Sunday 6-Pointer: Houston v. Chicago, MLS #25 preview

Eleven men against several thousand in a steamy, orange-themed malarial swamp - welcome to the playoff race, Fire! - USA TODAY Sports

Men in Red versus Orange Crush, who comes out on top? The game Sunday afternoon will be a huge victory for the side that is able to win as both teams remain within touching distance of the playoffs

As we have seen week after week this season, the Fire are unpredictable. Sometimes they don't show up for games in which they are the favorites to win and then, all of a sudden, they'll show up and play well as the underdogs. The past two weeks were much the same. Two weeks ago, Chicago failed to show up in New England, looking like a shell of the team we saw through June and July. Last Friday, then, unfavored #cf97 put in work and beat one of the top teams in the league in SKC. The 1-0 win was a game in which we saw an unlikely goal scorer in Hunter Jumper and the usual loss in the possession stat. I think Ruben Tisch said it the best:

For those whose memory fails them, in last year's 1-0 win, Marco Pappa was able to find the back of the net against the run of play while the team was edged in every statistical category. This year, the Fire were able to hold on for the 1-0 win, just like last season, despite giving up 60% possession and 16 shots. This - along with the other results from the weekend - left the Fire in the middle of a playoff hunt instead of on the outside looking in.

Houston's week was a different story. In Montreal last Saturday they were thoroughly beaten by the Impact 5-0. In what I saw, Houston looked just absolutely the complete opposite of what we have come to expect from the "Orange Crush". Barely any offense to speak of and a defense that had more holes than a block of swiss cheese is what they offered on the other side of the border. Montreal showed that the 2012 MLS Cup runners-up are vulnerable and can be beaten handily.

Instead of dwelling on this loss all week long, Dominic Kinnear's men returned to the field on Tuesday in the CONCACAF Champions League. With a mix of starters and reserves they were able to gain some positive momentum by beating Arabe Unido, 2-1, on the back of a goal from Cam Weaver and an own goal from Arabe Unido's David Daniels. Despite playing a midweek game, the Dynamo were able to rest several starters, so I don't think that Houston will be affected by fatigue for tomorrow's game.

Make no mistake: The playoffs have effectively started for the Fire. This game will feature two teams hungry for all three points - a classic six-pointer. A cf97 win will see them leapfrog Houston into 6th place, tied on points with the Revs. A cf97 loss, though, will leave them in 7th place, a good 5 points back from the 5th and final playoff spot with nine games remaining. This game should be fun to watch - Chicago and Houston will more than likely throw caution into the wind as both fight for max points.

Lineups

Dominic Kinnear will probably have most of his starters available for Sunday afternoon even though they played in the CCL during midweek. There are a few injury concerns, though. Last week Ricardo Clark sat out because of an illness, Calen Carr is still working his way back from a knee injury in the MLS Cup, and Omar Cummings and Tyler Deric are still out. The only other starter that may not feature on Sunday is Jermaine Taylor, who left last week's game at the half. Look for Eric Brunner to take his place if he cannot go. This is what we will probably see Sunday afternoon from the Dynamo:

Hall

Sarkodie-Boswell-Brunner-Ashe

Moffat

Driver-Garcia-Davis

Barnes-Bruin

Frank has a full roster to choose from this week. No injuries or suspensions to talk about so this is probably what he will go with, even though I would like to see Jumper continue at center back(#playthekids):

Johnson

Anibaba-Soumare-Berry-Segares

Nyarko-Larentowicz-Rios-Duka

Magee-Rolfe

Key Matchups

  • Fire's ability to spread out Houston- Last week when watching the 2nd half of the Montreal-Houston game, I noticed that Montreal was creating their chances by spreading Houston's back 4 by having the wings make runs in between the wing backs and center backs. Montreal put up 5 goals on what is considered a pretty decent defense that gave up 23 goals up until last weekend. The Fire can learn from this and have Nyarko and Duka attack from the outside and make those runs in behind the defense. The Dynamo may have some tired legs this week due to Champions League action; if so, the Fire will have to take full advantage of this weakness.
  • Magee vs. Moffat- This will be a matchup to watch. Magee likes to come back towards midfield from time to time to collect the ball and try to create an attack. I can guarantee you that if Moffat starts he will more than likely be glued to Magee the entire game. To go along with the point above about spreading the defense, Magee will be looked to provide some of the through balls in order for Duka and Nyarko to make the runs in behind the defense. Magee hasn't been scoring as of late but he is still the main catalyst for our offense and if we are to make the playoffs he will be relied on to generate the attack and make the other players around him better.

Wildcards

For the Dynamo I'm really interested in seeing what Alexander Lopez can do. He may not start but I'm sure he will be coming in off the bench. The 21 year old Honduran is Houston's DP signing for the 2013 season and has nothing but positive potential. Already earning 8 caps for the Honduran National team as a playmaking midfielder, this signing may give Houston an edge when it comes to the playoffs this season if they make the playoffs. Just like Rios, Lopez needs time to adjust to his new team but I feel he will become an impact player. In his last full season with Olimpia he played in 26 games and had 12 goals and 21 assists. He will definitely be a player to watch for the rest of the season and next season.

For the Fire I'll go with the dynamic winger Patrick Nyarko. He has been missing the past few weeks due to concussion symptoms, but he will be welcomed back. Like I mentioned earlier, our wingers will be needed to spread Houston's backline and Nyarko can do just that. We have seen it all year long that he is not afraid to take on defenders and he can also provide those passes into the box that the forwards can latch on to. We have missed his spark in the past couple games and have been trying to fill the void with Joel Lindpere, but let's face it - they are two completely different players. I expect Nyarko to be a major factor on Sunday afternoon providing a little something extra for the offense.

Outcome

The teams are coming off of entirely different results from last weekend. The Dynamo got thoroughly trounced by Montreal 5-0 in league play but were able to follow it up with a gritty victory in CCL play. The Fire gutted out a 1-0 win over SKC at home, a game in which they gave up the majority of possession but still able to get a much-needed three points from one of the top teams in the league. So what happens this week? Will the Fire be able to ride the positive vibes from last week and beat the Dynamo in a six pointer or will Houston come out all guns blazing looking to show the league that last week was a fluke?

I honestly think that Montreal showed the rest of the MLS Houston's weaknesses and that the Fire will be able to take advantage of it. I'll predict a 2-0 win for the Men in Red, with goals coming from Nyarko and Juan Luis Anangono as they take the six-pointer and stay in the playoff hunt.

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