the ball from Chicago.
New England forward Adam Buksa found himself unmarked on almost every free kick, while Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou pulled the strings up top and tried to expose Chicago on the counter.
That game seems like it was eons ago, and both teams have gradually evolved and gone their separate ways in the table since.
IT’S NOT REALLY CLOSE
The Revs are currently the best team in MLS, and it’s not particularly close in my opinion. No team has done a better job of finding ways to win games than New England. Whether they are on the road, trailing, protecting the lead, dealing with absences, or simply having an off day, the Revolution continue to find ways to rack up the points.
Their three Designated Players - Bou, Gil and Buksa - might be the highest producing DP trio in the league. Gil is leading the MLS in assists with 16, Bou is fourth in the Golden Boot race with 12 goals, and Buksa is both a very solid No. 9 and right behind Bou with 11 goals of his own.
Between the three, they have been involved in 47 of the Revolution’s 48 goals scored. The Revs are top of the league with regard to goals scored this season, and their defense has held up just enough to lead the Supporter’s Shield race by 12 points.
They boast a stout and scrappy supporting cast as well, led by Canadian sensation Tajon Buchanan. Buchanan will be headed to Belgian side Club Brugge when the season is over.
New England’s balance is what stands out to me the most. They hit on all three DPs, while having battle-tested, hard defenders and midfielders that have been around the block. MLS veterans like Matt Polster, Tommy McNamara, Andrew Farrell, and Teal Bunbury are perfect compliments to the three big names in Bou, Buksa and Gil. This is to say nothing of Brandon Bye, Dejuan Jones, and Henry Kessler who have grown leaps and bounds since joining the league a few years ago.
This past month and a half has felt more like three. It’s such a relief for me to know I’ll be broadcasting games from a familiar booth at Soldier Field on Wednesday night. I can only imagine what it will be like for the players to be back at home.
It cannot be understated how much the travel of an MLS schedule can impact a player. A lot of the guys on the Fire’s roster have never traveled that much in their career.
After three straight losses and no goals in the last seven halves, it is gut-check time for the Fire. These results have been less than ideal, and they have a great opportunity to send a message to the rest of the league against a side that is on top of the table.
I hope to see Soldier Field ROCKIN’ on Wednesday night, just like it was when the Fire left for six weeks following their 1-0 win over Columbus in August.
Tony Meola and I will have the call at 7 p.m. CT on WGN and CFFC Live. See you then.