After losing to Chivas USA in week 4, the Fire came out of the bye week in week 5 not having to play an MLS game. This meant they could not lose another league game, however they did drop a 1-0 friendly to NASL side Minnesota United FC. Even in a friendly against a lower league team, the Fire could not find their offense. It was hoped that the 2 week break would offer plenty of time for Frank to right the ship and try prepare for the game this Sunday. That's not looking so certain now as Patrick Nyarko picked up an injury in last Friday's friendly and the Fire are still not fully healthy.
The Fire come into this game having to dwell on the 4-1 loss to Chivas USA in week 4. The Fire played some of the best soccer we have seen this season from them for the first 60 minutes against Chivas and then they fell apart after that. Defensive miscues, being out muscled, and an own goal doomed the fire to a 0-3-1 start to the season with only 1 goal scored and 9 goals given up. This game also starts a month that sees the Fire play 3 of the top 4 teams in the Eastern Conference over the next 4 weeks. It will be crucial for them to have a good game against New York so that they can take some momentum heading into next week when they travel to Houston. It is also important for them to start picking up points as they do not want to fall further behind in the East.
New York is coming off their first win of the season last week versus Philadelphia. New York showed why they can be dangerous if all of their key players are healthy and on the field. They come to Chicago with a 1-2-2 record which puts them 6th best in the East. The Red Bulls have had trouble this season finishing off games, which will hopefully bode well for the Fire. New York has been giving up late goals and in some cases not even being able to find their offense in some games. For example, in the first game of the season New York gave up a 2 goal second half lead to Portland and that game ended in a tie. In their 2nd game of the season they gave up 2 goals in the last 10 minutes to San Jose and lost 2-1.
With the Red Bulls struggling with some injuries (Lade is out, Henry, Cahill, and Espindola all questionable) this is how I think they will start if the questionable players are ready to go:
The lineup that Frank may choose will be interesting because of injuries (Duka, Nyarko, Alex, Kinney, and Videira all listed as questionable) and players not being at full fitness (Friedrich). His starting lineup could look like this if the questionable players are ready to go on Sunday:
Red Bull management decided to go with former player Mike Petke as head coach after conducting a coaching search to replace the departed Hans Backe. Being a first year coach he has relied heavily on the more experienced players on the team to direct the style of play. Henry, Juninho, and Cahill are the players that conduct the majority of play for New York and their plan will be to play through the middle. This makes every attack go through Juninho. The interesting thing is that last week when Philadelphia closed down Juninho and gave him no space to work in, New York started attacking the wings and eventually scored both of their goals from the wings. So the Red Bull team definitely showed some ability to adapt on the fly if need be.
I highly doubt that Petke will stray from a traditional 4-4-2 being a first year coach. He will probably keep the same tactics that he used against Philadelphia and employ them against the Men in Red. The main thing to watch is the aforementioned adaptability and how Petke can roll with the punches, so to speak. While his tactics switch worked in Philly, they were not successful against Montreal in week 4. Petke could not make the necessary adjustments to come back against the Impact in the 2nd half of that game.
Frank on the other hand has traditionally kept the same 4-4-2 formation since the start of the season. The style that he decides to use on Sunday will depend primarily on the personnel that he has available. If he decides to go with the same starting lineup that he used 2 weeks ago against Chivas USA, than look for the majority of attacking to go through the wings. If he decides to start Lindpere or Alex in the middle and if Duka starts, look for Rolfe to go back up top and look for Frank to try to use the center of the pitch as the focus of attacks. This will hopefully open up some space for the wings. But as always, as a last resort if Frank's original plan does not work, I look for the team to try to force everything through the wings or over the top with a long ball out of the back.
- New York's Forwards vs. Anibaba and Berry- If we look at the last game against Chivas USA, our backline had a pretty good first half. Anibaba and Berry were keeping Chivas attackers at bay by limiting them to 2 shots, with one being blocked and the other sailing wide of goal. The second half was another story. The Fire's defense gave up 7 shots and 4 of those were goals including an Anibaba own goal. It will be key that Anibaba and Berry put in the effort that they did in the first half of the game 2 weeks ago. If they don't and have mental lapses like they have had this season so far the experienced Red Bull forwards will exploit this and probably leave Toyota Park with all 3 points.
- Chicago's center mids vs. Juninho and McCarty- It is key that the Fire's center mids contain Juninho and McCarty. It will make it easier to contain the Red Bulls attack as a whole. Unfortunately that is so much easier said than done. If the Fire are able to apply constant pressure on Juninho and McCarty this will force New York to play out on the wings. This will give the advantage to the Fire because they will be able to predict exactly where the attacks will be coming from. If the Fire's center mids give up space, Juninho will know how to use it and that is something that the Fire cannot afford to do if they want to take all 3 points on Sunday.
There is only one player on New York that can be considered a wildcard and that player is Thierry Henry. Last week against the Union, Henry showed that he is still one of the elite players in the league even though he just came back from an MCL sprain. If he does not play the Red Bulls are a completely different team and the Fire should be able to take advantage of that. If he does play on Sunday than he will garner the majority of the defensive attention and will be the player that can provide the difference in New York taking home 3 points.
The Fire's wildcard on Sunday is Joel Lindpere. If he starts against his former team he will have a chip on his shoulder with something to prove. No one on the Fire will be looking to score more than him. Trying to prove that a former team was wrong in trading him after providing 3 seasons of hard work and dedication should be more than enough motivation for Joel. Lindpere is also coming off a pretty successful international break and will be looking to translate that positive momentum to his club play.
I know that it may be too early to call the 5th game in a season a must win game but this one is close for Frank and company. This game, as I said before, starts one tough month for the Fire. They have to get something positive out of this game. 3 points would be a great start to this stretch of games that includes some tough customers in the next month. Depending on the injury situation for the Fire, Frank may have to face a strong New York without a few of his first choice players. If the Fire's defense can put together a game like the one in Kansas City and the first 60 minutes of the Chivas USA game and can magically find their offense which has been missing, then there is a good chance the Men in Red can take all 3 points. If the Fire cannot put together a good game and if the players that are questionable for the game are not able to go, then the Fire will be in for a long afternoon. Personally, I cannot see the Fire winning this one and I hope they prove me wrong. New York wins this one 2-0 with goals from Henry and McCarty as the Fire still struggle to find their offense and have a tough time in the back without Friedrich being healthy and having to deal with Henry and the Red Bull attack.