Sunday night our Chicago Fire return home to take on the third-place Houston Dynamo at Toyota Park as they look to improve upon the insipid 4-2 loss in the nation's capital to D.C. United from last Wednesday. Houston will be coming off a 1-1 draw in Thursday night's CONCACAF Champions League game in Honduras and will try to improve their league standing after two disappointing home draws against Columbus and Toronto. These two teams are separated by only one point in the standings with the Texas team holding the 42-41 point advantage, but having played one more game.
This is a winnable game for Chicago and, at this point of the season at home, the Fire should not settle for less than three big points. Take a look at some key matchups for the game after the jump.
Defending the Big Bodies
Houston's attack has characteristically favored the use of large forwards to hassle the opposing centerbacks. We may see Will Bruin, Macouba Kandji, and Brian Ching in Kinnear's new 4-3-3 system. Much like the Philadelphia game, the Fire will need to vigilant against crosses from the wide midfielders and fullbacks. What Houston specializes in now is using Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis attract attention to the center of the field, distribute out wide to Kandji or Calen Carr out wide, and send in crosses to the big forwards to head home. However, seeing that Houston are on the road and may want to escape Bridgeview with a point, they may likely pull the two outside forwards deeper back creating a 4-3-2-1, or Christmas Tree formation, and counter attack. Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry will have to be prepared for physical battles in the air throughout the 90 minutes, especially for set pieces.
All Eyes on Davis
Last time I heard, Brad Davis was questionable for Sunday's game because of illness which may have changed by the time I write this review. Davis is the creative force behind the Houston attack sending in dangerous crosses, lurking outside the penalty area, and taking the majority of the Dynamo's dead balls with impeccable aim. If Davis is on the field, clearly, he is the man to shut down at all costs, but if not, Nathan Sturgis may take his place. In the run of play, Sturgis may not provide the same attacking spark as Davis, but Sturgis has been known to send in killer left footed crosses from free kicks. This Houston team is built to feast upon set pieces, and with the Fire having an embarrassingly difficult time defending set pieces last week, this is an area where the Fire defense must be perfect otherwise precious points will be lost.
Possession in Midfield
Of course, the threats of the Houston attack can easily be avoided if the Fire midfield can retain possession of the ball. Last week there were too many mistakes made by the midfielders in transition that gifted possession back to D.C. in dangerous areas of the field leading to easy goal scoring opportunities. With the Fire attacking against a three-man midfield, there should be space to exploit to find gaps and move the ball forward. If Ricardo Clark starts, look for Patrick Nyarko (fresh from 10 days rest) and Alvaro Fernandez to see much of the ball and Chris Rolfe to move laterally to support the wingers and bypass the stalwart Dynamo defensive midfielder.
Another less obvious solution to maintaining possession would be to start Dan Gargan instead of Jalil Anibaba at right back. Not only did Anibaba have a howler of a game defensively against D.C., but also his distribution from the back is sorely lacking as he often plays hurried long balls over the midfield usually giving the ball back to the opposition. An experienced veteran as Gargan usually finds a simple pass to make under pressure, which maintains possession and allows the attack to continue to build. As my friend Stephen Piggott points out in his Tactical Preview, Anibaba may have the advantage over Gargan in terms of athleticism and size which would be ideal to neutralize Kandji, but the necessary technique at both ends of the field would lend itself to the deployment of Gargan to provide solidity to a defense that has allowed soft goals in each of the last four games. Either way, the Fire have much to both gain and lose by starting either Gargan or Anibaba at right back. With a limited number of games left all against conference opponents, these are the key decisions that could make or break the season for Frank Klopas' team.