Scouting report: Ablaze in Chicago
The Chicago Fire had a chance to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference table last week.
But, like most teams in MLS, they ran into a roadblock called Kansas City.
On Friday night, Sporting KC grinded a 2-0 win to clinch a playoff spot and put themselves five points ahead of Chicago in the race for the Eastern Conference crown. Chicago, now 16-9-5 (53 points) this season, remains tied with New York.
Philadelphia's trip to the Chi-town will be the third Union-Fire matchup this season. Chicago took the March opener at Toyota Park, 1-0. The Fire then won the return trip to PPL Park, 3-1. The Union are now 2-3-1 all time against Chicago and winless in the Windy City.
Manager Frank Klopas has settled on a variation of the 4-4-1-1 formation. Sometimes the shape will play like a 4-1-4-1, and other times it will look like a 4-2-3-1, but the idea is to have target man Sherjill MacDonald playing above second striker Chris Rolfe.
It's a different look for the Fire, who made a number of mid-season personnel changes to kickstart their season. In addition to MacDonald and Rolfe, former Seattle man Alvaro Fernandez is now a starter on the wing opposite Patrick Nyarko. Playmaker Sebastien Grazzini was loaned back to Argentina, Dominic Oduro is on the bench, and Marco Pappa was sold to Heerenveen in the Dutch Eredivisie. The midseason overhaul displaced three of the four starters in the Chicago offense.
Rolfe has been outstanding since returning to Major League Soccer. He's got eight goals and two assists in 18 appearances this season. Designated Player MacDonald was a bit slower to become acclimated to the league, but he's got 2 goals and 3 assists in 10 appearances. Fernandez has two goals and an assist in nine appearances. Fourteen goals and six assists is great production from three new faces, and Oduro is always available off the bench to provide a change of pace. Additionally, the Fire recently signed Mexican veteran Guillermo Franco to provide a bit of depth at the forward position.
The Chicago defense really starts with a solid and experienced midfield. Captain Logan Pause will direct traffic in the center of the field, with Pavel Pardo, Alex, or Daniel Paladini each bringing a different dynamic to the team.
Pardo has been injured recently, but he's the veteran holding midfielder. The former Mexico international will shield the defense, break up attacks, and distribute the ball. Paladini and Alex are a bit better going forward, and can provide offensive support to Chicago's front four.
The Fire are without left back Gonzalo Segares, who was red carded in the late stages of Friday's loss to Kansas City. Dan Gargan looks to be the likely replacement, with Jalil Anibaba covering the other fullback role. Chicago's central defensive pairing includes German veteran Arne Friedrich, and American rookie Austin Berry.
Sean Johnson is enjoying another solid year in net. His save percentage of 77 is second in the league to D.C.'s Bill Hamid. Hamid, however, has only faced 100 shots, while Johnson has faced 133 shots.
In addition to Segares, Klopas was also ejected in the late stages of the Chicago's loss to Kansas City. He will be suspended for Wednesday's matchup.
As aformentioned, the Union have yet to win in three attempts at Toyota Park. Chicago won the inaugural matchup between the clubs in 2010, by a 2-1 scoreline. Baggio Husidic and Marco Pappa scored in that game. The 2011 trip to Chicago played out to a 1-1 draw, with former Union midfielder Veljko Paunovic scoring a beauty of a goal in the first half. The matchup from March, 2012 resulted in a 1-0 shutout for Chicago with Oduro getting the lone goal.
Since the August matchup at PPL Park, Chicago has gone 5-2-0 in league play. If you count the entire month of August, and the entire month of September, the Fire are 7-2-0 in league play. They have taken 21 points from their last nine matches.
Chicago is 11-2-2 at home this year. Only Los Angeles and Seattle have won at Toyota Park in 2012. The Fire have taken 35 of 45 possible points at home.
And finally, Chicago will celebrate its 15th anniversary on Wednesday night, honoring former Fire greats with a pregame ceremony and at halftime. Chicago became the first expansion team to win MLS Cup in its first season in 1999.
Contact Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kevin on Twitter @PhilUnionKevinK