After being two hours away from a mid-week fixture in Minnesota on Wednesday, the Chicago Fire instead found themselves getting an unexpected couple days of extra rest after the match was postponed due to a suspected case of COVID-19.
With fresher legs underneath them, they’ll now take on Sporting Kansas City for the second time in ten days on Saturday afternoon. Here’s a look at how the Fire will look to avenge that 1-0 defeat to Sporting on Oct. 7.
RUNNIN’ IT BACK
Beating a team twice in a quick turnaround is always tough, and Sporting will attempt to do it along the lakefront this time.
The Fire have been playing extremely well at home, having won their last three games at Soldier Field. They’ve gotten off to extremely fast starts as well. In every game they’ve played at home thus far in 2020, they’ve scored a goal inside of the first 25 minutes.
The high press continues to pay off, and - as teams continue to build out of the back – head coach Raphael Wicky’s boys continue to punish them.
Last time against Sporting at Children’s Mercy Park, the Fire created a penalty inside of the first two minutes. Robert Berić couldn’t convert the opportunity, but the press clearly worked against Peter Vermes’ possession-based side that try to build and go forward.
Being on the road this go-around, they’ll be a bit quicker to go long and try to alleviate the pressure with direct play. However, the Fire will still create those chances in their defensive third.
The Fire generated two glaring chances last time out in Kansas City, and both came from getting numbers forward and turning defense into attack. Overall - and I think we can all agree - it was a pretty sloppy game the last time these two teams met.
I think this affair will be much cleaner - especially from the Fire’s standpoint - as they will have had a few extra days of rest compared to SKC, who are coming off a 1-0 loss at FC Dallas. Sporting are now officially the last team to have gone a game without scoring this season in MLS.
With the rest in mind, the Fire need to establish the tempo right from the opening whistle and let SKC know they are in for an absolute dog fight.
Sporting, despite their up and down season, still find themselves in third place in the Western Conference. They will certainly come into Soldier thinking they have the mental edge given the last result between these two.
I believe the Fire will be on the ball a lot, and will need to set the pace of the game. Defenders Boris Sekulić and Jonny Bornstein need to be flying up and down the wings getting forward and pinning down SKC’s outside backs. Berić needs to be glued to the centerbacks, occupying both of them if he can. Fabian Herbers needs to be making those selfless runs off the ball to create room for Djordje Mihailović, Ignacio Aliseda, CJ Sapong etc.
In short, the Fire need to stick to what has made them successful.
They will also need to keep an eye on the likes of Khiry Shelton, Gerso Fernandes, etc., but none more important than winger Johnny Russell.
Russell didn’t have his greatest game last time out against Chicago (to be fair, no one on the field played particularly well that night), but he will be a bit more fresh than some of his other comrades after coming off the bench at halftime on Wednesday night in Dallas.
Russell’s ability to beat one, two - sometimes even three - defenders off the dribble is fun to watch from a neutral vantage point, but is a nightmare to defend and gameplan for as the opposing coach. I’ve said this time and time again, but pressure, cover and BALANCE against a winger of Russell’s caliber is CRUCIAL.
(Yes, he is deserving of his own sub-heading)
Slowly but surely, it seems like midfielder Álvaro Medrán is starting to get the plaudits he deserves.
This man has been BOSSING the middle of the field in almost every game he has played in this season, but particularly in the last six weeks or so. Even playing in a much deeper role against D.C. last weekend, he found a way to have a significant impact on the game and controlled the tempo for large stretches. He earned MLS Team of the Week honors for the second time this season after his two-assist performance helped sink D.C.
With Gastón Giménez still unavailable after his international stint with Paraguay, the Fire have gone as Medrán goes. It’s really fun to watch.
If Álvaro can dictate the tempo as mentioned above, I have a tough time seeing the Fire doing anything other than winning this game.
His ability to get out of tough spots with the ball glued to his foot is impeccable. His passing range stretches from South Loop to Uptown. His threat to score is undeniable (hello, FC Cincinnati and Houston) and that forces the opposition to step quickly and often.
HOWEVER! It's his defensive effort (which 10,000% goes unnoticed) that is most impressive to me. Even with Giménez not in the lineup, Medrán was able to fill his disruptive boots and provide that bite you just typically don’t see from players that are THAT good on the ball.
It’s really a pleasure to watch him play, and if he puts together 90 minutes close to what we’ve seen over recent weeks, the Fire will be just fine.
Relying on your best players is something any football side needs to be able to do, and Médran has emerged as one of, if not the best.
As already stated, the quick turnaround (again) for SKC and extra few days rest for CFFC will prove to be vital in this one.
If the Fire can get on the board early like they’ve done in every game at Soldier Field so far this season, SKC will find it really difficult to claw their way back in.
This is all to say that Sporting are still an extremely talented team -- with experience at almost every position -- and with a game-changer like Johnny Russell, you just never know.
Tempo, intent and a fast start are the key ingredients for a second straight win.