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Words About Shapes: Making Like Mithras

In the regular-season finale, Fire will need to take advantage of the flanks, communicate defensively to take all three points

Mithras slaying the Bull Primeval. No word on the bull's preference for horrid energy drinks.
Mithras slaying the Bull Primeval. No word on the bull's preference for horrid energy drinks.

Mithra began his godhood in Persia as a benign figure - the protector of cattle, god of the wide fields, keeper of contracts - ever watchful, undeceivable. Transported to a Rome, though, his portfolio changed as his name added an ‘s,' becoming Mithras, the god who created the world by slaying the Bull Primeval, a vivid god hungry for sacrifice, the protector of warriors.

It's hard to say what world the Chicago Fire might create if, like the later Mithras, they slay the RedBulls as tomorrow's afternoon turns to evening. Certainly it would feature a Fire team in the playoffs, an outcome that seems nearly miraculous after the club started the season with two wins in 11 games.

Winning soccer games is a bit more complex than sticking a knife in a bull's throat, though. RedBulls have lost only two home games in 2013, and have announced a sell-out before the weekend - if the Fire are going to roar into postseason on a four-game winning streak, they'll have to play a better game of football than they managed last week against Toronto. That said, New York is a good team that plays hard for each other, but they're not a juggernaut. There is every reason to believe that, with a strong performance, our Men in Red can bring home all three points.

Under Mike Petke, New York has stuck with a stable, simple 4-4-2, much like the Fire have in 2013, though this similarity points out the limitations of such crude measures - the numbers are the same, but the shape is really quite different. In short, Chicago defends hard in the center of the pitch and attacks at pace down the wings, while the RedBulls defend hard on the wings and look to attack through clever movement down the middle.

It starts in the back line. Petke has searched in vain for reliable help at the fullback positions, where injuries and poor form have been constant this season. As a result, New York's fullbacks are given simplified assignments, staying back with the center backs, seldom pushing forward into the attack.

Keeping the fullbacks home keeps them out of harm's way, but it does hamstring the attack a bit. As a compromise, Petke has generally opted for Johnny Steele and Eric Alexander as the outside midfielders - dutiful players who are constantly mindful of their shape. The outside mids stay wide, providing the space and out-balls that the Fire look for the fullbacks to supply.

So there's the foundation: A simple four-man backline stays at home, and the outside mids mind their spacing and stay wide - six men making a sort of flattened U-shape that surrounds the center of the attacking area. It's what happens in the middle that makes New York potentially terrifying. The four in the center of the attack are as unpredictable and clever as the rest of the team is static.

Of course, Thierry Henry is at the center of the motion. Henry's game has continued to evolve as age has stripped him of pace and power; gone are the gazelle runs of his Arsenal days, and in their place is a maestro's command of space and time. The Central Park-loving Frenchman's immaculate first touch and surprising strength make him the target whenever a New York teammate gets in trouble - if the Fire press RedBull's back line, marking Henry as he tries to provide that outlet could be crucial.

Once Henry has the ball, he typically has plenty of runners to look for. Tim Cahill is, quite simply, the best header of the football in the league - his timing and power when the ball is in the air can be difficult to believe. He is also in fantastic form, confident and loose, as his goal seven seconds after kickoff last weekend demonstrates. Peguy Luyindula is a forward playing in the midfield, given the brief to play some defense then burst forward as the first runner out of the middle. Even Dax McCarty, generally playing as a holding mid, will get into the act with late runs from deeper in midfield.

These four generally play within the box the ‘back six' have defined, using the wide mids as static wall-pass stations. In the middle, all is swirling chaos, with runs coming from every angle.

Overall, Petke has done a masterful job of putting the players into a shape that gets the most out of the very good, very experienced (and very expensive) front men, Henry and Cahill. The Fire will have constant challenges to their ability to communicate and track runners - precisely the aspects of defending that most trouble the cf97 center-back duo of Bakary Soumaré and Austin Berry.

Despite also playing a 4-4-2, Chicago sets up very differently than New York. The Fire generally employing a sort of Y-shaped midfield - a holder deep, assisted by another central midfielder who works box to box, while the wings press out high and enjoy a great deal of freedom when in possession. La Maquina Roja is also much less cautious with their fullbacks than New York, expecting them to push forward and spread the pitch when the wingers dart infield. Mike Magee plays the Henry role, dropping deep to find the ball, while new boy Juan Luis Anangonó is the point of the spear, using his size and appetite for battle to fight for long balls and generally make life hard for opposing centerbacks.

The Men in Red have a distinct advantage on the wings in this game. Patrick Nyarko, in particular, has an opportunity to make a difference - his pace and ability to embarrass defenders with the ball at his feet should be a constant feature of the Fire attack Sunday. Look for Chicago to try to spray the ball toward the right flank quickly after winning possession; if Nyarko can get isolated against a single defender, he'll get to the byline and make things happen. On the opposite flank, Gonzalo Segares and one of Dilly Duka or Joel Lindpere can play two-man games to similar effect.

In recent matches, the Fire have shown a willingness to try to play possession football, pressing high as a unit to win the ball quickly. None of the usual members of the New York back line are accomplished with the ball at their feet, which could recommend this approach. The difficulty is that RedBulls' attackers are in fantastic form; despite being outshot 22-5 by Houston, they still won 3-0, as the Dynamo's gritty effort was trumped by New York's precision and skill.

For that reason, it's possible that this game will play out as a cagey, cautious affair - much will depend upon the results of the games played earlier in the weekend. If Frank Klopas sends out a central midfield duo of Egidio Arévalo Rios and Logan Pause, expect to see the Fire playing mostly on the counter, eschewing high pressure in favor of keeping two solid banks of four.