The Portland Timbers got back on track last weekend with an ice-breaking draw at FC Dallas. Before that, however, there were genuine causes for concern as the Timbers looked largely lost on their way to two straight season-opening defeats, one of which was by a heavy margin to a second-choice opponent. For as much as the Timbers struggled, though, the reasons for those challenges were readily identifiable; most notably the natural transition involved in Gio Savarese taking over the team.
Through their first two games of the season, the performances from the Chicago Fire have been at least equally concerning. After shipping four goals to Sporting Kansas City in their opener, the Fire went to Minnesota and lost a 2-1 game that could’ve been more lopsided in favor of the hosts. And unlike the Timbers, Chicago doesn’t have an obvious explanation for their early-season struggles.
After starting out in MLS as a tactically-flexible coach who employed multiple different setups for his team, Veljko Paunovic has largely settled into using a 4-2-3-1 with his Fire team. Here’s a reasonable bet as to how they’re going to come out on Saturday afternoon:
The primary pieces of uncertainty in the Fire lineup are at left centerback, where neither Christian Dean nor Kevin Ellis have impressed, and at right back where Rafa Ramos is likely — but not guaranteed — to step in for the injured Matt Polster. Otherwise, this is probably pretty close to what we’ll see from Paunovic on Saturday.
The Chicago backline and goalkeeping situation has been a mess thus far this season, and with Polster out, either Dean or Ellis starting, and Richard Sanchez having a rough go to begin the year, there isn’t much reason to think that’s going to change.
In defensive midfield, Dax McCarty remains one of the better sixes in MLS, but his partnership with Tony Tchani hasn’t yet taken shape. In many respects you’d expect this to be pretty plug-and-play for Tchani, as McCarty is in many ways a more experienced version of Wil Trapp, with whom Tchani thrived in Columbus. But Tchani’s form with the Vancouver Whitecaps didn’t match that with Columbus (though he wasn’t extraordinarily poor, by any means), and thus far it’s been more of the same with the Fire.
The Fire front-four is an interesting bunch. There’s undeniable quality there — Nemanja Nikolic didn’t win the Golden Boot by accident, Serbian international Aleksandar Katai has looked good in the early going, and Bastian Schweinsteiger is Bastian Schweinsteiger. So none of the below is to say the Fire don’t present danger on the attacking end. Especially when teams sit deep, there is more than enough in the Fire attack to punish opponents. But there are also some pretty fundamental structural issues.
It starts with Schweinsteiger, who isn’t really a ten. The Fire failed to go out and get a ten in the offseason, though, so Schweini will have to do there for now. As a result, though, his natural tendency will be to drop a bit deeper than your traditional 4-2-3-1 number-ten, which means it will shape up like a 4-3-3 at times.
But here’s the problem: Virtually every successful 4-3-3 has at least one player (usually a winger), who is a field-stretcher; somebody who can be enough of a threat to get in behind backlines to keep backlines from pressing high and compressing the field for the central-midfield triangle.
Chicago doesn’t really have that. Nikolic is as clinical as anybody in MLS and is reasonably athletic, but he’s not a field-stretcher. Katai isn’t a direct winger at all; he’ll play with a great deal of positional freedom and pop up in multiple unexpected spots in midfield. The challenge with Katai will be tracking him and making sure he doesn’t create overloads, not making sure he doesn’t get in behind. And although Luis Solignac is a reasonably well-rounded attacker, he’s also not the type to make fullbacks hesitate to bomb on or to exploit space in behind with a team presses.
All told, therefore, if Savarese is looking for a chance to get back on the pressing horse, Saturday may be it. An opponent with a quality, but athletically-limited frontline; a work-in-progress central midfield; and a weak backline presents a near-perfect opportunity to go on the road, play on the front foot, and look to dominate on the way to three points.