One of the frustrating things about the 2018 Chicago Fire is that they represent, in some sense, a regression to the mean. There was hope, genuine hope, that the imperious days of the 2017 represented a sea change. That the Bad Old Days might be gone for good, and that we were making our triumphant return to the elite class in Major League Soccer.
And yet, here we are. Heading into games knowing we’re just not good enough, and hoping to get a result any way we can.
Which is where we’re at this weekend, as Atlanta United roll up to Chicago utterly confident that they can get a win. If the Fire are to dispel the anxiety creeping into Toyota Park and make it clear that last year was not a false dawn, this is the kind of game they absolutely have to win. Teams like Atlanta simply cannot be allowed to come into our house expecting to get all three points.
Whether the Fire will actually manage to hold their ground remains to be seen.
CF97 all-time MLS record vs Atlanta United: 1-0-1, 2 GF / 4 GA, 3 pts of 6
CF97 home MLS record vs Atlanta United: 1-0-0, 2 GF / 0 GA, 3 pts of 3
Atlanta have played eight games and won six of them. They’re undefeated since that shock loss in Week 1. All their top guys are healthy and firing on all cylinders.
No one said this would be easy.
Despite shipping two goals early in last week’s clash with Toronto, I’m supremely confident that Veljko Paunovic will keep the teamsheet unchanged.
I’m not sure I agree with this approach— I think the Basti-As-Libero experiment should get a rest this week and the Big Handsome German brought back into central midfield, and I’d also like to see a three-man forward line with Katai up on Niko’s flank. Kap and Lillard can lock down the back well enough by themselves (to the extent that anyone can defend against a team with Josef Martínez and Miguel Almirón). Ramos should probably also get the start over Ellis in a just and rational world.
But Pauno’s gonna Pauno. So unless he got Big Mad at someone during training this week, expect the lineup to remain basically untouched.
Keys To The Match
Make ‘Em Sweat: Best defense is a good offense, right? Atlanta have become accustomed to having things all their own way— dictating the pace of play, directing games into situations that favor them, scoring a whole bunch. The Fire can’t just spend 90 minutes reacting to whatever Atlanta do. They’ve got to come up with their own ideas and prosecute them with all due haste. We’ve got enough pieces to give Atlanta something to worry about— including the 2017 Golden Boot winner— but they need to be deployed in ways where they can deliver.
Set In Stone: The Fire’s backline was going to have a rough day anyway trying to contain Martínez and Almirón. Now they have a whole new thing to worry about: Kevin Kratz, who apparently can hit free kicks like they’re an open bar at a wedding. You may have noticed that the Fire are, uh, not great at defending set pieces. There’s no secret or shortcut to solving this problem: they have to be better about defending against this threat than they have tended to be. It touches back on a key theme heading into this game: the Fire simply can’t make too many mistakes.
Take What You Can Get: Ultimately, Atlanta are coming here as favorites. There’s no real getting around that. The Men In Red are going to have to put in some honest work in order to turn Toyota Park into the fortress it was for long stretches of the 2017 campaign— but that’s a medium-term and long-term concern. For now, there’s a very real fear that Atlanta can waltz into our house tomorrow and drop four on us like it’s nothing. The Fire will have to basically treat this as an away game. That means resolute defending, not making any colossally bad mistakes, and, where necessary, some dirty tricks. The Fire may have to settle for scamming a point out of this game. That’s ok. Get what you can, while you can. We’ll figure the rest out later.
How To Watch
Television: Fox Sports South, TSN (Canada)
Can the Fire successfully defend Toyota Park? Or are they in for a long night? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!