raphael wicky

A game-by-game preview of Chicago Fire FC's return to regular season MLS play

We’re back!

Two weeks since the Fire's early departure from the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, the ambiguity of “What’s next?” has officially been put to bed with Saturday's announcement of the resumption of the 2020 MLS regular season.

The reveal marks “Phase 1” of the regular season reboot in clubs' individual markets. Here is how the schedule breaks down for the Fire over the next few weeks as the region-flavored fixtures start coming in fast and furious:

All matches will kick off at 6:30 pm CT and be broadcast live on WGN and ESPN+.

Wednesday, August 20 @ Columbus Crew SC:

Raphael Wicky’s group will have a serious test when they play their first game in almost four weeks against Caleb Porter’s well-oiled Crew. A lot of people had this side pegged to make a deep run -- if not outright win -- the MLS is Back Tournament, but they were knocked out in the Round of 16 by the upstart Loons of Minnesota United on penalty kicks.

Columbus rolled through their group with a +7 goal differential and went the first 270 minutes without conceding a goal. Designated Player Lucas Zelarayan looks to be worth every penny of the record $7M transfer fee. Forward Gyasi Zardes scored four times at MLS is Back, and Darlington Nagbe is gonna…Darlington Nagbe. The dude rarely loses the ball, and is a flat-out winner with two MLS Cups on his resumé with Atlanta and Portland, respectively.

The Crew love to keep the ball and use every nanometer of the field. Expect a matchup similar to what the Fire saw against Seattle -- not necessarily sitting in, but waiting for the right moments to hit on the counter and make life difficult for an experienced Columbus team that is susceptible to a sound defensive game plan.

Tuesday, August 25 vs. FC Cincinnati:

The long-awaited return to Soldier Field.

After the nerves and excitement of playing on the shores of Lake Michigan, in downtown Chicago, at SOLDIER FIELD subside, it will be Jaap Stam’s team that is lined up opposite Wicky’s.

Oh, if there was ever such a sharp 180-degree narrative on a team in MLS over a three-game stretch…

FCC got handily beat by Columbus in their first match of MLS is Back by a score of 4-0. 

Then we saw a completely different looking Cincinnati team in the next two group stage games, as they kept clean sheets and earned wins against both Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls. They advanced to the knockout round before falling to Portland in the Round of 16 on penalties.

One explanation for such a dramatic turnaround is something along the lines of “Jaap’s Magic Stuff” or a “Make me like Jaap” scenario. All MJ movie references aside, this team looked very solid after their shellacking against Columbus. It was more sound defensively with Kendall Waston anchoring the three-back line. The midfield started to click a bit more with a nice balance of youthful exuberance and venerable leadership between Frankie Amaya and Haris Medunjanin.

This will be a great match of two teams who have plenty of talent and a lot to prove to themselves and to the league. The passion and aura of being back at Soldier Field for the Fire will make for an awesome spectacle.

Saturday, August 29 @ New York City FC:

A trip to the Big Apple will be the furthest the Fire have to travel in the opening phase of this reboot, which will be about 800 miles give or take.

In New York, a very interesting team awaits. I think we have really yet to see the Ronny Deila-led squad that the NYCFC hopeful expected.

“The Pigeons” got off to a slow start in the MLS is Back group stage, having been picked apart 3-1 by hosts Orlando City, followed by a 1-0 loss to Philadelphia and a 1-0 win against an expansion Inter Miami squad. It was enough to get them in as one of the group stage's top third-place finishers, where they beat reigning Eastern Conference champions Toronto FC 3-1 in the Round of 16. They were then upended by Portland in a 3-1 quarterfinals defeat, despite getting the opening goal and dominating possession.

Deila has been called, at times, “The Norwegian Jurgen Klopp.” That is certainly high praise to live up to, but I think we are seeing a more structured and disciplined group, compared to former manager Domè Torrent.

“I think there was more freedom in a way last year," Deila told SB Nation’s Hudson River Blue ahead of their last group stage game against Inter Miami. "But I want more, like, ‘when the ball is there, I want you there’, and these things. Maybe that’s a thing in which we train more; on structure.”

All of this is to say that NYCFC is clearly still learning what it means to play under Ronny Deila, and it might be a big opportunity for the Fire to steal some points on the road.

NYCFC has yet to play a “home game” in their normal venue, Yankee Stadium between MLS Regular season, CONCACAF Champions League and MLS is Back. For phase one of the season continuation, they'll play at Red Bull Arena.

Wednesday, September 2 @ FC Cincinnati:

Seven short days after meeting at Soldier Field, Wicky and his men will travel to Cincinnati for a road replay with Stam's side.
 
The Fire will be on short rest coming out of their Saturday night contest in New York, but will have the benefit of lessons learned from their first meeting with FCC in their back pocket. 

Sunday, September 6 vs. New England Revolution:

A rematch date with Bruce Arena and his athletic Revs -- this time at Soldier Field -- will make for another entertaining fixture. The Fire and Revs clashed in Foxborough back on March 7th in the last game either team played before the COVID-19 shutdown. The Fire pulled out a point thanks to a Johnny Bornstein equalizer in the 70th minute. New England had a few late opportunities to earn all three points, but some heroic defending and goalkeeping from the Fire led to a draw.

New England were very solid defensively in the MLS is Back Tournament. They only conceded one goal in the group stages, earning two draws and a win in Group A. They then ran into an impressive Philadelphia Union side in the Round of 16 and, despite a valiant effort, bowed out via a 1-0 defeat.

Bruce Arena’s teams are predictable yet effective; Athletic, direct and compete like demons. Gustavo Bou, Adam Buksa and Cristian Penilla are all very dangerous, while Brandon Bye provides a lot of pace out on the wing from the outside back position. Büttner, the Dutchman, provides a nice change of pace at that position on the opposite side, and employs a bit more tactical awareness and leadership having played for the likes of Vitesse and Manchester United in Europe.

Carles Gil is the big question mark, as he re-injured the same foot that has plagued him in the past. Gil amassed 10 goals and 14 assists last year and earned MLS Newcomer of the Year honors as a result. Gil exited the Revs group stage match against D.C. United in the 62nd minute. He had the same injury in pre-season, which forced him to miss the first two matches of the regular season (including against the Fire). The Spaniard adds another dimension to the attack, and the Revs certainly look different and less dynamic with him on the bench.

However, as the Fire saw back in March, the Revs are still a tough out even with Gil sidelined.

Saturday, September 12 vs. Columbus Crew SC:

Yet another Ohio replay will round out the Fire's Phase 1 schedule, when Crew SC visit Chicago for the two sides' first meeting at Soldier Field since Oct. 8, 2005.

Beyond the matchup, the Fire will have a few injury updates ahead of their return to play. Micheal Azira is fully fit after missing out on the Orlando trip due to an eye injury, while Johan Kappelhof (quad) is progressing into full-team training nicely.

It feels good to have an extended schedule laid out with the hopes of progressing into Phase 2 of this reboot if everything goes according to plan. The Fire won’t have to travel very far for their away games, but certainly have their work cut out for them against their Eastern Conference counterparts. The Fire currently sit in 11th place on 4 points with just five regular season games played.