Match preview guru Martin Tomszak kicks off 2016 with a University of South Florida...yes, a University of South Florida match preview. The new regime's competitive debut should provide some interesting insight into what's to come in the week's ahead.
What Are They All About? University of South Florida
After what seems like an eternity, the Chicago Fire are back! The team began preseason at the PrivateBank Fire Pitch and after an intense week of building fitness through double sessions, media appearances, charity events, and the jersey launch they flew out to Tampa for the second phase of preseason. Head coach Veljko Paunovic has defined this second phase as one where the team will bond, expand their anaerobic threshold, develop tactics, and define a style of play. Their first match of preseason is this Saturday against USF and it will surely gauge their development in all of those areas.
While preseason matches against College and USL sides are often meant to provide easy victories and be morale boosters, this MLS preseason has already seen some stubborn opposition and some upsets. Ironically the Fire ended the regular season against the Red Bulls and they start this preseason against the USF Bulls but they will be hoping for a much different result.
USF Form Guide: An impressive 11-6-3 record and an appearance in the NCAA tourney where they were knocked out in over time of the second round by Boston College.
Previous Match: A 3-1 friendly loss to NY Red Bulls.
Formation: 4-4-2; Stefanovic; Smith, Hines-Ike, Figbe, McNally; Mfeka, Maceira, Epps, Bajza; Bartman, Becket
Strengths: Yes, USF is a college team. Yes, they are out of season. Yes, many of their starters were seniors. However, none of that will matter much on Saturday. As they showed against NY, the opportunity to display character, skill, and ambition against a professional team does not need a second invitation. This will not be an easy match for a Fire roster roughly the same age as this USF side.
We here at Fire Confidential like to dabble in statistics so here are some that stand out when examining the Bulls. This season the USF squad registered 254 shots in 20 matches. Of those 254 shots, 106 were on target and 27 of them hit the back of the net. For those keeping track, USF registers roughly 13 shots a match on and scored off of every 9.5 shots, which means we’re likely to see a goal from them if their performances translate to this match. They should be a good test for a newly formed back line and might prove problematic for Patrick McLain and Matt Lampson who struggled early in camp. Let’s take a look at some stand out players.
May we borrow your strikers? The Men in Red currently find themselves with three strikers on the roster, Gilberto, Kennedy Igboananike and Joey Callistri, only one of which has been a proven consistent goal scorer in MLS. Furthermore, Paunovic has hinted that Igboananikecould be used as a winger. These are not problems that USF have, their strikers are numerous, established and effective. Nazeem Bartman carried the team with 8 goals this season, Melvin Becket was not far behind with 5, and Mfeka Lindo chipped in with 3 of his own along with 4 assists. These will be the danger men in the USF line up. Their link up play has been impressive, they’re quick on the counter, they’re clinical and most importantly they have contrasting styles. Beckett is a physical presence and a poacher, Bartman has speed and can finish from both inside and outside of the box, and Mfeka twisted and turned opposition all season (courtesy of USF Athletic Dept. highlights).
Paunovic meet Stefanovic: USF’s Serbian goal keeper had quite the season. He started and went 90 minutes in all 20 of their matches and for good reason. The shot stopper from Belgrade kept 8 clean sheets in those matches. He is a physical presence, he communicates well with his back line, and his distribution isn’t too shabby either. He also has experience with the Serbian U-19s and U-18s. It would not be entirely surprising if cameras caught Pauno whispering sweet nothings into Stefanovic’s ear after the friendly while handing him a one way ticket to Chicago.
Fighting Spirit: USF only lost one home match this season, winning nine and tying the other two. They like to defend their home turf and you have to guess this sentiment will be reflected on Saturday. On top of their impressive home form they’ve also shown that they do not lose hope. There have been a few come from behind victories this season, most notably a dramatic draw against rivals UCONN that saw the Bulls come back from two goals and a man down. Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, and Rodrigo Ramos are awaiting their visas while Sean Johnson, Matt Polster, and Brandon Vincent are in USMNT camp meaning that aside from veterans Nikc Labrocca, Razvan Cocis, and Michael Harrington this match will resemble an NCAA contest, it could be a wakeup call for the Fire.
Weaknesses: We like to give everyone a fair shake, but let’s be honest: this is an out of season college team. Even the 20th place MLS team should be able to dispatch these kids with ease. The USF defensive line has been a cohesive unit during the season, but they haven’t had David Accam running at them before, nor have they had to deal with the physical presence of Gilberto. A lot of their creativity flows through the middle of the pitch before being spread out wide to the wingers but the positional awareness of Cocis and LaBrocca should limit any sort of fluidity that USF is used to.
The lack of experience of the Fire squad may worry some, but against this USF side that should be a positive. The likes of Calistri, Vincent Keller, Mauricio Pineda, Alex Morrell and Collin Fernandez will want to prove that they belong in the 18 this season and that motivation should prove to outdo a group of kids looking to squeeze in some frat parties before their preseason weight training starts. You’ll also have Arturo Alvarez fighting for a pay day and that could be a scary sight for the USF defenders.
If the USF loss to the Red Bulls last week is any indication, then Saturday’s match will be an easy victory. All three goals conceded against NYRB came from a combination of confusion in the box and not clearing their lines. Bradley Wright Philips was left in space time and time again and often got a second or even a third bite at the cherry despite having a rusty offseason first touch. Look for Chicago to set the tone early and implement the high pressure, high intensity, quick, possession oriented style Pauno has been promising.
Prediction: Let’s make this interesting… Chicago 2-2 USF. An Igboananike brace leaves fans and technical staff scratching their heads and shrugging their shoulders while Bartman and Becket carry their goal scoring form into senior year. Hauptman, Rodriguez, and Kholsa will be calling the Office of Visa Services on Monday in attempts to expedite the arrival of their center backs.