Over the last 48 hours, I've been battling a virus of unknown origin, presumably earthly, whose symptoms are a grab-bag of hurts and annoyances selected from a broad list: Ear ache, nausea, muscle pain, fatigue. Night sweats. Malaise.
OF COURSE it has nothing to do with needing to write about the 2015 Chicago Fire, about the course of the club, the ongoing protests against its demonstrably a-clue-istic ownership, and the few games remaining this season. OF COURSE NOT. I mean, the idea's crazy, right? My subconscious - weary, at long last, of finding ways to describe dysfunction - somehow sabotaged my immune system, all in a plot to keep me bed-ridden and thereby avoid talking about the Fire?
It's obviously crazy. But I've wondered, all the same. And, judging by the massively decreased volume of #cf97 chatter on Twitter and social media, I'm not the only one who's caught it. Coincidence, surely.
The Fire are adamantly into the ‘denial' phase of grief, continuing to insist that they can salvage the worst season in club history by roaring up the standings and into the postseason.
|2||New York Red Bulls||42||25||1.68||12||7||6||43||28||15||22||14||21||1|
|3||Columbus Crew SC||41||27||1.52||11||8||8||45||44||1||32||12||13||-11|
|5||New England Revolution||37||26||1.42||10||9||7||35||36||-1||21||12||14||-13|
|6||Orlando City SC||29||27||1.07||7||12||8||33||47||-14||18||2||15||-16|
|8||New York City FC||28||27||1.04||7||13||7||38||46||-8||26||0||12||-8|
The cruel genius of defining ‘making the playoffs' as ‘success' means that every single one of the five-team train-wreck at the foot of the Eastern Conference still has hope they can ‘succeed' in 2015. The idea that Chicago could appear in the playoffs is not a complete fantasy - the Men in Red are only two points back of Orlando, the current sixth-place team, with eight to play.
It won't take eight games to tell if the Fire have a shot, though. Three of the the team's next four matches are against Orlando and Montreal - today in Montreal, two weeks from now at home against OCSC, and four days after that in Quebec again. In less than three weeks, we know whether this season was truly one of the worst in club history, simply poor, or subtly promising.
Fire left blunted by international call-ups
Since this game is played during an international break, the Men in Red will have to make do without some crucial players. Joevin Jones has been arguably the best, most consistent performer wearing the Fire badge this year, and scored a goal last night for Trinidad & Tobago in their 3-3 draw with Mexico. David Accam's tender hamstrings will enjoy two transatlantic flights in a week again, as he's with Ghana. And Rookie of the Year candidate Matt Polster has seen his fine play rewarded with a call-up for the US U23 squad preparing for Olympic qualifying.
Polster's absence requires some reconfiguration, with Lovel Palmer likely allowed out of the doghouse to play right back again; but it's the hole left by the absences of Accam and Jones which change the Fire tactically. Bereft of Accam's searing pace and Jones' quality in combination down the left, Chicago will need to keep the ball more neatly than has been its habit of late. Happily, the re-emergence of Mikey Stephens in the center of midfield bodes well for the ability of the Men in Red to connect passes.
The Fire attack has remained threatening throughout the season, a sizzling fuse attached to a damp squib, but the hope is that Kennedy Igboananike is finally putting his difficulties behind him. Igboananike's movement and ideas have always seemed solid, even when his finishing has not. And the interplay between he and Gilberto in limited minutes has been inspiring at times. Expect Chicago to create a lot of chances against a very thin Impact defense (about which, more below).
Injuries have thinned the options on defense quite a lot. Adailton's recent muscle surgery has him out essentially for the rest of the season, meaning that Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Gehrig, and Theoretical Player Ty Harden are the only centerbacks available, and Harden's barely available even if he appears on the team sheet. Patrick Doody has been called back from the Fire's USL affiliate in St. Louis, and seems a likely choice to start on the left, deputized by Greg Cochrane.
Doody's range and stay-at-home instincts are also a good match with likely flank partner Harry Shipp's more baroque movement and sensibility. Shipp's dip in form has been a sort of weather-vane for the mood of the club; the nimble, expansive trickster worn down by years in mere weeks, his gaze shifted downward, his shoulders slumped. On the opposite wing, Patrick Nyarko remains a passionate warrior with a fascinatingly distinctive dribbling style.
If the Impact roster were a human being, that person would look like they'd just jumped out of a fourth-story window - shattered ankles, a complex fracture of the wrist, dislocated elbow, and a concussion. Unconscious from shock. Immediate intervention necessary. Thankfully, it's a roster, not a person. And, also thankfully, they're the Fire's next opponent.
Most of the discussion centers around the health of Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti, and the simple version is neither are healthy, but either or both could play, because - oh, right! Montreal fired Frank Klopas this week. And essentially every defensive player who's gotten time is on international duty right now. Strangely, a team that finds itself suddenly reliant on the consistency of Dilly Duka and the finishing of Dominic Oduro has become a much less effective team.
So, it's now or never. It's go time. Pin your resolve to the sticking point: No wavering. No mercy. All they gotta do is walk right up there, observe the wounds tenderly, and put the boot in. Don't stop kicking 'til the whistle blows.
Predictions that ain't worth the photons they're beamed into your optic nerve upon
Fire lineup (4-4-2): Johnson; Doody, Gehrig, Larentowicz, Palmer; Shipp, Cocis, Stephens, Nyarko; Gilberto, Igboananike.
Prediction: Weirdly, I think there's two paths here, and I want to say right off the top that I hope that I'm wrong. I think that the Fire, if they score early against Montreal, might just rack up a lopsided win. This is not that far off of their first-choice lineup, and the lack of Accam will remove the temptation to sit on their back foot and lob balls toward him. Which (hopefully) sets the team up to play with a greater emphasis on keeping the ball and staying compact, which should (also hopefully) keep the pressure off of our admittedly non-elite central defense.
On the other hand, if they surrender a goal early, it's gut-check time. And my heart tells me that not many guts are going to make that check under current management. I hope so greatly that I am wrong.