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Scouting Report: Cooking with the Fire

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After all, they’re really more like embers, anyway.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

What You’ll Watch

The World Cup break is over! That was a fun... oh, they’re still playing it? There’re a lot of games left still? Well, this is weird and kinda dumb. Nevertheless, MLS returns to action this weekend. The Seattle Sounders are back on the field after having 10 days off and will welcome the Chicago Fire to the Emerald City. This is the only meeting between the two teams this season.

The Fire currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 5-7-4 (19 points in 16 games played; 1.19 ppg) while the Sounders sit in 10th place of the Western Conference with a record of 3-8-2 (11 points in 13 games played; 0.85 ppg). Last time out, the Sounders lost 2-1 against the New York Red Bulls on June 13 while the Fire drew 2-2 against the Colorado Rapids. It should be noted that the Fire played against Atlanta United FC on Wednesday night in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.

This will be the 13th all-time meeting between the two clubs. Seattle has an 7-2-3 advantage in the series with 15 goals scored and 12 conceded. At home, Seattle is 4-0-1 with seven goals scored and three conceded. Let’s hope that trend continues.

A Look at the Enemy

Last Five: W-L-W-T-T with eight goals scored and eight conceded

Leading Goal Scorer: Nemanja Nikolic, six goals (one on the road)

Assist Leader: Bastian Schweinsteiger, five assists (two on the road)

Injury Report, Suspensions and International Duty

Chicago

Out: Djordje Mihailovic (right ACL surgery), Michael de Leeuw (left ACL surgery), Matt Polster (MCL surgery), Patrick McLain (hamstring injury) and Drew Conner (right calf injury)

Questionable: N/A

Suspensions: N/A

International Duty: N/A

Seattle

Out: Jordan Morris (torn ACL), Kelvin Leerdam (right hamstring strain), Lamar Neagle (left groin strain), Handwalla Bwana (right midfoot sprain)

Questionable: N/A

Suspensions: N/A

International Duty: Gustav Svensson (Sweden), Roman Torres (Panama)

Match Officials

REFEREE: Armando Villarreal

AR1: Kyle Atkins

AR2: Jeffrey Greeson

4th: Alejandro Mariscal

VAR: Kevin Terry, Jr.

What to Watch

Chicago Fire’s System

Remember that strong Chicago team of last year that was contending for the World Cup? Sad story: they didn’t make it. What they have been able to do is stay a middling team missing that particular je ne sais quoi that would put them over the top—perhaps a bit of character, or a bit of killer instinct, or maybe just some fundamentals on defense. Head coach Veljko Paunović has tried just about all he can think of to find something that works in all three phases, to little success. A 4-2-3-1 seems to be what he’s leaned into lately, but it hasn’t been successful and there should be little surprise if he sets up in a 5-3-2 or a 5-4-1.

The defense is remarkably pedestrian in function. They give up almost 17 shots per game away from home (7th worst in league), and they sit at 4th worst in the league in expected goals against (a number they are hitting spot on). They struggle with almost every type of offense that isn’t a plodding horseshoe of death.

More specifically, they struggle with offenses that create overloads or make them hand players off, and those are things the Sounders should be able to force them into. Their backline communication is poor; there is no clear defensive line leader. Meanwhile, the outside backs struggle to balance their attacking demands with the need to cover defensively. The range of the defensive midfielders is too low to fully cover for two simultaneously advanced fullbacks, a situation that seems to occur far more frequently than it should. This leaves the centerbacks and the DMs stretched thin and susceptible to through-balls, counterattacks, and quick attacks off turnovers.

There isn’t much of a transition identity to speak of. Whether that’s intentional or not is hard to figure out. Little recovery urgency is found in player movement transitioning in either direction.

Dax McCarty and Schweinsteiger remain their most important cogs in the offense; this is not a particularly good thing when they’re your defensive midfielders. Their primary playmaking being so deep means they rely on long balls far too much (one of the highest long-to-short pass ratios in the league), and when that doesn’t work they fall back on set pieces (2nd in the league with six set piece goals). There’s also a heavy reliance on wing play, seemingly intent on late cut-ins to provide attack. The center of their offensive third is a veritable wasteland of possession and ball movement. Unsurprisingly, they’re third worst in the league at generating shots of any kind.

This is a team that in 2018 relies heavily on Alan Gordon for threats to goal, which I think should intimate just about all you need to know about their ability to regularly combine for threatening action and not resort to chunking garbage balls into the box and hoping a tall guy can knock it down. There are certainly threats (Schweinsteiger can still hit a mean free kick, Nikolic is a talented forward), but there are so many holes in between everything that it’s hard to feel too threatened by them. So long as the Sounders can avoid any major hiccups, this is a decent chance for more than a single point.

Quick Keys

  • Take advantage of tired legs - the Fire ran out a first choice squad from the defensive midfield on forward on Wednesday for their US Open Cup quarterfinal win. It didn’t go to overtime, but it was against Atlanta, who are sure to run anyone ragged. We should expect to see significant squad rotation, and probably a concession from Paunović that a tie is a good result. This is going to mean a number of players who haven’t spent much time together need to have their connections tested frequently.
  • Stop hitting balls over the top to Will Bruin - it’s kind of incredible that this is a thing that needs to be written. He’s injured. He’s not fast to begin with. He isn’t Jordan Morris, and he shouldn’t be expected to play like Jordan Morris.
  • Move together, play together - Nouhou and Victor Rodriguez are a prime example of how much better things go when you move off each other instead of just putting your head down and running somewhere. There are a lot of places this has been happening around the field.

How to Watch

Date/Time: June 23 @ 7:00 PM

Location: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, WA

TV: JOEtv, Univision-Seattle

Streaming: YouTube TV

Radio: 950 KJR AM (English), El Rey 1360AM (Spanish)