So this is it - it all comes down to match day No. 34. What looked like another season without playoffs under Andrew Hauptman's watch has turned on its head as cf97 climbed back into the playoff picture. Now they have to finish off the season with a tough trip to New Jersey to take on Mike Petke's RedBulls.
The RedBulls are coming off of an impressive result in Houston where they went in and took all 3 points. At times, they made Houston look like they didn't belong on the same field as the boys from Jersey. That win also kept New York in the hunt for the Supporters Shield, which they can clinch with a win over the Fire today. That win would the first major piece of silverware in their sad, maudlin 18-year history. So you think they have something to play for? You bet.
On the other side, Chicago comes in off of a 1-0 win versus Toronto FC in what I would call an ugly game. It was ugly in the sense that the Fire looked sluggish and they were also having a tough time stringing passes together from line to line. Yes, the Fire had some good looks - and even had a few off the woodwork - but it still shouldn't hide the fact that they were very sloppy. At this point in the season, though, three points are three points no matter how you get them.
Riding a three-game win streak, the Fire look to today's game to seal their spot in the playoffs. Thanks to Montreal's swan-dive against Toronto yesterday, Frank and company will finish third in the east with a win - or, pending today's other results, a loss could still send them out of the playoffs. The fact of the matter is the Fire have to take care of their own business and not worry about what is going on in the other games. Some questions remain: Does the Fire have enough left in the tank for one more result? Will the momentum gained in the three-game win streak be enough against one of the best squads in the league? What team will show up for the Men in Red on Sunday? We will find answers to all of these questions by early Sunday evening.
Since the RedBulls have sewn up a playoff place, first year head coach Mike Petke has said that the pressure is on the Fire and not them. But I am willing to bet that in the back of his mind he knows that there is pressure on him to make sure his team win the Supporters Shield. That's why I think he will go with an unchanged lineup from the one that beat Houston a week ago. This is what we will probably see:
Besides the injuries to Brendan King and Michael Videira and the suspension of Jeff Larentowicz Frank has a relatively full roster. Expect Egidio Arevalo Rios to come back after a week's rest and play a full 90 minutes. I would expect Alex to slide into Larentowicz's spot and take over the box to box role. Other than that with so much on the line I wouldn't expect any other changes from the lineup that has worked the past three weeks. This is what Frank will probably start with in RedBull Arena:
- The double edged sword - So what do you do with a team that has 2 of the best players in the league in Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, as well as a good supporting cast in players like Dax McCarty, Fabian Espindola, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Peguy Luyindula, Johnny Steele, and Lloyd Sam. How do you defend all of them when you know that Henry and Cahill will garner more attention than the others? It's a fine line that the Fire are going to have to walk because at any moment any of these players can create something with just a little space. The Fire's back four are going to have to be on their games and cannot be lax when in defense. They will have to work as one unit and not make any bad decisions out there. I'm not saying they have to be conservative in defense, but they should definitely be smart about when to press up into midfield and when to sit back and draw the opposing offense to them.
- Center of the park - Let's face it, both teams are not real aerial teams. Yes, both teams have players good in the air - Juan Luis Anangono for cf97 and Cahill for the RedBulls. But the main focus of both teams is playing the ball to the front on the ground. I think that this game will come down to whoever controls the middle will control most of the possession and chances throughout the game. It is important that Alex and Rios play well in order for the team to have a chance at a playoff spot. If Alex does indeed start, I think this will be a good move because it will give the Fire more of an offensive presence in the middle. Alex tends to venture forward a little more than Larentowicz and is more of a box-to-box midfielder that the Fire need.
For New York I'm going to go with Tim Cahill. The Australian was brought in last year on a shock transfer from Everton, and had come on strong after a slow start in the MLS, racking up a team-leading 11 goals with 4 assists this season. Cahill is one of those players you admire because he works hard to win the ball, is not afraid to mix it up with defenders, and he puts himself in the right spots at the right times. He will definitely be giving Soumare, Berry, and even Rios some trouble as he looks to make an impact on the game.
For the Fire I'll go with Bakary Soumare. If there is a game where we need the center back to have the game of his life it would be this one. Since arriving at the end of May, let's just say that his return to Chicago has been a little rocky at times, with needless errors in the back that has led to cf97 to giving away points in crucial matches. He needs to be a little less relaxed and play the game like he used to back before his move to Europe. When I first saw him play back in his first season with the Fire, he looked at times like that player that could dominate the defensive side of the field. Soumare reminded me of a young Patrick Vieira in the way that he would play physical with the opposing team and also in the way he was able to read the game. Hopefully that Soumare will show up Sunday in order for us to have the best chance at continuing the season.
So this is it, one game left to decide if there is going to be one more to play. The Fire are going to have to be pumped up for this one as the men in red know that they have a chance of possibly keeping the RedBulls from winning their first major trophy ever and also securing a spot in the 2013 MLS playoffs. Expect both sides to press in order to look for the advantage early on in the game. With Alex more than likely starting, I would expect a little more forward thinking from the center of the park for the Fire. This is not going to be an easy game but I think the Fire pull it off and knock off the Redbulls with a score of 2-1. I'll say that Anangono becomes the hero of the match netting both Fire goals as they secure a spot in the playoffs - and a home date next weekend versus these same RedBulls.