The Fire enter tonight's matchup with Montreal on the back of mirror-image 2-2 road draws - the first a disappointment, the Men in Red squandering a rampant opening and two-goal lead to drop the points in New York City, while the second was a gift unlooked-for, a road point in Columbus on a night when the guys from Chicago had the worst of it.
Tonight, the Fire return home to find several of the previous occupants knocking about, lounging in the kitchen, leaving the towels on the floor. The Impact, since hiring Frank Klopas to manage the team, have doubled down on their 'Fire en Français' rep - it's possible that as many as three former Men in Red will start this game in Impact blue & white: Bakary Soumare, Dilly Duka and Dominic Oduro are around the starting XI, while Justin Mapp recovers from a broken arm.
Meanwhile, the new Frank in town, Chicago manager Yallop, has dismantled the roster built by the Ring of Fire member in his time in the CF97 front office. Only four players remain from the fallen Klopas regime: Sean Johnson, Jeff Larentowicz, Patrick Nyarko, and Mike Magee. Only two of them have played in 2015.
So, safe to say this is a different team than the one Frankie left behind. The question (as always, as ever) is, is it any better? The knock on Klopas was that he was reliant upon the players finding form and solutions, and tactically favored caution. What he's built in Montreal looks very similar. Yallop has taken Chicago in a different, more proactive direction, with mixed results and no clear payoff in sight. Tonight's game might well seem a referendum on the Frank-to-Frank transition. If Kennedy Igboananike is going to come good, tonight would be an absolutely lovely time.
For the Fire, CoachTony ably laid out the likely tactical scenarios. La Maquina Roja are closer to full health now than at any other point this season - Magee's loan to St. Louis means he's in the home stretch to returning to the gameday 18 - and the starting XI has solidified into a stable group. Only a few questions remain:
- Who will start in goal? Of course there's not a goalkeeping controversy - the starter will either be Jon Busch or Sean Johnson. Where's the controversy? It's not like Yallop has talked publicly about selling Sean this summer, and benching him now could seriously buckle the chances of that happening, right? Busch has played well, but hasn't put forward the kind of performances which would put the shuffling beyond reach of second-guessing.
- How about right back? It's Lovel Palmer, unless it's Eric Gehrig, unless it's Lovel Palmer, and so on. Gehrig struggles with getting physically overwhelmed by quick players on the outside, while Palmer's erratic passing increasingly grates against the team's comfort in possession.
- And, of course, Mr. X. Razvan Cocis has been the man of the moment, and has been on the field for the dominant stretches against Real Salt Lake and NYCFC - but, as TomazPP pointed out in this great comment, his forward runs restrict Harry Shipp's freedom in a way that Mike Stephens' more self-effacing movements do not.
- Fortheluvva, strikers gotta strike, right? I mean, really. The underlying numbers say that Igboananike has simply been titanically unlucky - he's creating chances, he's getting shots in good places. Right? Right?
Montreal play Frank Klopas' simple, straightforward 4-2-3-1, with changes in style or intention signalled by changing lineups, not changing shapes. Like Klopas' Fire, they tend to sit back in a defensive posture and await opportunities for a slashing raid by two or three attackers. They are unlikely to create 20 shots on goal, focussing instead on creating a handful of truly dangerous chances.
Their best player is Ignacio Piatti, who is perhaps the most underrated attacker in the league. Piatti has, for most of his career, thrived when driving in off the left flank with the ball at his feet. For Montreal, he's given the freedom to move around the field, creating overloads and testing the cohesion of the defense. The Argentine has formed a solid partnership with countryman Andrés Romero, and the two play a lot of games to find space. Duka is up the third of the likely attacking group, still an above-average dribbler but now able to play a full 90 minutes. Jack McInerney, once America's Chicharito, is starting to find form atop this attacking group.
Then there's the defense, which features Fire castoff Bakary Soumare paired with steely-eyed Belgian Laurent Ciman. Soumare always likes to take a chance; Ciman's pragmatic backing has prevented most disasters. Second-year man Eric Miller is athletic and flexible, able to play on either flank. And the Impact's canny acquisition of Ambroise Oyongo has potentially plugged the team's weakest link (right back, where Nigel Reo-Coker has struggled).