Through six games the Fire are on a point per game pace that would land them outside of postseason again. MLS is forgiving when it comes to the amount of teams that qualify for the playoffs but continuing to drop points at home is a surefire recipe for a season end in October. The importance of this match against DC shouldn't be undervalued considering that the following three games are all on the road. The current record after six games is on par with other less illustrious Fire finishes since the shootout was eliminated following the 1999 season.
Here's the break down with home/away splits:
2002: 10 (1H/5A)
What Are They All About? DC United
When the 2015 MLS schedule was released Chicago’s players, staff and fans breathed a sigh of relief as they saw five of the first seven matches were at home. Aside from a tilt against MLS Cup runners up Columbus they would be playing teams that were around them in the standings last year and hopes were high. Well then. After taking the lead thanks to a stunning Kennedy Igboananike strike the Fire allowed Montreal two second half goals and lost their second home match of the campaign in their last outing. They have accrued just six points in six matches from what was supposed to be a favorable schedule and are looking at an all too familiar sight: Chicago is at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
This Saturday marks the last match of that “favorable” schedule as the Fire welcome DC United to Toyota Park before departing on a three game road stint that will see them log 6,393 miles in just ten days. For a team that struggles on the road and most likely won’t risk David Accam on turf, the match against DC is as close to a “win at all costs” situation as Chicago has seen this season. There are some fun story lines with returning players and this fixture has produced some heart in mouth moments over the years but that is all secondary to the Fire’s necessity for all three points. Will Paunovic and company deliver another win at home or will DC United defeat the Fire for a fifth consecutive meeting and continue the potential downward spiral?
DC United Form Guide (Last 5 matches): W-L-W-D-L
Previous Match: A 3-0 home win over New England.
Formation: The Ben Olsen 4-4-2: Worra; Franklin, Birnbaum, Boswell Kemp; Nyarko, DeLeon, Sarvas, Neagle; Rolfe, Espindola
Strengths: After a 2013 season that saw DC United register the fewest games won, fewest goals scored and lowest points per game total in league history they have returned to the glory days with two playoff appearances in the last two years and a reinvigorated sense of team unity. They currently sit in fifth place in the East despite having a bumpy start at times, but we’ll start with the positives.
Work Ethic: In a season where we have seen our fair share of “lazy DPs”, midfielders and forwards that refuse to track back, and late mental lapses costing various teams a result we are continuously amazed at Ben Olsen’s ability get the best out of his players. Looking at the DC United squad no one stands out as a superstar but you can bet all 11 guys on the team sheet would run through a brick wall for their teammates and coach. The matches against New England and Vancouver saw Olsen’s men tally four goals after the 85th minute when the results were already in the bag. This mental strength and ability to go the full 90 might prove costly against a Chicago side that looked a bit off the pace late against Montreal.
A Round of Shots from the Guys in Black: DC United has registered double digit shots in all of their matches this season. With 94 total shots and 43 of those shots on target you can bet that United will be looking to test Matt Lampson early and often. Given the fact that Lampson gives up a goal every 5.42 shots on target the likes of Alvaro Saborio and Chris Rolfe might have an extra spring in their step come Saturday.
It is also important to realize that it is not just the out and out forwards who contribute to this tally. Midfielders Nick DeLeon, Marcelo Sarvas, Lamar Neagle, and Luciano Acosta have all contributed multiple attempts on target over the last few matches with Sean Franklin and Steve Birnbaum helping out from the back as well. In fact, goalkeeper Travis Worra is the only starting player who has failed to register at least a shot in the last four matches. Paunovic’s motto of “no shot, no goal” will ring truer than ever on Saturday.
A Non-Discriminatory Goal Policy: DC can score from distance, from up close, off of set pieces, from the run of play, forwards, defenders, midfielders, they don’t care. A look at the last few matches shows that they are dangerous from all over the field. The fact that they don’t rely on a singular tactic to score means that it will be that much more difficult for the Fire to prepare ahead of Saturday’s contest. A look at the last few matches will clarify this.
Against New England the first goal came from an expertly finished Neagle PK which was won off a methodical buildup. The second was a beautifully orchestrated counter attack that saw Acosta chip Shuttleworth from distance. The third came from a hopeful ball lofted in behind New England’s defense which Saborio reached in time to round the keeper and coolly put away. The goal fest against Vancouver was the result of the following: a poached follow up goal from Fabian Espindola, a set piece finish from Bobby Boswell, and two true #9 finishes from Saborio playing as the lone striker late in the match. The lone goal against San Jose was the product of a team move that pushed the ball out wide to Lamar Neagle who put a dangerous cross right onto the head of an on streaming Patrick Nyarko. We didn’t even mention the near misses and key saves in those contests. There’s no doubt about it, DC creates from all over the pitch.
Gelling at the Back: Aside from a lapse in concentration during the first minute against Toronto DC’s back line has kept two clean sheets in the last three matches, a fact that should trouble Chicago. Brazilian DP Gilberto has registered a whopping 2 shots on target in his five starts this season. Those statistics side by side are a bit depressing to say the least.
The Return: We cannot finish this preview without mentioning that Chicago Fire fan favorites Patrick Nyarko and Chris Rolfe will be making their return to Toyota Park, Nyarko for the first time since being traded to United. We know there have been over-zealous outcries against certain trades over the last few season but concern over these figures leaving has been genuinely warranted. Their “tangible” contributions haven’t been outstanding this season but both will be playing with a chip on their shoulder and we wouldn’t be surprised to see them have a direct impact on the result.
Weaknesses: For as good as DC have looked over their last few matches we cannot forget that they have three losses on the season as well, two of which were blow outs. There are obvious weak spots in this DC United side that can be exploited by the Fire technical staff.
We Don’t like Playing Away Either: DC United has not won a road match yet this season and the most they’ve had to show from their travels was a 1-1 draw in San Jose. The other two trips resulted in a drab 0-0 draw in New England and a 4-1 loss in LA. Perhaps those results were due to the weight of travel but with the amount of league veterans in the squad you would expect them to be used to it by now. Chicago’s home form might break the duck for DC but it is equally as likely that United’s poor away streak continues.
Can you slow down please?: Over the course of the season DC has shown time and time again that they cannot deal with pace. Whether they win or lose there seem to be shocking examples of a lack of speed in almost every match. Whether it was the quick TFC start that caught DC off guard, the three Dallas goals that came in transition, or the necessity for Worra to bail out his defense on a few counters against Vancouver, DC is vulnerable on the break or even if the opposition turns up the pace in the buildup. It seems like we say this every week but Chicago will be disappointed in yet another Accam injury absence. Supporters will be hoping that Igboananike can make some runs in behind or catch Franklin on the counter.
Chicago will also like their chances against Rolfe and Saborio. They are both clinical finishers but as far as fitness and speed are concerned Jonathan Campbell, Rodrigo Ramos and Johan Kappelhof should be up to the challenge.
Lack of Possession: Paunovic has said it on numerous occasions this season, “Possession builds confidence”. DC has only had an edge in possession once in the past four matches and even then it was a slight 54/46. If Chicago is given the chance to keep the ball then the likes of Arturo Alvarez and John Goossens will flourish. Matt Polster’s knack of being a nuisance in the midfield could prove troubling for a DC team that has failed to stay on the ball recently.
A bit of bad luck: DC United enters Saturday’s match with Marcelo Sarvas suspended and Bill Hamid, Andrew Dykstra, Chris Korb, Fabian Espindola, Charlie Horton and Markus Halsti out due to injury. United is starting their third string keeper, Travis Worra, as Hamid, and Dykstra’s long term injuries have them watching in the stands. The injury crisis has also led to the signing of Tally Hall who has yet to feature for DC.
Go after the young one: If Worra notches his eighth start then it would behoove Paunovic to tell the strikers and midfielders to shoot on site. The youngster has impressed with three clean sheets but is still getting used to playing professionally. His positioning was questionable on the goals against Dallas and the communication with the center backs has been suspect, especially when facing the counter.
Prediction: Nothing less than a win will do. It doesn’t matter how they come but three points are an absolute must. It is hard to see the Fire getting more than a point from their looming road trip and the realist that is Veljko Paunovic should know that going into this match. A hard fought, gritty, yellow card filled 1-0 win for Chicago. Kennedy Igboananike with the 86th minute goal.