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Scouting Report: Snuffing out the Chicago Fire

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How Seattle can keep the Fire to a 2-alarm or less.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Who You’ll Watch

The Seattle Sounders head back out on the road for two games in four days. First up, they travel to Bridgeview, IL to take on the Chicago Fire. This game is the last in a string of three straight games against Eastern Conference opponents, and will be the lone regular season meeting between the two clubs.

Chicago enters this game a bit heartbroken after relinquishing a 2-0 lead against the LA Galaxy. The Fire accrued a two-goal lead after just 16 minutes, but conceded two goals in the second half on corners.

This will be the seventh time the Sounders have played in kind-of-Chicago (here, you decide if it’s actually part of the city). The Sounders hold a 3-1-2 record against the Fire in Bridgeview; their lone loss came in 2015 when Jason Johnson scored the game-winning goal in second half stoppage time.

The Fire do not have many players to list on the injury report. Only John Goossens (right ankle surgery) is listed as out. Meanwhile, the Sounders should be getting much closer to a full team: Brad Evans made the bench in their most recent game against Toronto FC, Roman Torres started for the first time since he was injured against San Jose, and Aaron Kovar may finally be available for selection at Brian Schmetzer’s discretion. Chad Marshall (lower back pain) is one to keep an eye on; he’s been a full participant this week after missing the last couple of weeks.

Chicago record: 3-3-3, 6th in East (W-W-L-L-T in their last 5)

Top Scorer: Nemanja Nikolic, 6 goals

Top Assist leaders: David Accam, Dax McCarty, 3

Notable Chicago Roster Changes

Out: Razvan Cocis, Eric Gehrig, Nick LaBrocca, Sean Johnson, Michael Stephens

In: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Juninho, Nemanja Nikolic

What to Watch

Chicago’s first few matches had a bit of an air of expectation, as if everyone kind of knew something was coming. Sure enough, the purchase of a player who couldn’t even make the starting lineup for Manchester United’s junior teams brought a bit of excitement, as did the possibility of a World Cup appearance.

In truth, the addition of the former Der Mannschaft player has really tied the room together. He’s provided a central forward-looking connection between the deeper midfield pairing of Juninho and McCarty that’s given teeth to the Fire attack in a way that they haven’t had in a very long time. His tactical understanding has given Veljko Paunovic a flexible option to facilitate his penchant for making structural adjustments on the fly.

The Fire’s base formation is a 4-2-3-1, but it plays a bit differently from Seattle’s. While the fullbacks (former Timber Michael Harrington or Drew Conner on the right and Joevin Jones’ replacement Brandon Vincent on the left) both get forward to provide width, they do so judiciously, usually with a later overlap than Sounders fans may be used to seeing, and do not drive as deep as Jones (or any of the RBs the Sounders have trotted out this year) to provide service. Nemanja Nikolic pilots the point of the attack — he’s shown a solid nose for goal, strong holdup, and intelligent movement.

The on-field product suggests they’re headed in the right direction, but there’s just a bit of quality missing to make them a true threat. The Fire currently lead the league in offsides per match at three, suggesting they are still working out the kinks in their attack. The right back position hasn’t shown much in the way of contribution, the quality of McCarty and Juninho helps hide a shaky CB pairing of Joao Meira and Johan Kappelhof, and there’s a dearth of depth on the bench for Paunovic to turn to if he needs something.

Build fire lines on the outside - 40% of Chicago’s attacks come down the left, and 37% come down the right (though these seem less productive in viewing, RM Luis Solignac has similar key pass numbers to LM David Accam); 59% of their shots, however, come from the middle. Heavy crossers, you say? No. In fact, they’re 16th in the league in crosses at around 12 per match. This is a team that loves to cut in.

The left side of Vincent and Accam combines very well with the central midfield, providing complimentary skillsets to the more methodical Schweinsteiger and Nikolic. Accam’s speed, ability to dribble defenders, and get the defense into chasing situations balances well with the smart runs made by Nikolic and Schweinsteiger. Solignac, meanwhile, seems to provide steady possession; his passes are typically squared to the middle of the field.

The right side of Seattle, in particular, has been a place of joy for opponents this season. While hope is on the horizon with Brad Evans making a return to the 18 last week, he’s probably still a match or two away, at best, from starting. With Oniel Fisher continuing to deal with a hamstring issue, that means Jordy Delem will have another tough assignment to handle. His struggles on defense are not a good pairing against Accam’s skills, and he’ll undoubtedly need a good bit of assistance from Roman Torres to control his side. If you’d made that statement last year it would be with a solid foundation of hope, but this year all form seems to have abandoned him. If the Sounders are going to have a happy start to their busy week, these two are going to need to take a big step forward, both individually and as a pair.

Fortunately, both Accam and Solignac — despite their assist numbers (three and two, respectively) — struggle with their passing, and crossing in particular. New York Red Bulls were successful in making Accam look like the worst passer in the league by repeatedly refusing him the opportunity to cut in. A concerted effort in the midfield to push the Chicago’s wing play wide will provide much-needed disruption to their normal operations and should help out a bit.

Win the game-state battle - Jokes about “winning the match means you’ve won the game-state” aside, the progressive state matters a lot to the outcome. Things like scoring first (according to the Cambridge Maths Dept, this leads to a win or a tie 86% of the time), and the depth of a deficit or strength of a lead (see American Soccer Analysis’ simple home team game-state win expectancy chart), as well as the amount of time spent chasing or bunkering, all contribute to mental energy and fatigue throughout the game. (A very technical statistical research paper on how game-state and the length of its existence at that state affects future events in a match can be found here.) Seattle has scored first in three of their matches, winning two and tying one. In the remaining six, they are 0-3-3. Small sample size this season aside, falling behind in two thirds of your matches is not a great way to earn points.

The Sounders need to find a way to be the first to put the ball in the net. The urgency that has resulted in half their goals being scored after the 75th minute needs to show up in some degree in the early part of matches, where taking the reins and imposing your will to the tune of a goal or two is far more productive. It doesn’t need to be pretty, but it absolutely needs to happen.

Expected Lineups

Chicago: Jorge Bava; Vincent, Meira, Kappelhof, Conner; McCarty, Juninho; Accam, Schweinsteiger, Solignac; Nikolic

Seattle: Stefan Frei; Jones, Marshall, Torres, Delem; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Harry Shipp, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin

How to Watch

Date/Time: Saturday, May 13 6:00 p.m.

Venue: Toyota Park

Television: ESPN2

Radio: KIRO 97.3 (English), 1360 El Rey (Spanish)