Every season has moments where it's difficult to get one's bearings; this is one of those moments. The Fire will play their third game in eight days this evening, and the previous two games were experiences at the rarified ends of the emotional spectrum - Montreal an unexpected burst of delight, a dance in the rain, with DC United the panic attack in the bathroom an hour later. So which are they: The rain-dancers, or the fear-weepers?
The underlying numbers - possession, pass percentage, expected goals, all the metrics of our age - have been increasingly good for the Fire this season, even when the results have not agreed perfectly; the home loss to Salt Lake, for example. Against United, though, Chicago seemed to succumb to pressure and fatigue in the second half, turning the ball over in bad positions and jumping into defensive postures a half-step too slowly. This, despite an XI that featured three fresh starters from the weekend. How much rotation will be necessary today?
Five players - Jon Busch, Joevin Jones, Eric Gehrig, Jeff Larentowicz, and Harry Shipp - have played all 180 minutes of those two games. Matt Polster has played 170. The Montreal game, especially, weighs heavy here, as playing football in a rice paddy is akin to jogging on sand dunes. Expecting another 90 from those guys today is a big ask; their chances of injuries starts to peak in these conditions; the underlying bone-deep fatigue of the grind combined with constant cross-country travel can make it feel like one's soul has just somehow leaked out of one's shoes.
Unfortunately, we're going to have to ask it of at least some of them. But who? Frank Yallop and gang should know who's physically flatlining, and they'll share that information with us through the announcement of today's XI. The hour before kickoff will be full of intrigue; just don't be surprised by a surprise. If all of those stalwarts are in the lineup, the Fire are rolling the dice on a meltdown provoked by injury or simple fatigue.
So who's (almost certainly) in? Kennedy Igboananike seems a likely candidate, as he played just a few minutes in the capitol on Wednesday. David Accam leaves for the Ghana national team after the game, so he's almost a lock barring a late injury problem. Razvan Cocis was rested against DC, as was Adailton. Lovel Palmer, Michael Stephens and Matt Watson didn't play against Montreal.
Most of the tactical decisions against Orlando City hinge upon these type of selection questions. To wit:
- Can Harry Shipp go, or do we have to imagine a shape without him? If Harry's leg-dead and starts on the bench, the Fire have gone from two Best-XI caliber schemers on the field to none; can they create chances from possession without Shipp and Maloney? A potential of Watson-Cocis-Polster-Stephens (or something similar) could signal that the Fire plan to soak up pressure and hit through Accam and Igboananike on the counter as a way to minimize Shipp's absence.
- How about Joevin Jones? He's never looked tired, somehow, but there are physical realities here. If he needs rest, won't Eric Gehrig, too? Yallop's general solution for replacing Jones at left back has been to play Palmer there, on his off-foot side, with Gehrig as the right back. But do we really want a right-footed left back and an exhausted right back who struggles with quickness on his freshest day? Oh, Joevin, please tell us you're feeling fine.
- Finally, Matt Polster has grown into an absolute boss at the base of the Fire midfield, but he looked a bit off the pace Wednesday night against a much less dynamic DC United midfield. If Markus Halsti is stepping around one's late pressure, how much worse will it be against Kaka? Even if Polster can go, look for Cocis to reprise the deep-lying counter-killer role he played to perfection against Montreal.
Orlando City is, to a remarkable degree, a roster built to order to leverage the talents of a single player, Mr. Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, a/k/a Kaká. Every possession flows through the Brazilian, whose talent for understanding the runs happening around him in real-time is remarkable to behold; the Lions march at Kaká's tempo, now dithering with the ball for a series of short touches, now bursting forward into space. If the Fire are to get a result today, the simplest (and likely only) way is to make it an uncomfortable day for the Brazilian genius. Treated him with deference and all we'll get from Kaká is a loss and an offer of a consolation prayer.
International call-ups have touched Orlando City, too. Brek Shea is with the USA, leaving Adrian Heath to choose between a safety-first vet or Rafael Ramos, a 20-year-old Portuguese wingback who replaces Shea's offensive contributions but can be found wanting in defense. Bryan Rochez is at the U20 World Cup with Honduras, but he would be kept on the bench for this one by the burgeoning target-striker game of Cyle Larin.
Space after turnovers: Orlando City's double pivot generally features two players who like to jump into attack as options for Kaka's prompting. If Shipp does play, he should be able to exploit the space thus vacated when the Fire win the ball back to trigger lightning counter-attacks.
Aurelien Collin v the evil within him: Thanks largely to Accam - whose ability to frighten professional athletes into acts of clear desperation is nearly unique - the Fire have played a lot of man-up football in 2015. Collin is a red-card magnet. Run right at ‘im, David.
The Fire v their fearfulness: There's nothing more tiring than trying to cling onto a slender lead, and nothing more tempting when you're tired and find yourself ahead.