There was a time when facing the Chicago Fire would be one of the easier matches in the league. They were the worst team in 2015 and 2016, both years as the only team that earned less than a point per game. But this year’s Fire are a more typical MLS side. They look good at times; they look bad at times; they look like a probable playoff side. ESPN2 picked up the Saturday, May 13 (6 PM) match not because of the Fire brand, but because they signed Bastian Schweinsteiger, World Cup winner.
The Seattle Sounders bring three players making a return to Chicago. Harry Shipp was a homegrown player there. Joevin Jones burst onto the MLS scene with the Fire. Chicago took Alvaro Fernandez from Seattle when the Sounders needed to open up a DP slot.
Sean from Hot Time In Old Town answers Three Questions
SaH: Let's start off with the fun times that Bastian Schwenisteiger brought to the Fire. What has he meant on the business side of things? How is he working with Dax-Juninho on the field?
HTiOT: Schweinsteiger's arrival hasn't exactly galvanized the fractious Chicago soccer market, but we have seen a gentle incline in butts-in-seats over his three games at home. We've seen a much less gentle incline in the quality of play - Basti's career with Bayern and die Mannschaft isn't down to some kind of weird nepotism, and he's added another layer of quality and control to a midfield already full of quality and committed to control. Therein lies the rub, however - Schweinsteiger's best qualities don't fill holes in the Fire's tactic, but rather make already-established strengths a bit stronger.
Specifically, the Men in Red still struggle to make chances against settled defenses. None of the usual starting group in midfield (even including the wingers) is comfortable making chances for others in the attacking zone - if Seattle play deep and prevent breakouts, this game could turn into a serious slog.
SaH: Is Nemanja Nikolic more important to the roster than the German great?
HTiOT: He is, but that shouldn't be read as 'he's better than the German great,' because he's not. Niko is a very accomplished poacher who is not afraid to work hard to get chances, which is precisely the type of striker the Fire have needed for several years - Patrick Nyarko's time with the club would surely have been more productive with a guy like Nikolic on the end of his setups. As mentioned above, Basti's addition, from a strictly roster-building standpoint, was a bit of gilding the lily.
SaH: Will Chicago make the MLS Cup Playoffs?
HTiOT: I don't think there's six better sides in the East, so yes. And there's always the chance that, once there, the Fire catch ... uhh ... fire and storm to MLS Cup. Likely? Nah. But possible. After so many years without an invitation, just making the postseason would feel fairly amazing to this guy.
There's plenty of questions around who will start for the Fire, but only at a couple of positions: Goalkeeper and right back. At keeper, offseason signing Jorge Bava has underwhelmed, but we've seen enough of Matt Lampson to know he's not a long-term answer, either. Right back Michael Harrington's season could be represented most succinctly by a photo of a monastic self-immolation, and he was replaced last week by Homegrown signing Drew Conner, who had previously played defensive midfield. Either one of those either/or pairs could start.
The maybe, maybe Fire lineup (4-3-3): Matt Lampson; Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Drew Conner; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Juninho; David Accam, Nemanja Nikolic, Luis Solignac.
HTiOT: Please discuss how much pleasure the Joevin Jones Experience has given Sounders fans (for the low, low price of $70k in allocation)?
SaH: On a team with Nicolas Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey, the most effective creator is the left back. There are tactical reasons for that, but to pay too much attention to them would be to ignore that Jones is entering his prime. Joevin's physical abilities are as good as ever, and now he sees the game. His passing is generally good, crosses are low and he mixes in dribbles at intriguing moments.
He is a rare asset in this league - a game-changing fullback. He also may be just old enough that MLS is the last league he will ever be in, which is great for Seattle. He can fit the style of play here as long as he wants. Hopefully Lagerwey finds the money to keep him for several more years.
HTiOT: The book on the Sounders is pretty simple - the offense is persuasive and sometimes lethal, while the defense seems weirdly permeable even in the best of times. Is the book wrong? Is it too simple? Educate us.
SaH: This year's attack is predicated on possession, nearly constant possession. It does not move quickly, so counts on individual moments of brilliance to break through defenses that generally bunker against it. There are times when it works (at LAG), vs NER) and times when it fails (vs TFC). It can be a bit vulnerable on the counter. Both the Revs and Toronto got some joy by exploding out to just one or two attacking players ready to take advantage of the 4th-string defense that was high up the pitch. The combination of using a high block and depth players has hurt the defense this year. The attack is mystifyingly inconsistent.
HTiOT: Now that you've had a few months with your gently-used Harry Shipp, what's the feeling about him in Seattle? Should we expect to see him on Saturday?
SaH: Prior to getting Shipp, he seemed to be a nimble little American attacking player with decent passing and a dribble. He's becoming more than that. He is now a more than adequate defender, even as one of the two defensive mids. Harry reads games well and is working on adding both primary and secondary runs to his game because he knows he won't get much of the ball so he wants to do something with it when he sees it. That's a fun pickup for a team to have as either its 5th/6th attacking player or their 4th defensive midfielder.
Lineup predictions, injury talk, etc encouraged!
This lineup is quite difficult to predict. There are a recently healed injuries that have a few players who aren't fully fit able to return, but there's also the game at Sporting KC in the middle of next week. Let's add in that Jordy Delem (the 4th RB, 6th CB, 5th CDM) is suspended.
My best guess is: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Gustav Svensson, Roman Torres, Brad Evans; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Harry Shipp, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin