Our Chicago Fire belatedly begin their MLS schedule Saturday against Sporting Kansas City, and the truth is we have very little idea how this is going to go. Not only is this the first match of the regular season after an offseason of questionable quality, but it also comes after a preseason marked mostly by its weird embrace of high levels of unreality. The first XI have played multiple friendlies without leaving any fingerprints on the digital world, in 2018, somehow. Add in a local TV deal that appears to be a state secret, inscrutable injury descriptions and a general dearth of information about the team ... we just have to admit that the 2018 Chicago Fire are a Mystery Box we’re about to unwrap, starting with a Bridgeview kickoff shortly after 5 p.m Saturday.
Sporting Kansas City are, of course, the evolved form of an MLS original, the KC Wizards (nee Wiz). In their first molting, the Wiz (mostly Tony Meola) famously stood athwart The Best Fire Team Of Them All in the 2000 MLS Cup:
… despite being mostly awful in those early years, as the all-time records indicate. More recently, the refurbished SKC has known only one manager, Peter Vermes, and reflects him to a fault - combative, clever, and aggrieved, Sporting is never an easy opponent.
Fire v. KC all-time: 26-11-15, 88 GF, 62 GA
Fire v KC at home: 18-2-4, 48 GF, 22 GA
In their MLS opener, Sporting trotted out a starting XI shorn of former leaders Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber (dealt to Orlando and LAFC, respectively) and promptly face-planted in front of their customary crowd of 20,000 blue-clad screamers. Patrick Vieira’s NYCFC calmly dismantled KC, passing through their attempts to pressure and limiting the home attack to a series of hopeful but aimless crosses.
SKC might have hoped for a draw from a hapless attacking performance, because their defensive core is very good indeed - but NYC’s David Villa is better, and his perfectly-timed run unsprung the delicate balance between Ike Opara and Matt Besler to set up the first goal. Once behind, Sporting rarely threatened, although they did create more once Hungarian Homegrown player (? - yes, that’s correct) Daniel Salloi came on in the second half.
The Fire played an eyes-only friendly against their USL partner, Tulsa Roughnecks, winning 2-1. The Fire actually trailed the game early after Stefan Cleveland inexplicably passed the ball directly to a Tulsa attacker - heh, yes, yes that is the same Stefan Cleveland who’s listed below on the probable starters graphic, why do you ask? Fortunately, the Men in Red were able to get Nemanja Nikolic off the schneid later in the game for the equalizer. Recent draft signee Jason Collier got the winner as substitutes saw the game out.
Scouting this game
Mirror game: A glance at the probable starters graphic shows two sides playing very similar shapes: A single striker leading the line, wide forwards who like the freedom to pinch inside, a midfield trio of creator-marshaller-banger, wingbacks playing high, mobile centerbacks.
Won’t be pretty: Expect space to be at a premium and the midfield to become a smoke-shrouded abbatoir. Destroying is always easier and simpler than creating, and two sides short on group understanding will struggle to string together the long passing sequences necessary to pull an aggressive defense out of shape.
No Pyrrhic victories: Untimely injuries have the Fire perilously thin across all lines, so simply escaping the opener against a notoriously aggressive opponent without the crisis deepening has to be a priority. The loss of Schweinsteiger or Nikolic to injury would put the Men in Red into an emergency posture before the weather even breaks.
How to watch
TV: No idea! But I do know that DJ Step is the Official Club DJ again, so I got that goin’ for me, which is Nice
STREAM: MLS Live, free at MLSsoccer.com