The Chicago Fire are set to play their penultimate game of the season this Sunday when they travel down south to face Atlanta United. It’s been a long and depressing year on and off the pitch, and a lot of fans are simply waiting for it all to be over. The games still have to be played, but at this point in the 2018 MLS season, there’s nothing left to play for. Players are still fighting to keep their jobs, but from the club’s perspective, these last two games should be about giving younger players a chance to prove themselves and, almost as important, protecting the veterans from possible devastating injury.
Which is why some of the Fire’s big-name stars should stay home this weekend.
There’s just no reason to risk any of the marquee players at the club in a game that means almost nothing. The Fire have long been out of the playoff hunt. Thanks to our single-entity, closed pyramid system, they don’t have to worry about relegation. And thanks to the San Jose Earthquakes being historically bad this season, the Fire won’t be adding a third Wooden Spoon to the trophy cabinet this year. There’s simply no benefit in going for it against the best team in the league.
Head coach Veljko Paunovic has already shown he’s willing to rest starters when the need arises. During the Fire’s away clash against FC Dallas, Aleksandar Katai was the only prominent member of the starting front six that saw any minutes; Nemanja Nikolic was kept on the bench, while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty were left at home. And during for the Fire’s game against Real Salt Lake on the road, Schweinsteiger and Katai were reserved as second-half substitutes. Granted, these selection moves were likely strategic decisions, given the Fire’s run in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Even so, there’s precedent for Pauno to bench starters.
The standings, and the strength of the opposition, leave little upside for playing our best against Atlanta. There’s plenty of downside, however. Namely an injury that takes out someone like Schweinsteiger or McCarty and puts them on the shelf well into next season. Add to this the strain of travel and having to play on turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the math just doesn’t add up.
Meanwhile, the younger players would benefit from the opportunity for minutes and vital experience. Atlanta has become a tough place to play, owing to the pure quality on the pitch and the electric atmosphere in the stands. The lack of meaningful stakes in this fixture means there’d be little pressure on the young and fringe players. Guys like Mo Adams, Drew Conner, and Daniel Johnson would be able to step up against some of the best in the league burdened with few expectations. That kind of experience would do them, and the team, a world of good.
There’s really no use for trotting out the big stars on Sunday. They’ll get their chance to put on a show the week after in the season finale at home against DC United. Let the fans— you know, the ones who aren’t banned from the stadium— see the likes of Schweinsteiger and McCarty one last time before this awful season ends and we start planning for 2019. This Sunday should be for the kids. Give them their chance. Leave the veterans at home.