This is a pretty big game and it has nothing to do with perceived or imaginary rivalries. In an attempt to manufacture a midwestern enemy, the former Kansas City Wizards organization has been touting the Fire as the club's "rival" for the better part of the last two seasons. Their rebranding efforts spurned a promotion which awarded free sub sandwiches to fans whenever the Fire lost and their players and supporters seem to believe that a rivalry does exist. The Chicago side isn't so sure about that. The sandwich promotion was laughed off by most Fire fans perhaps fueled by the club's record against Kansas City (in all versions of their brand). The Fire are are 21-10-9 all time with a 15-2-3 home record against KC.
The match is an important one simply because Sporting currently sits on top of the Eastern Conference table. The Fire have managed to defeat the lower echelon teams in MLS so far this season but haven't shown an ability to defeat the upper tier. The club played reasonably well in a loss at home to Seattle and during Wednesday's draw against Real Salt Lake but a victory here could serve to jump-start a run with winnable matches upcoming against teams that have struggled this season.
Sporting began the season on a remarkable 7-0-0 run that made them the media darlings of the early going in 2012 before consecutive losses to Portland and Montreal dragged them back to earth a bit. They've been rock solid defensively allowing only 5 goals in 9 matches so far. Jimmy Nielsen has started every game in goal and their backline has consistently been the same with the exception of the last match against Montreal. Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, and Matt Besler have started and gone the distance in all 9 games this year. Micheal Harrington replaced Seth Sinovic at left back due to injury last weekend but it seems Sinovic is ready to return.
Peter Vermes has found success with a 4-3-3 formation which would seem to play to the Fire's strengths. Much has been made about their high pressure and physical style of play but pressuring consistently could leave them open for what the Fire do best, counterattack. Their high energy style with three athletic forwards applying constant ball pressure is a tactic that may not be practically sustainable over long stretches in a 34 game season.
"They're a big athletic team. They're pretty good at long balls and second balls. It'll be a physical game and you have to be ready," said Gonzalo Segares. "They're different from Real Salt Lake, who likes to move the ball around but these guys are more direct," said the defender. Vermes' midfield is anchored defensively by Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar who allow Graham Zusi to direct their attack moving forward. Zusi is particularly dangerous at finding bodies on dead ball situations but all three can be coaxed into the occasional turnover with the same high pressure attack that they employ.
KC has talent up front but they've struggled to score this season only finding the back of the net 12 times. CJ Sapong, Kei Kamara, and Bobby Convey are the usual trio with Teal Bunbury in reserve. Kamara has scored 4 goals, Sapong 3, and Zusi 1. Collin is actually their most dangerous weapon at times scoring three goals of his own from set pieces. The front runners are not particularly crafty but strong, fast, and athletic. Montreal made them work on both ends of the pitch with effective runs out of the back and this is also something should be able to exploit.
The Fire seem ready to return with the same line-up that started on Wednesday night against RSL since they have eight days to recover before facing Portland a week from Sunday. After a light training today, players who picked up knocks a few days ago, Dan Gargan and Patrick Nyarko should be ready to go. I'd look for Austin Berry to get a third consecutive start alongside Arne Friedrich at center back. If Gargan is 100% both he and Segares will have opportunities to get forward in the spaces left available against KC's 4-3-3. Sean Johnson will start again in goal after maintaining his first clean sheet of the season.
Frank Klopas went with a 4-5-1 alignment for the second consecutive match on Wednesday night and it seems like he is leaning toward maintaining that look again on Saturday. Klopas likes the prospect of moving Sebastian Grazzini closer to goal as a withdrawn forward just ahead of the midfielders. "He's a second striker, he has the ability to pick up the ball and move forward and he has the quality to finish," said Klopas of the Fire's Argentine playmaker. "He gets frustrated sometimes when he drops too deep and it's not good for us because we need him to get the ball closer to the goal and he's not as effective coming deep to get it," continued Klopas. The coach also stressed that Grazzini must show some patience in the attack allowing him to find teammates moving forward in support.
Patrick Nyarko played through a variety of knocks before coming out of the last match in the 60th minute but he should be ready to resume a starting spot at right mid. Marco Pappa claims to be more comfortable in the current alignment and should be able to find some space if the Fire can force Kansas City to defend wide. Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause will likely remain as a tandem in the dual holding role but I was intrigued by the possibility of the more versatile combination of Pardo and Rafael Robayo that Klopas used late in the RSL match. "He (Robayo) still gives you the ability to move with the ball and keep possession (from that spot). He's adapting well. It will be a little bit different facing this team but he's good and composed with the ball. There are a lot of games coming up so we have the ability to rotate some guys and keep them fresh," said Klopas.
"It's another good test for us," said Frank Klopas. "They have the ability to play direct so we can't get stretched as a team. From late in the first half and the beginning of the second we have to remain focused because they score more goals than any other team in that stretch. We can't make it a track meet, it's a soccer match".
Jose Carlos Rivero
SPORTING KANSAS CITY -- OUT: GK Eric Kronberg (lower back strain); PROBABLE: DF Shawn Singh (R hamstring strain); DF Seth Sinovic (R hand fracture); MF Luke Sassano (R knee sprain)
CHICAGO FIRE -- OUT: MF Steven Kinney (R posterior tibialis tendinitis); DF Cory Gibbs (R knee meniscus repair); QUESTIONABLE: FW Chris Rolfe (L ankle sprain)
Will this be the match where the Fire put a full ninety minutes together against a top opponent? I think the tactical match up may provide an opportunity for it.
Fire 1 Sporting KC 1