A win here would move the Fire to within one victory of the top two clubs in MLS so far this season. San Jose and Sporting Kansas City both have 14 wins and have appeared to be front runners for the Supporter's Shield for most of the season. Picking up three points at RFK stadium where DC United is 8-1-3 and hasn't lost since the opening match against KC would certainly make a loud statement to the remainder of the Eastern Conference.
Despite recent struggles, Ben Olsen's team is still difficult to play at home. They've outscored opponents 25-10 in their own park but they've got some serious issues in the back line coming into this match. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid has been fine in net but hasn't displayed the spectacular dominant performances that his US U-23 counterpart Sean Johnson has. Hamid isn't the problem at the moment. Injuries and suspensions have resulted in some shuffling to an already questionable defensive unit. Both opening day fullbacks, Robbie Russell and Daniel Woolard are out of this match due to injury and starting centerback Emilio Dudar will be unavailable due to a red card he picked up during the last 5 minutes of nonsense against Philadelphia this past weekend. Brandon McDonald has been a consistent starter at half back throughout the season but the other three starters in this match will be tested.
Dejan Jakovic started the season as one of the first choice center backs and will likely replace Dudar, who has been the first choice pairing with McDonald of late. Perry Kitchen has also moved from the holding role into the back line on occasion but he's more suited to midfield. Jakovic has also played outside in spots and did not fare well. The outside choices in this match will probably come down to the recently acquired Mike Chabala and Chris Korb. McDonald and Korb were involved in a heated and ugly on-field confrontation that was captured by cameras as the team departed the field immediately after the Philadelphia game. Harmony and execution is critical on the back line and DC is vulnerable here. They've been particularly bad at defending set pieces of late and this is an area that could be exploited by Berry, Friedrich, and Anibaba who had success against New England finding chances from corners.
For all of their defensive problems, DC is just as dangerous in the attack although they have struggled to find their early season form over the last five matches. They've only scored 3 goals in their last five while going 1-3-1 in that stretch. They're still dangerous with Dwayne DeRosario as the focal point of the attack but playing with DeRo and two forwards/attackers ahead of him leaves little coverage for the back line and forces dangerous outside players like Nick DeLeon and Andy Najar to sit back more often. Olsen is likely to favor Chris Pontius and the newly acquired Lionard Pajoy as the front runners with Pajoy playing more of a target role. Branko Boskovic, Hamdi Salihi, and Maicon Santos have been options off the bench with varying degrees of success this season but Boskovic is suspended and Santos is listed as doubtful.
On the Fire's end, Frank Klopas will likely stick with the same line-up that started the New England match with the exception of one spot. Patrick Nyarko will likely make way for Marco Pappa as he continues to deal with back and hamstring issues. Despite the knocks, Nyarko was still extremely dangerous against the Revolution and should provide the same headaches for DC late in this match if needed. Chicago's pace and movement will pose a serious challenge to a back line that is rather slow by MLS standards and should force Olsen to play a bit more conservatively than he's used to. If not, United will be exposed to what the Fire does best in counter attack.
CHICAGO FIRE -- OUT: DF Cory Gibbs (R knee meniscus repair); MF Logan Pause (L pneumothorax)
D.C. UNITED -- OUT: MF Lance Rozeboom (L knee ACL tear); DF Robbie Russell (L plantar fasciitis); DF Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms); DOUBTFUL: FW Maicon Santos (R toe soreness); QUESTIONABLE: MF Lewis Neal (L adductor strain)
Who? Elfath has only presided over 4 MLS matches and has issued 3 penalty kicks over that period. Similar stats to Sorin Stoica, who officiated the New England match and awarded a PK to the home side.
This is a big match. Given the recent form of the two sides it's entirely possible for the Fire to walk into RFK and come out with a victory sending DC into a struggle to hold onto the fifth Eastern Conference spot. DeRosario has a history of killing the Fire and the Pavel Pardo/Daniel Paladini combination shouldn't stray too far from him at any time.
I'll go with a draw in deference to DC's home success but if Olson isn't careful things could unravel.
Fire 1 DC 1