For Chicago Fire players on and around the fringes of the starting XI, this week offers a real opportunity to earn minutes and plead their cases.
Three game weeks always require rotation and tests of depth in the squad. There will be multiple players asked to play bigger roles and contribute more minutes than they are used to.
Firstly, someone will have to fill in the chance creation role that has been opened by Nico Gáitan’s injury. There hasn’t been any official word on how long the injury will keep him out, but Guillermo Rivera over at The Athletic says it would be about a month from the injury, which puts him coming back during the international break or shortly thereafter.
Gáitan is currently among the leaders in assists per 90 in MLS, sitting at 0.60. His chance creation has been vital to the team’s success of late, so his absence in combination with the 3 game week coming up will cause a bit of lineup shuffling.
We already saw some against The San Jose Earthquakes, going back to a PG (pre-Gáitan) look. I expect to see a similarly strong lineup against New York City FC; I’m sure Veljko Paunovic wants to go all out to get the three points at home before leaving for two tough road games. The Wednesday and Saturday games against D.C. United and Atlanta United respectively will where we see the rotation.
Dax McCarty’s midfield partner is really up for grabs at the moment. Brandt Bronico was rewarded with the start against San Jose after two solid substitute performances. Djordje Mihailovic would be perfect in his place this Saturday because in a home game you can afford to sacrifice defensive solidity in order to control more possession. I would be shocked if we didn’t see Mo Adams start at DC to man-mark Luciano Acosta and generally clog up the middle. These three guys have been wrestling for minutes all season, and I think it’s just a matter of time before one of them takes control and makes the spot their own.
This week will require rotation for the attackers as well, in both formation and position. I expect Pauno to roll out the 4-2-3-1 against NYCFC, and then switch to a 5-3-2 to facilitate rotation against DC and Atlanta–going super defensive against potent attacks has kind of been Pauno’s m.o. this year. Also, this will allow Pauno to have fresh attackers for each of the DC and Atlanta games. All of our best available attackers have the ability to play striker in a 5-3-2, especially in games on the road and looking to counter-attack every time. I would personally love to see a big-man/little-man combo of CJ Sapong and Przemysław Frankowski up top, though I know it’s more likely that we’ll see Frankowski at right wingback in that setup.
Christian Martinez and Fabian Herbers will be two guys I look out for this week, because at least one of them will get significant substitute minutes. I’ve always been a believer that strong competition for minutes keeps players on their toes, so a good performance from either of them will push the starters to step up their game as well.
Surprisingly, the defense will probably be the most consistent where the lineup is concerned. With Bastian Schweinsteiger back I would expect the backline to have a bounce back performance against NYCFC.
We know that Pauno likes to reward guys for good performances, so times in the season where there are players out for various reasons are perfect for guys to make their mark and get into the regular starting XI.