Tomorrow night's titanic matchup between Chicago and SKC in prime time has fans mouths watering. With a win SKC would lengthen the gap between themselves and the surging Fire. If the Men in Red can bring home a point, we would remain in 2nd but have the chance to jump into 1st with next Wednesday's matchup against a weak Philly side at Toyota Park. I say let's just get all 3 points tomorrow, take over first, and then lengthen our lead on Wednesday. Sound like a plan to you? Good. I wish it were that easy though. Although I have full confidence of the Men in Red bringing home 3 points tomorrow, the task won't be easy.
Although the Fire have had their way with the Wiz...err, I mean Sporting KC, Livestrong Park is a tough environment to play in. However, we have already beating the Sporks this year at Livestrong. For everyone's edification, the Fire prevailed 1-0 at LSP back on June 29th. There is this guy Sean Johnson that dominated and preserved a clean sheet for the Men in Red. Marco Pappa had the lone tally from a Chris Rolfe assist. Although Marco has now departed the club, the team hasn't been having any trouble scoring goals recently. Chris Rolfe has been scoring goals in spades lately. If he can keep up his fine form, I think the Men in Red stand a very good chance of toppling SKC for a 2nd time at home this year.
Don't forget that this team is much different from the last time KC has played us. Even going back to late June, we have a much more potent offense than what featured against them earlier this year. Patrick Nyarko has been his usual menacing self. Flaco is settling in, albeit a missed sitter or two here and there. Sherjill MacDonald has been a revelation up top. He is dangerous as a scorer, yet is also great at holding the ball up and setting the table for his teammates. And those Fire teammates have had no qualms about grabbing the crumbs Sherjill has left and depositing them into the back of the net. Alex is rounding into form nicely as well and learning to link play from the back to the front. Added together, this team has many different areas to strike from this time around. Sporting KC can no longer gameplan to take one player out of the game. If they do, the Fire have a host of other players willing to step up and bite them.
One area of concern is Pavel Pardo. As alluded to by MLSsoccer.com's Anthony Zilis (in our fancy new story stream ability here on the redesigned SB United), Pardo could miss tomorrow's clash. This would obviously be a blow for a Fire team that has been a menace to opposing offenses when Pavel and fellow stopper Logan Pause are roaming the pitch.
Fortunately, we have some nice depth that can step in and bridge the gap if Pavel is unable to go. Although the ideal role for Alex is to be up top in the midfield pulling strings, he has featured for Pavel in a more defensive midfielder type of role. Given his offensive capabilities, even when playing back he is a danger to create offense and even score if he is able to push up the pitch. Luckily, we have the beast that is Logan Pause to cover Alex if he forges ahead to create offense. And oh yeah, we have a great backline and a top young keeper if an opposing offense threatens goal beyond that.
Another option to replace Pardo would be the rugged Daniel Paladini. Never one to back down from any player, Paladini brings a toughness Fire fans admire. He is also a good defensive midfielder, and, like Alex can also contribute offensively. While we all would prefer to have the Pause/Pardo matchup if we can, Fire fans can rest easier knowing we have not 1, but 2 suitable replacements waiting in the wings.
Over on the SKC side, one story to watch out for (which again features in our story stream heading up to the game) is the possible return of Bobby Convey. Convey has been out of action with an injury for nearly 2 months, but appear set to return. For an SKC side lacking an apparent sense of urgency right now with the playoffs nearing, Convey could be the boost the team needs to wake up. As was surmised in the aforementioned article, Convey would not likely start having missed that much time. If Vermes decided to start him, it would either be a very big risk indicating how much emphasis SKC is putting into this matchup, or a move of Hans Backe-like proportions. I am guessing if we see Convey, it is as a later sub in the 2nd half. It's certainly something else to keep an eye on tomorrow night (as if there wasn't already enough going on).
Looking at the current standings, the Fire have scored 5 more goals than SKC. While this isn't a huge number, considering how cold our offense was at points earlier this year and how one dimensional we were, it's more eye opening than one may think. Our recent hot streak has helped our "goals for" number, but it also shows that SKC doesn't have a high octane, regularly high scoring offense. When looking at defense, Sporting KC has only allowed 25 goals so far. This is 9 less than an excellent Fire defense. KC has a defense that is not easy to break down. Chicago has a red hot, dangerous, multi-pronged offense right now. Something has to give tomorrow night.
If the Fire offense can give the defense 2-3 goals per game (which we have been doing regularly of late), the Fire defense is good enough to hold opposing teams below that. The Chicago backline has only given up more than 2 goals 1 time this year. That is extremely impressive. We have done well at holding leads for the most part. Although the team often finds itself conceding the first goal (which has been a maddening trend), credit should be given to the defense for staying composed and not allowing leads to get any bigger until the offense can do their jobs. Simply put, If Sean and the backline do their stuff like they normally do, the offense will take care of the rest.
The one aspect that can really be a killer is whether or not we make mental lapses (as SJ did in the Columbus match). Conceding goals is one thing, but giving them away is another and is not a recipe for a deep playoff run. This is one area that the Fire must get better in as the season winds down. The team will have to stay disciplined at all times tomorrow night to make sure we don't give SKC any gifts. It's nice to be able to count on your offense to bail you out, but against a seasoned backline like SKC has, that doesn't always work out. If opposing teams are going to score goals, they at least need to be earned.
And now it's time for my Friday night prediction. I think goals will be hard to come by for either side tomorrow night. I expect a rather physical, chippy affair as is often the case when these two teams meet. I am going with a 1-1 draw. I will say goals by Rolfe and Sapong. All things considered, a draw wouldn't be a bad result at all for the Men in Red. And then Wednesday we can come out and take over first place and be rightfully back where we belong at the top of the heap. Let's go Fire!