Fire v Rapids match preview

What Are They All About? Colorado Rapids 

Toyota Park is a fortress. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated the Seattle Sounders 4-1 in front of a “sold out” crowd. The result extended their 2017 home unbeaten streak to five matches and the performance reiterated the resurgence present within the club. The match provided onlookers with exemplary soccer from front to back as last year’s champions were humbled by the most complete match the Fire have put together this season. Shifting Bastian Schweinsteiger to his preferred box to box role, replacing Bava and Harrington, and giving Michael de Leeuw free reign underneath Nikolic all paid dividends for Veljko Paunovic. Chicago will look to repeat that performance this coming Wednesday as their busy spell continues against the Colorado Rapids at Toyota Park (7:30 CT on CSN Plus).

Standing in the way of continuing the fairytale is a Colorado Rapids side that has a lot to prove. It isn’t Chicago’s job to ensure that their opponents are at their best heading into contests and the Fire will be smiling slyly as the Rapids hobble into this one on poor form and amidst a somewhat head-scratching retooling phase. Colorado finished second in the Supporters Shield standings last season and made a run all the way to the Western Conference Final, adopting the “Worst to First” mantra that has surfaced over the years in MLS’ insistence on parity. This season they seem to be rebranding as “First to Worst” entering Saturday’s encounter at the bottom of the league. Pablo Mastroeni has some talent on the roster and has shown that his sides are tough to beat no matter where they sit in the standings. This league has already been full of surprises this season and Chicago cannot enter into this match with even a hint of complacency. Will the Rapids snatch their first road points of the season, or will the Fire continue their fine form? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.

Colorado Form Guide (last five matches): W-L-L-L-L

Previous Result: A 3-0 home victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.

Formation: 4-4-2 (typically 4-2-3-1): Howard; Hairston, Burling, Watts, Miller; Gashi, Azira, Powers, Saeid; Gordon, Badji

Strengths: Aside from losing Jermaine Jones who, let’s be honest, only saw Colorado as a stop on his way back to his hometown, this Colorado side entered the season mostly unchanged from their successful 2016 season. Mastroeni’s leadership and connection to the club have continued to pay dividends in terms of earning him the trust of the Rapids ownership and the fans. If there is anyone who can turn this squad around it’s the well-dressed Argentine-American. Let’s see where Colorado may excel on Wednesday. 

The Memory of a Goldfish: In his post-match press conference on Saturday, Mastroeni said that the Rapids strung together the most complete performance he’s ever seen at the club. While he may have been exaggerating slightly in hopes of boosting morale, the 3-0 thumping of a playoff positioned team was a much-needed result. The Rapids will be hoping to have turned a corner. Mohammed Saeid, Shkelzen Gashi, and Dominique Badji showed well in the match. If Colorado can live in the moment and forget their horrendous run this season, they may just surprise a few people. If that seems like a backhanded compliment, you’re right. We struggled to prop up the mess that is the Rapids. We’ll continue anyway.   

The Best Form of Defense is Attack: It seems that Mastroeni has taken that clichéd adage quite literally. In the match against San Jose, the Rapids opted to address their recent defensive struggles by shifting winger Marlon Hairston to right back. The move worked beautifully as Hairston completed 86% of his forty-seven passes, registered a shot on target, ran wild down the right-hand side, and completed ten successful defensive interventions. Aside from earning him a spot on the team of the week, the tactical shift also earned him high praise from Mastroeni who said that despite Hairston’s lack of enthusiasm for being labeled a “defender”, had a brilliant performance. Mastroeni alluded to a permanent positional switch for the youngster and the change could serve as a strategy to keep David Accam honest on Chicago’s left flank.

Tim Howard: No cute quips are needed to introduce this strength. After his bizarre suspension, the USMNT keeper returned to play against Vancouver last week. Although the Rapids fell 1-0, Howard kept them in the match throughout the encounter and he followed that performance up with a clean sheet against San Jose. Mastroeni has highlighted the need for Howard’s experience to shine through as a calming presence in times of uncertainty for Colorado. This is one DP that the Rapids have gotten spot on.

Clogging the Midfield: Although many MLS sides utilize the 4-2-3-1, the Rapids put their own twist on it in their assent up the table last season. Rather than having both of the central midfielders­–the “2”–play the role of holding midfielders or asking them to both perform box to box duties, the Rapids pair a holding mid and a creative mid into those slots. Micheal Azira and Dillon Powers have made those positions their own this season. The latter has a knack for notching a fair number of assists in MLS, twenty-six over the last five seasons, while the former was utilized as a center back in the USL and in his time with Seattle. When you add the fact that the Rapids favored defensive minded fullbacks until Hairston’s tactical switch, you are left with a scenario in which Colorado is able to have a solid block in their own final third while possessing the ability to create from out of their own half. If Colorado returns to their old ways in this match, McCarty, Schweinsteiger, and de Leeuw could be stifled in the midfield and Nikolic won’t have a high line to exploit.    

Weaknesses: This section does not need an extensive intro. This Rapids side is terrible at the moment. Whether they can emulate the type of midseason turn around exhibited in recent years by LA, Seattle, etc. remains to be seen, but Chicago is playing them amidst a unique spell. Let’s take a look at where Colorado will struggle.

If You’re Too Drunk, Put Your Phone Away: In what can only be called one of the most bizarre MLS trades in recent memory, in late March the Rapids traded team captain Sam Cronin and league veteran Marc Burch to Minnesota United for Mohammed Saeid, Josh Gatt, and an international slot. Gatt hasn’t made the eighteen in any of the last three Rapids matches, and although Saeid offers pace down the left and has also been used centrally by Mastroeni, the departure of key players and franchise leaders hardly seems justified in this instance.

The official reason given was that the move frees up salary cap space for attack minded moves in the summer, but cries of league involvement to help a struggling expansion side have been heard as well. The defensive style was working for Mastroeni and although it wasn’t always pretty and may not have fit with MLS style guide, it was working for them. Prior to this week, Colorado lost five consecutive matches in the wake of the trade. If the Rapids don’t land a star in the Summer and find themselves outside of the playoffs in October, fingers will be pointed to this strange piece of business.

These Boots Were Made for Slipping: Perhaps evident of their need to improve on the offensive side, this Rapids side has registered just twenty-one shots on goal all season. If you want a comparison, Sebastian Giovinco alone has twenty. Colorado’s build up play seems to be there, they hold their own in passing completion and possession, and they have three forwards on the roster that should be more than capable of providing goals. However, for multiple reasons, they seem to be struggling with their final touch. Kevin Doyle’s fall from stardom is not only evidenced by his dropped DP tag, but reflected statistically in his measly thirteen goal haul in his fifty-four MLS appearances. Shkelzen Gashi has fared slightly better in his DP tenure, eleven goals in thirty-two appearances, but injuries have relegated him to just four starts this season and questions remain about his consistency. Lastly, Alan Gordon hasn’t adjusted to his new club quite yet. Testing the waters of free agency landed him the salary he wanted, but no goals in six appearances has the Rapids questioning this move as well (emphasized by his tap in miss at the weekend). Kappelhof and Meira will not want to be bested by this lackluster frontline.

The Air is a Bit Different Out Here: Perhaps the most glaring statistical anomaly surrounding this Colorado side is their abysmal away form. Pablo Mastroeni and his charges have not picked up a single point on the road this season. They have lost all four away encounters and stuttered defensively, allowing seven goals in those matches. No amount of game tape can instantaneously overcome form and the Rapids seem to have a lax mentality on the road. The all too distant comforts of home may prove to be a stumbling block for Colorado in this one as they enter a difficult atmosphere.

Injuries: If you didn’t feel bad enough for this Colorado side, they are missing two key players heading into this match. Axel Sjoberg has not fully recovered from a hamstring injury suffered in March and we doubt he will be risked in an away match against an Eastern Conference opponent. Additionally, Nana Boateng is out long term with three fractured vertebrae. The youngster arrived from Manchester City as a response to Jermaine Jones’ departure and was beginning to show his creative spirit before the injury. The Rapids may just be hoping to get through this match in one piece.

Prediction: Both teams find themselves in the middle of a busy period but Chicago will not sacrifice their home form to rotate the squad. That will spell trouble for Colorado whose win against San Jose will be a small blip of positivity on their disappointing month. Chicago 2-0 Colorado. Nikolic keeps his hat in the ring for the Golden Boot and Michael de Leeuw notches a much deserved first goal of the campaign.

Filed under: 2017 Regular Season

Tags: Chicago Fire

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  • Are we thinking this whole Niko for Golden Boot thing is real?

  • In reply to Shinny:

    Give his performance to this point, I think it would be foolish not to consider him a part of the race. That could change as the season goes on, but until then, enjoy the ride.

  • In reply to Shinny:

    If the team can continue to improve and learns how to win on the road, I think its entirely possible. Remember, at Legia Warsaw, he had a GPG average of .73. At videoton, over 5 years .58. Before that, .61. So he definitely knows how to put the ball in the back of the net. If we say he falls somewhere in between these numbers... maybe .65, that's 22 goals. Puts him right in there for Golden Boot.

    I've never been an Accam fan, but I think he will probably have his best season this year to. He's grown in maturity and started to expand his game and vision. I still think he isn't strong enough taking on players 1v1/1v2 like he tried to do a lot the last 2 years, but he finally is starting to play for the team. No better example of this then his assist to Niko in Saturdays game. Last year he would have taken that shot. Maybe he makes it maybe he doesn't. This year he has the maturity and vision to recognize that Niko has the better positioning and the easier goal.

    Between Accam's increased maturity, BS and Dax's improving partnership and Solignac's ability to create space for other players, I think it is a very real possibility that Niko can make golden boot this year.

  • In reply to Shinny:

    The funny thing about Niko is that he doesn't have flashy goals (e.g., shots from distance, taking defenders on directly, etc). He is just always in the right place at the right time (or offsides).

    But hey, it all spends the same and as edubs said, his track record suggests that it isn't a fluke.

  • In reply to Shinny:

    Magee was a poacher too, and so is Wondo. Magee was one goal shy of the Golden Boot a few years ago and Wondo is the most consistent goal scorer in the history of MLS. Don't under estimate the importance of a good goal poacher on the team. It takes a deceptively good amount of vision to consistently create that sort of space for yourself. Especially once opposing teams catch on to your style and make game plans around stopping it.

    Niko's high amount of offsides isn't a fluke/mistake. Its intentional. Its one of the reasons why he can get those non-flashy goals so often. He is always looking to get played through the defenders and is always pushing that backline. Unfortunately that's a bit of a numbers game that often gets called the other way.

  • In reply to Shinny:

    are you still questioning this after tonights game?

  • In reply to edubs:

    haha nope

  • I liked Saturday's lineup but with the short turnaround for tonight's game, I can't believe we will see the same line-up expecially with DC on the road Saturday. I would expect to see Juninho, Johnson, and Polster get some significant minutes. Also, I would give Campbell a start. When Kap moved to right back, I thought Campbell played very well on Saturday. I would also give Alvarez a start tonight.

  • In reply to Krasov:

    Juninho is still injured I believe. He is listed as questionable. Don't expect to see him starting. Bava is listed as injured, Cleveland will be on the bench again with Lampson in goal.

    I would suspect that Polster starts as RB tonight, Doubt that Campbell will start. But we might see him subbed on for DeLeeuw again depending how the game goes. I like the 5 man back. The way we have been playing it, it has been very dynamic and deceptively attack minded. I don't expect that to be a starting formation though because it seems to take a high level of fitness to implement properly.

    Doubtful that Pauno will start Alvarez as well. The style of play seems to be moving away from Alvarez's strengths. I'm curious where Pauno sees him long term.

    Maybe we will be blessed with a sighting of the Armenian redwood though. :)

  • In reply to edubs:

    I think you'll see much of the same line-up from Saturday tonight....and then some changes in DC. They want to win as many home games as possible.

  • Big Paws to both Timmy Howard for his display of goalkeeping excellence in the 34' and to Lamps for taking Vincent's ill attempted clearance right in his grill to keep the clean sheet.
    Accam has shined again as he has finally learned how to play this game and not take on 2 or 3 backs to no avail (although he did it again tonight with Niko off his shoulder)
    So glad to see Poly get a full 90 and EXCEL, a couple teammates owe him a round after that textbook give and go, bittersweet no Conner,,, but IMHO he is a future CM not RB
    Niko is a pure poacher, a shark, a rich mans Wondo. If you are going to play that game you better capitalize and he has, Golden Boot a serious consideration. TP is gaining a reputation as a tough place to come away with any points, my glass is ready and full of Kool Aid but still reluctant to take a sip just yet.

  • Granted, it was the Rapids at home but Polster looked good. He has to get better at crossing the ball, but he sure is a MFer on defense. At the beginning of the game he shouldered some guy on a 50/50 ball with authority and I thought for sure he was getting a yellow. I hope he adjusts to the position because he has the right attitude.
    I think the Fire are a few pieces away from really making some noise in the playoffs. But there is an X factor that could make this a magical season. Schwini. McCarty is sensational, but Basti is a freak. I was a little put off about the s--- he was spilling about dialing down his skills in the MLS. But it's true, he is that good. I was at the game last night and the man just does everything right. Anyway, at the least the Fire are putting on a good show.

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