With second place hanging in the balance the Fire need a victory to avoid the possibility of dropping into a one game knockout playoff on October 31. Since the New York Red Bulls kick off at 12:30 cdt, both teams will know at game time what needs to be done to avoid being surpassed by the Red Bulls for the number two position in the conference. DC United has moved ahead of the Fire on the strength of a six game unbeaten run. United has benefited from the their ability to beat non-playoff teams even without Dwayne DeRosario. The Fire's inability to capitalize against the lower end of the table may have pushed them from a possible first place finish to an unenviable fourth or fifth place standing and a "one and done" predicament.
In the only encounter between these two clubs this season, a 4-2 DC win on August 22 Ben Olsen employed a similar tactic against Chris Rolfe and the Fire midfield to what New England found success with this past weekend. United defenders (usually midfielder Marcelo Saragosa) crowded Rolfe and denied him space to operate forcing him back into midfield disrupting what the Fire looked to do offensively. Clyde Simms played the same role for the Revolution and the Fire did not seem to have an answer on the smaller turf field in Foxboro. DC's back line can be beaten, however and the Fire will find more room to work with at Toyota Park than they did last weekend.
United has changed their approach somewhat without DeRosario in the line-up. Chris Pontius, probable rookie of the year runner-up Nick DeLeon, and right back Andy Najar provide much of the offensive opportunities. Without their Canadian star, Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos started last weekend against Columbus but both are secondary players in their attacking scheme. Santos started the season on a hot streak however and shouldn't be overlooked. Pontius has moved freely back and forth from midfield to forward all year and is very dangerous close to goal. Lewis Neal is another option outside if Pontius plays a more advanced role.
The Fire were without Logan Pause in the 4-2 loss and played one of their worst defensive matches of the year, allowing DC to answer a tying goal late in the first half with the go ahead score just before the end of the half. Pavel Pardo is expected back for this match telling reporters at training today that he is ready for 60-70 minutes and his return should provide a boost on both ends of the field. If he starts the match the Fire are better defensively by reuniting the Pause/Pardo central midfield combination and better offensively since Pardo's experience and vision allows Rolfe and Fire attackers more opportunities to find space.
Alvaro Fernandez and Patrick Nyarko also need to have better games than they did in New England if the opponent attempts to crowd and deny Rolfe as expected. Nyarko should find chances to get forward with Najar venturing into the offensive end of the field as an inxperienced full back. Both players were too easily forced into turnovers against the Revolution and the natural grass at Toyota Park should be a welcome aid for them.
Predicted Starting Line Ups
Hamid; Jakovic, Korb, McDonald, Najar; DeLeon, Saragosa, Kitchen, Neal; Pontius, Pajoy
Johnson; Segares, Berry, Friedrich, Anibaba; Nyarko, Pause, Pardo, Fernandez; Rolfe, McDonald
CHICAGO FIRE -- OUT: DF Cory Gibbs (R knee meniscus repair)
D.C. UNITED -- OUT: FW Josh Wolff (lower back disc herniation); MF Dwayne De Rosario (L knee MCL sprain); QUESTIONABLE: DF Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms); FW Long Tan (L ankle sprain)
Olsen moved Pontius out wide and kept Santos and Pajoy as forwards against the Crew but I'd expect him to stay with what worked against the Fire back in August. Pontius withdrawn behind Pajoy with DeLeon and Neal outside. Kitchen and Saragosa will surely be assigned to tracking Rolfe but the Fire are better at home and usually better motivated against the top clubs.
The Fire can't be worse defensively than the sloppy marking display they put on in August. Needless to say, they must be better defensively and having Friedrich back after taking last weekend off due to turf concerns is a plus. Chris Rolfe also needs to make a concerted effort to get higher up into the attacking end in order to avoid leaving Sherjill MacDonald alone up top without outlet options.
A sold out park, an old rival, and playoff implications on the line. This should be an entertaining one.
Fire 2 DC 1