Hot Time: Our clubs' only previous meeting this year was one that Fire fans likely remember rather poorly - losing 2-1 to the 10-man Pigeons to break an 11-game unbeaten streak will do that. In that game, a Yangel Herrera red card in the 12th minute changed the game entirely, forcing the home side to sit deeper - which, as it turns out, was answer to the tactical puzzle Chicago had been posing MLS to that point. How do you expect Patrick Vieira to set up his side for tonight's game, and do you expect that approach to reflect anything learned from that previous meeting?
Hudson River Blue: That was a strange game. When we lost Yangel on two very silly cards early, I remember thinking to myself that Chicago was going to run through NYC, especially considering the form the team was on headed into the match. To my surprise (and delight) that was not the case. The game felt 11 v 11 for long periods, especially in the first half, only Chicago took more control over the midfield. New York stayed back and waited for their opportunity to pounce on the counter. It's not something the team has trained to do, but when you have the likes of David Villa, Jack Harrison and Maxi Moralez, it can happen organically. The first goal came from a nice counter sequence and an outrageous David Villa strike, and that gave the team some confidence that it could get a result.
I don't expect Saturday's game to look much like the matchup in July. New York's identity is ball control and fluid attacking moves, and despite being on the road, the team will look to control the midfield. It's hard to say that NYC FC learned anything from the match, if only because it was so strange. I think the team learned it was a resilient side that day, but that's nothing tangible.
This game will be fought and won in the midfield. Both sides have strong midfield players and NYC FC relies on the likes of Alexander Ring and Yangel Herrera to boost the attack and distribute to the team's talented attacking core. I'm excited to see how this one plays out.
HT: Is any player on a good team in MLS more important to his side than David Villa? How many layers of complexity in both transition and attack would vanish instantly without him? Discuss.
HRB: If he's not the most important, he's certainly among that group of exceptional talents and MVP candidates that elevate their teams to championship level. Villa is such an exceptional goal scorer and he's (somehow) only gotten better in each season in MLS. Without him the side looks very ordinary.
It's funny you ask about his absence, because he had been absent from the team for several games before returning recently and he's still not 100% fit. After picking up a quad injury in World Cup Qualifier training with Spain, Villa sat out two matches, was subbed on twice, and started once. Unsurprisingly, the team has failed to score more than one goal in any of those matches, going 2-1-2 during that span.
When Villa is out of the game, NYC FC cannot find a way to replace his ability to find goals. Jack Harrison, who is growing into his game very nicely, has picked up some of the goal scoring responsibility but he's just not a natural striker, and the strikers behind Villa in the pecking order don't have the ball skills, vision or instinct to replace even half of what Villa gives New York. With Villa off the pitch, NYC is a middle of the league kind of team; however, when Villa plays, the team collectively improves from his presence and looks like a team that can compete for an MLS Cup.
HT: Is there any way you can get a message to Sean Johnson? Something simple - maybe just a little box of milk with a note attached that says "We miss you?"
No? That's ok, I guess. Maybe next time.
How would you rate Sean's performance as the NYC No. 1? Do you expect the team to stand pat at that position going into 2018, or will Johnson have a fight on his hands in preseason?
HRB: Sean, if you're reading this, lmk if you wanna grab a beer sometime.
Sean is so good, and such a tremendous improvement over Josh Saunders. He routinely keeps NYC FC in games with spectacular saves and is an excellent communicator in the back of our defense. There's a lot of ways to quantify his impact, but let's keep it simple - Through the full campaign in 2016 under Saunders, NYC FC conceded 57 times (t-most in MLS). Through 31 games in 2017, New York has conceded 38 times, good for 5th fewest in MLS. I don't want to undersell the importance of bringing in strong defenders like Alexander Callens in the offseason, but Sean has been sensational and he earned the call-up to the USMNT he got earlier this summer.
As long as he remains in good form, Sean should control NYC FC's no. 1 position for the next several years. There's no real competition in the roster for him and that's not for lack of talent, it's because of how good Sean has played. I'm eternally grateful to Chicago for letting Sean go. Fire are the real MVP.
Injury/suspensions, likely XI:
We're nearly fully healthy! Out - Camargo. Doubftul - Chanot.
Likely starting XI: Johnson; Matarrita, Brillant, Callens, Sweat; Ring, Moralez, Herrera; Shelton, Villa, Harrison
And my responses to his queries:
HRB: Since smashing through the league to start the season, Chicago has come back down to earth a bit. The team has amassed a meager 13 points from 12 matches since the NYC FC game and we are getting closer and closer to Postseason play. That said, the team stomped out a San Jose team in desperate need of a victory, on the road and without key players Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and David Accam. That is more like the team that ripped through MLS in the spring. What kind of issues led to the disappointing run of form in the summer and what did you see against the Earthquakes that reminds of how good Chicago can be?
HT: The Fire can spread the field as well as any MLS team I've seen when they have Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster on the defensive flanks - injuries to both of those players deeply hamstrung the team's ability to play through pressure, which was a hallmark of that swaggering early-season run. Another aspect of the downturn was a dip in form for Schweinsteiger; fatigue and injury had blunted his previously imperious command of the ball, while the absence of Dax McCarty increased his defensive workload considerably, ending with him broken down physically over the last four games. Add to that the fact that Juninho has essentially been a non-factor since May, apparently struggling with a foot ailment the club hasn't officially acknowledged, and you've got two-thirds of the most expensive central midfield in MLS history pulling a no-call no-show for the month of September.
That said, Wednesday's patient mauling of San Jose was exactly the turn in form we'd hoped to see now that Vincent and Polster are back in the lineup. The Quakes tried several different pressing schemes, but the Men in Red were able to control the ball and the tempo throughout.
The biggest difference, though? A positive game state - the Fire scored first, and that makes all the difference. This Chicago side is one of the great frontrunning teams I've ever seen - but put them down a goal and settle your defense in two boring banks of four, and they'll struggle.
HRB: Talk to me about Bastian. I had so-so expectations for the seasoned German midfielder after I saw his limited ability in the Premier league and I wasn't super impressed in NYC FC's 2-1 victory down a man. However, I read good things about him, and his match rating is very strong on whoscored (7.23 - second best among your outfield players). What has Bastian excelled at in his first MLS campaign and how have the results stacked up against your expectations?
HT: There's so much to say, but it could be summed up with 'Basti is still an elite player despite rumors to the contrary.' His technical excellence means he's almost imperturbable with the ball at his feet, and that sense of well-being emanates outward from him like sunshine. His ability to quickly solve tactical problems is impossible to overstate, and the combinatory effect of his intelligence with that of Dax and some others means no particular approach is likely to work for long against a Fire side with Basti in it. In short, he's been much better than I thought he'd be, and I thought he'd be pretty good.
He had struggled a bit in the month before his injury, and we started to see the fraying edges of the German legend's patience with teammates he considers under the required standard. The word we're hearing is that he should be available for the Fire today, as well as Accam - the promise of a full-strength side means we should see less frustrated gesturing from Basti today.
HRB: Fill in the blank: Chicago will make a run in the MLS Playoffs and surprise some people if __________ happens.
HT: ... Homegrown Player Djordje Mihalovic can play at the level he showed Wednesday game-in and game-out.
The Fire's great weakness, as currently constituted, is that doesn't do good things with the ball in Zone 14 - if the offense isn't in transition, it's not dangerous. That's why they're so dependent on a positive game-state - get the Fire chasing, and it's all so much easier. If the Men in Red can start to unlock settled defenses, they're going to be hard to beat.
HRB: Match Prediction?
HT: Ugh, I hate predicting. 3-2, Fire? I'd guess Chicago bosses it but Villa is still Villa.