Saturday afternoon the Chicago Fire look to regroup from an anemic 1-0 loss against rival New England Revolution at home against D.C. United. In the season finale, the Men In Red will try to move past United for second place with a win and avoid the dreaded midweek play-in game. United are on a 5-0-1 run since the season ending knee injury to talisman Dwayne DeRosario, climbing from sixth to second place, whereas the Fire have lost three of the last four games after a run of winning seven of eight.
Two teams on opposite ends of the form table meet in what could be the first of three consecutive meetings against each other with the latter two in post-season play. If the Fire want to end the night with three points and in second place, a much better performance will be needed from the last time the two teams met in the nation's capital which resulted in a 4-2 United win.
That game saw the emergence of Andy Najar as an attacking right back giving the left side of the Fire defense fits and negating Patrick Nyarko's speed and agility rendering the Ghanian midfielder ineffective. The Najar experiment has worked rather well for D.C. head coach Ben Olsen and Fire head coach Frank Klopas must figure out a way to get the left side of the attack effective again.
In fact, Klopas must figure out a way to get the attack in general effective again. The Chicago attack has produced three goals in the last four games for a 0.75 goals per game average down from the 2.375 goals scored per game during the August and September hot streak. Opposing defenses have been honing in on Chris Rolfe and succeeding in preventing him from running the attack or creating magic of his own. With Rolfe out of the equation, Sherjill MacDonald's service has dried up not allowing him the chance to hold the ball while an attack mounts leading to the Fire losing possession in the midfield.
Many writers and pundits have observed the trend of the Fire winning games in which they have a small percentage of the possession. This Chicago team is unmistakably a counter-attacking team needing space and pace to unlock opposing defenses. I would not be surprised to see D.C. concede possession to the home side knowing the Fire must get a win to take over second place. This will allow the United defense to drop back and pack the defensive third negating the space the Chicago attackers need to send passes and make runs in the attacking third.
Furthermore, D.C. are no stranger to a physical battle which is just what the Fire will want to avoid. This is the time of the season where the whistle blows less often and physical teams flourish by pummeling teams into submission. The Fire have a small attack in Rolfe, Nyarko, Alex, and Alvaro Fernandez who are all easy to nudge off the ball. One touch passing and smart runs off the ball will be vital to maintaining a dangerous attack so as to escape any physical altercations.
Defensively, the Fire have to tighten up. Saturday's result was unfortunate since the only shot on goal from New England was the game's only goal, but the offensive explosion that occurred over August and September only masked the defensive problems that prevented a shutout over a span of almost three months. Defensive set pieces remain a problem as the Fire were victimized against D.C., and more recently Philadelphia, numerous times from missed marks and the glaring inability to not win the second ball.
The return of Pavel Pardo may help defensively, but after six weeks off, his fitness and necessity of his services for the playoffs may prevent his inclusion in the starting lineup and effectiveness on the field. After Arne Friedrich's night off last weekend, his return to a real grass field will help the Fire immensely as he will likely pair with MLS Rookie of the Year favorite Austin Berry. The experience, savvy, and leadership of Pardo and Friedrich will be necessary to shut down the threat of Chris Pontius and Lionard Pajoy.
Figuring out a way to work in tight spaces, defending the counterattack, and minimizing the defensive mistakes will give the Fire a chance of defeating D.C. at home for the first time since 2006 and taking second place in the East. An outside chance of earning a CONCACAF Champions League spot is also on the line as a win and dropped points from Real Salt Lake and Seattle will clinch a third place league position and a berth in regional play. I don't know about you, but I'm thrilled about the opportunity to see our Men In Red play in Costa Rica or Honduras. The Section 8 On Tour parties will be out of control, as should be the case Saturday also.
Frank Klopas has specifically asked the fans to enter the stadium early to cheer on the team for pre-game warmups. It is absolutely critical that the fans oblige this request. We have seen some poor performances in recent weeks and have complained about the games, so now that we have the opportunity to help the team out, we must do so to the greatest capacity possible. Singing and cheering by yourself will not be enough. Get everyone around you involved. Help me sub-capo the back half of the section wherever you are standing. The Fire are finally back in the playoffs and only a handful of games separate the Club from the Cup.