Know Your Enemy: Sapong, Gaitan lead Fire into Philly

On March 30, Chicago Fire picked up their first win of 2019, a 1-0 victory over New York Red Bulls. Since then, former Union midfielder Veljko Paunovic’s side has collected all three points only four times, but they have scored 16 goals in those four wins. 

It’s truly been boom or bust for nine goal man CJ Sapong and the Fire. Thirty-four goals through 22 games is by far the most of any Eastern Conference club below the playoff line, and 33 goals against isn’t even that brutal. 

But it’s when they’ve scored and conceded that has been a huge issue. 

Take Wednesday night’s matchup: Up one at home with the clock winding down, Paunovic shelled, and the Crew knocked in a late tying goal. Columbus had been poor in midfield throughout, but Chicago was in a constant struggle defending in transition: Nico Gaitan is a wonderful creator but he’s not here for your counterpressing. Przemyslaw Frankowski and CJ Sapong can do it, but when they do it alone they become separated from the bulk of the team, which tends to follow Bastian Schweinsteiger and drift deep after turnovers. 

These attackers may not be on the same page in transition, but give them space in attack and they’ll hurt you. Sapong is finishing the chances that didn’t come good a year ago and Frankowski is a wonderfully direct player whose matchup with Ray Gaddis will be a highlight of Saturday’s showdown. Gaitan —  stylistically the cool older brother of Cristian Maidana — is the fulcrum of the offense. With Schweinsteiger in the back line seeking to move the opposition around (but oddly ignored far more than last season), Gaitan has become to player that must see the ball if Chicago wants to break down a defense that has any structure. The Union, of course, had little structure last weekend, but throughout this season they have shown that when focused their defensive shape and ability to transition are strong points. 

Chicago rested Alex Katai for most of Wednesday’s match, but count on the winger — who scored against the Union last season — returning to the lineup as the Fire look to secure their first road win of 2019. 

The Union and Fire meet for the first time this season at 7:30 p.m. ET at Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday, July 20.

 

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