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You're Still The Wiz To Me: Fire vs. SKC, Preview, MLS #10

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How will KC cope with missing its first four centerbacks? Can the Fire tighten up their defense? Will this get into double digits?

For all the absences KC will have today, we know these guys - Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer - are gonna be there.
For all the absences KC will have today, we know these guys - Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer - are gonna be there.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When: Sunday May 18th at 2PM

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Illinois

Where to Watch: Toyota Park Stands, Univision, My50 Chicago, TWCSC Wisconsin

What Happened?

When the Fire travelled to Red Bull Arena last week, many thought that the Men in Red had no chance to go in and steal three points from the home team. The Fire went in and did just that in a wild game that saw 9 goals scored and a rookie performance for the ages. Homegrown Harrison Shipp propelled the Fire by scoring a hat trick and providing an assist in a game that saw probably the worst defending of the year from both sides.

After piling up a 5-2 lead, the Fire nearly threw away the three points by giving up two unanswered goals to New York late - very nearly a repeat of the week before, when Real Salt Lake scored 3 late goals to break our hearts at Toyota Park. If it wasn't for Sean Johnson making a couple key saves at the end the score line could have been very different.

What's Happening?

This week the defending MLS Cup winners, Sporting Kansas City, come to Chicago for Sunday matinee affair at Toyota Park. SKC is coming off of a 3-0 home victory versus last-placed Montreal last Saturday in which SKC thoroughly dominated every facet of the game - but the Sporks followed up that performance with a 2-1 home loss to Philadelphia. The surprising fact about the loss to the Union was that every key stat was in SKC's favor except for the most important one which is the final score line.

Will SKC be angry about their loss to the Union? Probably. Will the Fire get up for this game? I would hope so. Every team wants to knock off the defending champs and this will be a good test to see if the Fire can hang with the big boys of the league. And, as we're about to discuss, it's hard to imagine a better time to host Sporting; their list of of players missing this game looks a lot like their All-Star nominees.

What Should Happen?

We've known for weeks that SKC would be missing Graham Zusi and Matt Besler from this game; what we didn't expect was for their names to be just part of such a long list of absences:

  • Besler's partner in crime in the KC defense, Aurelien Collin, left Wednesday's game with a hamstring problem, and faces steep odds to play today.
  • Ike Opara, acquired in the offseason to serve as Besler's understudy, had season-ending ankle surgery a month ago.
  • Lawrence Olum, Kansas City's fourth center back, has been called up by Kenya for the African Cup of Nations.

Which leaves Peter Vermes with an interesting set of choices. There's the completely untested 17-year-old wunderkind Erik Palmer-Brown - but throwing even a talent like Palmer-Brown out against an attack as varied and challenging as Chicago's could be a long-term risk if the kid is shamed. There's Uri Rosell, who played centerback in the Barcelona youth system - but Rosell is the timepiece at the base of the KC midfield, and it's difficult to imagine him playing that role effectively from the backline. And there's Chance Myers, who'd line up anywhere and play his legs right down to stumps - but he's a career right back; in Chicago, Jalil Anibaba's career arc serves as a cautionary tale about the difference between the positions. 

If I'm telling Quincy Amarikwa and Mike Magee what to do, I'm going to tell them to shove the attack right down the center - recall the way Shipp has set up each of them with through balls in the last couple of games. This could prove to be the achilles heel for SKC on Sunday. The Fire attackers have to make SKC feel uncomfortable in the back, which will force the Sporks to commit more players to drop back in support.

I have been saying this for weeks, but if the Fire want to feel like they can keep all three points at home this weekend they are going to have to tighten things up defensively. Giving up four goals last week does not lend much confidence that the season's defensive woes are behind us - it shows that there is still work to do in the back, and this is the 10th game of the season. Even though SKC is going to be missing Zusi in the attack, they still have Benny Feilhaber, Poalo Nagamura, Sal Zizzo, Jacob Peterson, Claudio Bieler, and Dominic Dwyer in the attack.

The one player to keep an eye on is Dwyer, who is playing like a man possessed and with something to prove. His grinding, physical, all-action style will be familiar to Fire fans, as it's nearly identical to Amarikwa. He has already scored 7 goals in 10 games played, and seems to have benefitted from spending an entire season on loan at Orlando City in 2013.  There is just no getting around it: the Fire have to figure things out defensively before the World Cup break or its going to be a long break with much to work on.

What's Going to Happen?

Sunday afternoon is when we get to see if the Fire are really ready to turn the page on the 0-2-6 start to the season, and start climbing the standings in the Eastern Conference. No better way to find out than to take on the defending MLS cup winners. No matter the sport, every team compares itself to the reigning champs.

Prediction: So how will the Fire fare? I'm going with a 2-2 tie. With SKC missing key players the Fire's attack will be able to find the back of the net but I fear that the defense will still have problems keeping the opposition from finishing. I hope I'm wrong about this one, as with almost a third of the season done, dropped points (especially at home) could lead to this Fire team once again missing out on the post-season dance.