After a grueling two-week span that included a game every three or four days, the Fire are finally home, rested and ready for a match - which is fortunate, because tonight's visitors, FC Dallas, are one of the top-line squads in MLS. The Hoops have won as many games this season (11) as Frank Yallop has won since taking over as Chicago's manager in November 2013. This edition of the Fire is perilously close to losing touch with the playoff race, as Montreal now stands in sixth place, eight points ahead of the Men in Red with a game in hand. If Chicago is to get up off the mat and return to relevance in the playoff race, tonight is the night: Gentlemen, declare yourselves.
The Fire's woes in league play can be explained rather simply: This was a team built to win high-scoring games that has simply failed to score. The Men in Red appear near the top of MLS of every analysis for chance creation: Shots, quality shots, big chances, passing in attacking zone ... all of the numbers say Chicago should be an elite offensive team, but for one problem: The strikers aren't putting the ball into the net. Kennedy Igboananike has had the yips since he arrived from Scandinavia, Quincy Amarikwa reverted hard to the mean and got traded, and Mike Magee has spent the season watching from a training bike on the sidelines - with Gilberto waiting in the wings, expect to see Igboananike get one last chance to prove his worth.
Behind him, the Men in Red are approaching full health. Shaun Maloney's back problems seem past, Jeff Larentowicz is back in training, and Lovel Palmer's ‘fitness problems' should be a vague memory after two weeks of intense work. Only Harry Shipp, who participated in the Chipotle MLS Homegrown game on Tuesday, could have fatigue issues. The Fire are particularly terrifying on the wings; Patrick Nyarko's two-way play has been missed, and his presence on the right punishes defenses who tilt too wildly in David Accam's direction.
The most intrigue will involve who starts in defense, especially given the puzzling meltdown that allowed New England to steal a point from last Saturday's game. Will Palmer get the nod at right back, allowing Matt Polster to resume his Rookie of the Year campaign at the base of midfield? Does Ty Harden exist, and is he real enough to give Adailton a chance to clear his mind on the bench? Or is Mr. Hard Luck our only option in the middle? Unfortunately, the defensive failures in 2015 have been down to problems of coherence and concentration, which means any changes could exacerbate the issue. A rapid return for Larentowicz - fresh off of "four weeks on the couch" to let a disc problem abate - would be welcome.
The Fire have kept the Brimstone Cup - the supporter-created cup competition between the two former AEG franchises - since 2012, and this game will decide who hefts the dented chalice. Predictions are essentially impossible with this team at this point; any outcome, from complete domination to utter disarray, would elicit little surprise. Please, Men in Red, please: DECLARE YOURSELVES.
FC Dallas has risen to the top of MLS through relentless year-on-year improvement: An empire built on scouting, scouting, scouting. With intensely connected guys - connected to the local community and the larger world of professional football - in the decision positions, and an emphasis on buying exciting young players with great sell-on potential, Dallas' approach very closely resembles that of the Chicago front office of Javier Leon & Frank Klopas. The difference is scouting: The Hoops haven't missed on many big bets.
This is a club whose creative axis is both terrifying (Fabian Castillo) and elusive (Mauro Diaz), and very, very young. Castillo has been around forever - Dallas actually signed him in 2011 as an 18 year old - but he's still just 23. Diaz has been a known quantity for even longer; he debuted with River Plate in Argentina at 17, and he's now just 24, coming into the prime years for creative players. But that's not the end of the scouting successes. Tesho Akindele was an out-of-left-field first-rounder last year; this year, he's reigning Rookie of the Year and capped with Canada. David Texeira was buried behind Blas Perez until the Gold Cup; Perez left to play for Panama and Dallas won five straight. Matt Hedges was Fernando Clavijo's first draft pick, and he starts every game in the center of defense. And no team has gotten more out of the Homegrown program - Kellyn Acosta, Moises Hernandez and Victor Ulloa all could start this evening.
There's a reason that people say ‘you don't win anything with kids,' though - younger players' performances tend to vary much more wildly than those of older pros, and Dallas has certainly seen that kind of variability. Their losses this season have tended toward spectacular blowouts: 4-0 at home to Colorado, 4-0 to Kansas City, 3-0 to Seattle, 6-2 in the Open Cup to KC.
What I'll be watching for
Can Diaz find space? It will be Razvan Cocis and one other in the Fire's midfield engine room; can they limit his touches the way they did Kaka's in the 3-1 Open Cup win over Orlando? Diaz is clever at finding pockets in which to work, and his positioning will present interesting mental challenges for the Chicago double pivot to solve.
Will the Fire play proactively or reactively? The Fire began the season growing into a team that kept the ball very well, but lately has been ever more reliant on bursting forward through Accam than working forward in a coherent way. Allowing a team like Dallas to bang away at our troubled defense sounds terrifying, but is it more terrifying than allowing Castillo space into which he can break?
How to watch
Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. CDT at Toyota Park; tickets are still available.
Broadcast: Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes en español
Streaming: via Fox Sports Go
Radio: en español 97.5 FM ESPN Deportes