The Portland Timbers host the red hot Chicago Fire tonight in their final match before getting a week off for the Gold Cup. The Timbers limp into the match on a run of poor form, while the Fire are undefeated in their last ten matches, going 8-0-2 in that span.
To get the run down on the league’s top team, we talked to Sean Spence of our sister site, Hot Time In Old Town and he filled us in on just what we will see tonight. Also, ake sure to swing over to their site and check out our answers to their questions.
How does the worst to first story feel after two fruitless years for the Fire? Other than all the points, what is it that makes this team the real deal?
It feels pretty amazing, of course. Comparing this roster to previous editions is almost an apples-and-oranges mismatch, simply because of vastly greater sums of money spent on players by the Fire in 2017. For years, we've wondered how seriously the Men in Red were trying to compete in MLS; thankfully, we can put such concerns aside now.
In terms of this team's strengths, it's got to be the situational intelligence of the squad. Unlike basically every edition of the Fire from the last 10 years, this is a very smart soccer team. The first XI solves problems on the field with a casual deftness that's often breathtaking.
Nemanja Nikolic is tearing it up for the Fire this year, leading the Golden Boot race with sixteen goals in eighteen games; what is it that makes him so dangerous? What other players are key to the Chicago attack?
Niko's not the purest finisher in the world. His combination play can sometimes lack quality. His first touch sometimes gets away from him. But those inconsistencies are trumped by the omnipresence of his hunger for goals. Put simply, Niko never stops grinding in search of even the tiniest sliver of a look at goal. He's relentless and clever, ghosting into little pockets of space around the area, just waiting for a momentary lapse of concentration or communication to create the chaos in which he thrives.
The obvious guy to point to as a creator for Niko is David Accam, who apparently is back from Ghana duty and with the team today. Accam's added better combination play to his searing pace and should be in the MVP discussion with 10 goals and 6 assists. The other two members of the attacking quartet - Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac - provide incredible defensive grit with enough skill to make a difference when it counts.
Starting early in the year, all anyone could talk about was the Fire's high-powered midfield and how they would fit together. Half a season in, how do they fit together? And are they the key to this team's success or is there someone else that we are overlooking?
The midfield is obviously loaded, although you're likely to see very much a second-choice pairing in the double pivot tonight. Bastian Schweinsteiger has (apparently, as of this writing) been left back in Chicago after suffering a hip injury in the first half of Saturday's blowout of Vancouver, and Dax McCarty is with the USA for the Gold Cup - and those two have been the heart & brains of the side through this 10-game unbeaten streak. Their quality on the ball and ability to anticipate tactical problems has made this the smartest MLS team I've ever watched, and contributed to the team playing an increasingly fluid and attractive way. Juninho has been the odd man out of the starting XI since Basti's arrival, and will get a chance to make a claim for more playing time tonight, likely partnered with Drew Conner, which generally means the passing will still be there without the mind- and time-control antics that Basti and Dax get up to.
Obviously the midfield quality is single the biggest difference between this year's side and last season's. But another, less-heralded key has been the familiarity that Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Matt Lampson acquired during last year's terrible season - the defense came into the year basically settled, which has made the midfield's tasks simpler to contemplate.
Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Matt Lampson; Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Matt Polster; Drew Conner, Juninho; David Accam, Michael de Leeuw, Luis Solignac; Nemanja Nikolic.