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Sweet Home Chicago: Fire v Vancouver, MLS #2, preview

Men in Red with plenty of questions to answer in home opener

Lovel Palmer's got his work cut out for him against Vancouver's fleet attackers.
Lovel Palmer's got his work cut out for him against Vancouver's fleet attackers.

The situation

The Fire come into today's game with some serious questions to answer. In the season's first game, the Men in Red seemed slow of thought and foot, incapable of troubling Los Angeles tactically or technically before eventually falling 2-0. Which leaves us with this daunting host of uncertainties as kickoff approaches:

What is the team's intended style of play? Are the Fire to be a possession team, using and keeping the ball? Or are they set up to keep a rigid defensive shape and exploit opportunities on the counter-attack? Coming out last Friday in a bog-standard 4-4-2 seemed to imply the latter, while all the talk in preseason was that the Fire were going to play a three-man central midfield and keep the ball.

Can Shipp and Maloney co-exist on the field? The team's two primary creators share a similar difficulty - like most technical players, they don't relish the shin-kicking, and every step spent jogging back into position for defense is a step away from the attacking areas they're seeking to exploit. Playing the pair on opposite wings, as suggested by CoachTony in his tactics piece two days ago, would give them each space to exploit - but they'd have to pay the rent on those spaces by working hard defensively, which is a bit like asking a sculptor to shovel coal.

Can Quincy play with a partner? Amarikwa always gives a tremendous effort, no question - but is his brawling, head-down style a good fit with a team blessed with technical and creative attacking midfielders? In pickup parlance, Quincy can be something of a black hole - once the ball vanishes into his gravity well, it's not coming back out. Kennedy Igboananike also likes to take highly-speculative cracks at goal. As a pairing, the result is too many low-quality half-chances and too few simple plays to keep possession.

Can any of these midfielders pass the ball? If last week's tandem of Chris Ritter and Matt Watson once again grace the lineup sheet, we'll know the Fire intend to bypass midfield and play long-ball - that pairing showed very little of the accuracy and movement necessary to play possession football. Whether the late-game improvement in this category is down to the substitutions of Matt Polster and Michael Stephens - or merely a case of the Galaxy shutting up shop - is something I'm very curious to discover.

Who's healthy enough to play? Late word that Sean Johnson won't play due to an infected wound on his arm brings the total number of assumptive starters on the shelf to five: Johnson, Cocis, David Accam, Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko. Johnson's absence can be covered by Jon Busch seamlessly, but the other four's absences are being felt. Cocis should be a crucial part of the Fire midfield, and Accam, Magee and Nyarko's layoffs have left the Men in Red without a single starting-quality player on the attacking wing. Yallop's intention to play a 4-3-3 will have to wait until some one of those three is healthy enough to make a start.

Was Big Red's tough outing just a blip? So much of Chicago's stability comes from the continuing presence of Jeff Larentowicz in the lineup, and his move to center back promised to extend that stay indefinitely. Against Los Angeles, though, it could be argued that each of the two goals were the fault of the long-time MLS stalwart. Of course, the game came after a week where Larentowicz spent too much time in boardrooms and airplanes; here's to hoping he delivers a more polished performance today, and we can focus our worries elsewhere.

The opposition

Vancouver play a high-octane counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 that looks more like a 4-1-3-2 in possession. Their most pronounced attribute is searing pace - the Whitecaps feature attackers with truly world-class speed in Kekuta Manneh and Darren Mattocks. The key man in attack is Pedro Morales, a Chilean wizard who is given carte blanche to roam and find space.

The forwards: New recruit Octavio Rivero will start as the lone forward, although Manneh spends a tremendous amount of time up front from his left-wing slot. Rivero's movement is sharp and he showed an admirably short memory against Toronto, finishing his second good chance cleanly after blowing his first in hilarious fashion. Mattocks and Manneh are attackers who threaten to do something spectacular occasionally, but struggle to something useful routinely.

The midfield: Morales is the straw that stirs the drink - his vision, sense of rhythm, and technical ability put him in the top echelon of MLS schemers. Mauro Rosales has become much more stationary than he was during his MLS peak years with Seattle, but his service is as sharp as ever, and all those flashy runners need service. Matias Laba is their Armas, an indefatigable ball-hawk who shields the back line.

The defense: So far this season, Vancouver manager Carl Robinson has gone with two towering centerbacks, Kendall Waston and Pa Modou Kah. Everything looked lovely so long as the attack came from the wings; the Fire watched cross after cross meet the heads of these giants in their preseason contest. Toronto showed the flaw in the plan, though, as Italian water-bug Giovinco and the Reds kept the ball on the deck and played through the middle; suddenly, the adjective 'lumbering' came into play. On the wings, Steve Beitashour can support Rosales' movements from right back, while Jordan Harvey offers a journeyman's no-frills game. Danish keeper David Ousted is a solid pro.

Potential flashpoints

Can Shipp & Maloney pull Laba apart? At home last week, Robinson selected a double-pivot of Laba and Russell Tiebert. Tiebert is a talent, a homegrown Canadian attacking midfielder, but is miscast as a defensive midfielder. One imagines an attacking Zone 14 occupied by Shipp and Maloney could cause Laba some difficulty, especially as the Vancouver centerbacks are not likely to win any prizes for nimbleness in picking up marks. We could also see a double pivot of Laba and Gershon Koffie, which would be a much more traditional pairing and would alleviate these concerns at the cost of losing Tiebert's creativity in attack.

Can the Fire keep the ball? We keep coming back to this question, seemingly for years now - can the Fire string together some passes and slow the game down? The Chicago defense - really, no defense - will hold up against Vancouver's attack if the 'Caps can pounce on simple turnovers and run at the goal full-speed. Lobbing long balls forward is unlikely to yield fantastic results against Vancouver's man-mountain centerbacks. It is crucial that the Men in Red move to open lanes and connect on simple passes if the game is to be managed and not a hope-and-chase affair.

What I'll be watching for

How deep is the Fire's defensive line playing? There's two competing impulses here - playing deeper neuters the pure speed of Mattocks, Manneh and Rivero, but it also makes keeping the ball more difficult, lengthening the passes necessary to exit the defensive zone. How will Chicago manage this difficulty?

Three-man midfield or nah? Yallop repeatedly talked up a three-man central midfield in preseason, but injuries to all the Fire's wing players changed that against LA and their two-man center. Will Frank trot out the same alignment against Vancouver's 3-man group and risk being unable to control the tempo, or will we see something different - Polster as a destroyer? Stephens to start?

The bottom line's betting-line aggregator shows that home cooking is important: Despite looking very much the 20th-best side in the league on Matchday 1, the Fire are still odds-on to win this match - a 41% chance, the bookmakers say, with Vancouver at 29% to take all the points and 30% to draw.

Prediction: Green shoots of hope sprout from Chicago hearts this day, as the Fire run out 2-0 winners - slightly lucky winners, but winners nonetheless.