Martin Tomszak is back to take a look at the penultimate game of the 2015 season for the Fire. They will be trying to avoid their 25th consecutive match without a victory on the road. The all-time MLS record is 27 set by the New York Red Bulls during the ’08 and ’09 seasons.
What Are They All About? D.C. United
This is for all of the marbles! Well, kind of… There are just two matches left in what has arguably been the worst season in the Fire’s history. Although talks of post season soccer subsided weeks ago for some and months ago for others, Chicago has a chance to shake off another unwanted record this coming Sunday. The Fire will look to avoid becoming the seventh team in league history to fail to notch a single win on their travels during the course of a season. Ironically, they will do so against a team that reluctantly joined that club two seasons ago, D.C United.
This is Chicago’s last away match of the season and judging by the mentality brought forth by the interim coaching staff of Brian Bliss and Logan Pause, this will have the feel of a playoff match despite Chicago being rooted to the bottom of the table. Will Chicago dance triumphantly as they grasp a moral victory, or will D.C snatch that last bit of hope from their historic rivals?
D.C. Form Guide (Last 5 League Matches): W-L-L-D-L
Previous match: A 2-1 home win against NYCFC.
Formation in the last match: 4-4-2: Hamid; Franklin, Boswell, Opare, Kemp; Pontius Halsti, Kitchen, DeLeon; Espindola, Rolfe
Strengths: We have come to know this D.C side very well this season as this is our third preview of United. As with the first two meetings, D.C is consistent in their strengths. Fast paced/attacking style of play, uniform and well established tactics, rallying around the leadership of Ben Olsen, boasting a squad of league veterans who know what it takes to win, etc. are all still features of this D.C side and has led to them clinching a playoff berth with three matches remaining. This does not mean however, that D.C will ease up on the gas. Knowing that top form is vital to playoff success, United will head into this match against Chicago with the mentality that nothing less than three points is acceptable. Although first place and the Supporters Shield are practically unreachable, D.C will definitely be looking to assure themselves of a higher post season seeding. Let’s take a look at some of the things they have been doing right recently.
One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure: We will not discuss it extensively, but as in the first two looks at D.C Chris Rolfe has been vital to the success of United this season. While there is a plethora of arguments to be made regarding former Fire players having success elsewhere (just ask Rolfe himself…), it is sufficient to say that a change in scenery has done the guy some good. Rolfe has 16 goals and 10 assists in 50 total matches for D.C since moving away from the Windy City. His value is increased when you look at the way in which his play off the ball creates space for his strike partners and the fact that Olsen has utilized him in multiple positions. Rolfe has played on the wing, as a traditional “Number 9”, a traditional “number 10”, and has made a fair share of off the line clearances helping out the defense as well.
Clean Sweep: While history cannot always be used to support predicted outcomes of matches, D.C has won both previous meetings this season. Not only that, but they looked the better team on both occasions. Olsen and his men won’t care about story lines and unwanted records. This is a chance to get three points against a weaker opponent before having to travel to Columbus on the final day of the regular season. They will not want to rely on an away win against the Crew to stay in second place heading into the playoffs. Look for them to press early and often against the Fire.
You Are Not a Unique Snowflake: While many of the D.C. players have specific attributes that have led to the team’s overall form, it is astonishing how many different lineups Olsen has utilized. Injuries, suspensions, schedule congestion, CONCACAF competition, international call ups, etc., have all reared their ugly heads for D.C this season and none of them have seemed to phase the momentum or results of this United team. This has largely to do with the way in which Olsen’s tactics work. The system is ingrained in the players head’s whether they’re fresh out of the academy or club veterans. All of the guys know their role in the match but they also know that their spot isn’t guaranteed and it has made for an interesting bit of friendly competition among the squad. Clearly it’s working for them. Sure, they have lost a handful of matches during the previously mentioned trying times but they have also managed to scrape by with wins and draws in situations where pundits labeled them as helpless.
This is Our Fortress: Ok, maybe that is too optimistic of a phrase but D.C has lost just three times at home this entire season. Columbus, San Jose, and Toronto have managed to get all three points at RFK Stadium this season but they are all also sitting in playoff spots as they head down the final stretch. Something Chicago cannot say. Worryingly for Chicago, D.C’s losses to San Jose and Columbus came in a busy stretch that saw them play eight matches in four weeks because of their participation in the CONCACAF Champions’ League group stage. It will be a tough task for the Fire to snatch their first road win judging by the numbers.
Anything you can 4-4-2, I can 4-4-2 better: This is just a fun one, but D.C United has not lost to a team that utilizes a 4-4-2 with a flat midfield. The Fire have lined up in a 4-4-2 for most of the season. What is interesting is that both San Jose and TFC lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond in their wins over D.C. Perhaps we’ll see a little bit of a tactical change from Bliss on Sunday to get the win.
Weaknesses: The redundancy of writing weakness sections about MLS defending is becoming overwhelming. Had we copy/pasted the weakness section from the last D.C preview no one would have batted an eye unless they happened to see that the previous five matches didn’t properly line up with the current schedule. Oh well, here we go again.
Center backs. Someone. Anyone: In the first preview, every goal conceded by D.C that month had come from a central position within their box. In the second preview, every goal in the previous five matches except one came in the same manner (Giovinco from 30 yards out being the exception). Well, of the nine goals conceded in the last five matches by D.C, eight of them have been from a central position inside the box. The exception this time is a beautiful free kick from Didier Drogba. Interestingly, many of these have been put away after an initial save or rebound in the box. Fire strikers shouldn’t stray too far outside of D.C’s six yard box, something is going to materialize there.
Form: D.C may have beaten lowly NYCFC at home in their previous match, but before that they were winless in six league matches. D.C. has not looked good over the last month and a long season may finally be taking a toll on them. The Fire can’t say they have been much better having lost five in a row before beating New England at home last week, but they looked like a good side in both of their matches north of the border. Yes, Montreal and Toronto both notched wins but upon closer examination Chicago played much better than it has for most of the season and arguably deserved more than they got. It could be a question of who is up for it more on Sunday.
Missing players: Davy Arnaud may sit this one out depending on whether or not his concussion symptoms have cleared by kick off. There are no other new suspensions or injuries for D.C.
Prediction: In their last match Chicago was given an opportunity to shake off some negative vibes and avoid a club record sixth consecutive loss. They went into half time down a goal. Whatever Brian Bliss and Logan Pause said at half time worked. Chicago came back to notch three unanswered goals in the cold, wind, and rain to avoid an embarrassing note in the history books. Something tells us that the magic of Blause will strike again. Chicago wins its only away match of the season: Chicago 3-2 D.C United.
A Kennedy Igboananike hat trick adds a positive asterisk to Chicago’s season as he joins David Accam in the category of Fire “DPs” who have scored double digits. Chris Rolfe with a brace for D.C (unlike Drogba he won’t celebrate against his former team). This small moral victory will go a long way in building momentum for the offseason.