The Chicago Fire have flown pretty far under the radar thus far this season. One reason is that they don't have a clearly compelling storyline to draw national interest. Hovering in a division with the glitzy high priced New York Red Bulls, the quickly dismantled Columbus Crew, the slowly dismantling Toronto FC, the road warrior Sporting Kansas City, the Charlie Davies-led DC United, and a handful of other interesting hooks for MLS fans and national media to hang their narratives on, Chicago is just trying to quietly improve. The turnover since last season has been significant, including club legends Brian McBride and CJ Brown. But rather than starting from scratch like the Crew, Carlos de los Cobos seems to be trying to bring in pieces to complement the existing young core, which includes Marco Pappa, Logan Pause, Patrick Nyarko and keeper Sean Johnson.
Another reason that the Fire haven't received much attention is that they just haven't played much. They're one of only two teams to have played only two games this season, and the other is Real Salt Lake, who've received plenty of attention in their CONCACAF Champions League campaign and for their status as an MLS Cup contender. As little as we know about any of the clubs this early in the season, we know only half as much about Chicago
One point of interest has been the declared switch to a 3-5-2 formation, which excites tactics and formation nerds. But to this point the switch has been mostly theoretical and has hardly been seen in the wild. Injuries meant that the Fire's last game — against Sporting Kansas City — was played with a 4-4-2 and injuries (most notably to center back Josip Mikulic) will likely dictate that tomorrow's game against the Sounders will be as well.
Up front the new Uruguayan pairing of Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari has looked plenty dangerous. Neither is big enough to play a traditional target man, but both are effective at running onto through balls and they have a good understanding with each other, given that they've played together previously at Montevideo Wanderers. Puerari in particular looked lethal as he was responsible for the first two goals against Sporting. On the first he took a long booted ball over the top from Pappa and drew the penalty that got Omar Bravo ejected. On the second he ran onto a lovely through ball from Michael Videira and finished himself.
Besides providing service on the penalty-drawing chance and the ball to Videira that became the second goal, Pappa scored the third Fire goal himself with a Messi-like slalom through a forest of defenders. It's clear that he's the engine of the Fire attack and he will have to be neutralized for the Sounders to win.
But for all the promise of the first two matches, the fact remains that the Chicago have played more than half their season with a man advantage. And in the time that they've been up, they're even on goals in the run of play with their opponents and roughly even in shots. This is a team that can be beaten, even with Fredy Montero out of the match.
- Steve Zakuani vs Jalil Anibaba - Anibaba did a respectable job against Omar Bravo while he was in the game, but he showed that he can be dribbled around and that's Zakuani's game. This will be the Sounders' winger's second go at a rookie right back after giving Kofi Sarkodie fits in game three, and Zakuani will need to be a threat to help make up for the lack of DP striker Montero.
- Pappa vs Erik Friberg - Pappa is the most dangerous player on the Fire, and while he often drifts forward to be dealt with by James Riley and the center backs, just as often his dangerous moves start out in midfield or even further back when he's given space. Both of the Fire's first two goals versus KC were triggered by balls from Pappa in midfield. Friberg (assuming he's playing on the right) will need to provide a defensive presence to keep Pappa from getting too much time on the ball.
- Mauro Rosales vs Cory Gibbs - The Fire center back situation is in flux thanks to injury, but if our match card projection has the Gibbs/Yamith Cuesta pairing correct, then I'm guessing Gibbs will be primarily tracking Rosales in a forward role, as Cuesta has more of the size to deal with Nate Jaqua or O'Brian White in the target forward slot. Rosales has already shown he's a handful for defenders with a tenacity around the ball and a deft passing touch from the wing. The Sounders would like to see some deft finishing in the box as well. Gibbs was a fixture on a New England Revolution side that leaked 50 goals last season, making it the worst defense in the league. Rosales should have a chance to do some damage.