Manchester United occasionally run a competition for fans ahead of a game. If anyone is able to accurately predict the starting XI of the upcoming match, they are entered into a sweepstakes with the prize being a signed home kit. Now, Manchester United have one of the deepest rosters in world soccer, and have a countless amount of players to choose from day in and day out. However, there are a handful of guaranteed names on any team sheet, and fans have learned what to expect formation and personnel-wise.
If the Chicago Fire were to run a similar competition, they would not have to worry about giving away any prizes, as no one has any idea what to expect out of a Fire starting XI.
Last season, the Fire did not have this problem. The best XI was consistent on a weekly basis, and changes were only made due to injury or suspension. The backline comprised of Vincent, Meira, Kappelhoff, and Polster, with Dax and Bastian ahead of them. The front four was made up of Accam and Solignac out wide, with De Leeuw usually playing behind Nikolic.
This season has not been the same story. The first five games have seen five different starting lineups, with a rotating cast of substitutes. Some of these changes were were forced due to injury, but most were made as a result of the managers over tinkering.
The most recent starting XI Paunovic named for the game against the Galaxy was the strangest yet. He stuck with the same 3-5-2 that he rolled out against Columbus, with Bastian Schweinsteiger back in his newfound libero position. He was joined in the defense by two men making their first starts of the season, Jonathan Campbell and Grant Lillard. Vincent got the start of the left side, with Kappelhof out on the right.
I won’t go into the whole Schweinsteiger situation as my main concern was with the right side of the backline (although Sean’s piece on Basti’s transition to libero is worth another look). Kappelhof is an all star-caliber centerback, but is not nearly as effective at wingback. He’s just not built for the position, with no raw pace to get him up and down the wing. There were better options on the bench, like Rafael Ramos. Even Drew Conner, who is naturally a central midfielder, has proven he can help the attack out on the wing. Either of them would’ve given the Men In Red a much needed attacking outlet down the right side.
Then came the midfield. The good news was, as always, Dax McCarty started in the middle of the park. The bad news was, as always, Tony Tchani got the start alongside him. It has become apparent that Tchani is not good enough to be a starter in Chicago. It’s not like the Fire don’t have depth at the position. Drew Conner has shown promise when given the chance, and Chicago drafted highly-touted center mid Mo Adams with the 10th pick in the 2018 SuperDraft, but have not played him a single minute.
The third man in the midfield was Elliot Collier, which was the most interesting decision. First off, he is naturally a forward, who usually acts as a target man up top. Secondly, not much hype even surrounded player before the season, as he was drafted in the second round, and only signed a contract with the team a week before the campaign started. To see Collier start another game was quite the surprise, especially in the midfield. Last, but most important, his selection meant that there was no room for Aleksandar Katai. The biggest offseason signing was benched for yet another game, even though he impressed in his opening performances. It is clear that there is some sort of rift between coach and player, but the Fire cannot afford to keep one of their best playmaking options off the field.
Finally, the attack, which was a strike partnership of Nikolic and Alan Gordon. That in itself had a whole host of problems. Does Paunovic not understand that the sole reason teams sign Alan Gordon is to sub him on late whenever they need a goal? To start him, and play him an hour, is ridiculous. He lost the ball on several occasions, and his lack of speed meant that he could never really press the Galaxy backline. The biggest problem of this partnership is that it forces Niko out wide, as Gordon tends takes up the central area. Nikolic thrives on finding space in the final third, and finishing any chances that fall his way. He isn’t great at linking up play, or dribbling down the field, which he’s recently been forced to do. He only had one chance against the Galaxy, and needs to be more involved up the field if the Fire want any chance of scoring goals. Stick up as far up the field as possible, and let last season’s Golden Boot winner do what he does best.
If the Fire want any chance of getting a result at Red Bull Arena this Saturday, Paunovic must get his starting XI correct. If he doesn’t, Chicago could end up getting blown out of the water before the halftime whistle.