It is game day around here as FC Dallas is getting set to take on the Chicago Fire in the annual Brimstone Cup match. As we try to do before each game, we welcome in a writer from the other side to get a better sense of our opponent. Today we welcome in Sean Spence from Hot Time In Old Town to discuss the Fire.
BDS: Chicago has been one of the bigger surprises in MLS this season with six wins in the first 12 weeks. What has been the biggest turn around both on and off the field that you've seen? Has it been all Bastian Schweinsteiger addition or is it more than that?
HTIOT: Yes, this is the biggest turnaround I've personally watched intently. DC's allocation-bonanza makeover in 2014 (i.e. the Andy Najar money-gusher) was a more dramatic one-year switch, imo, because the Chicago defense was really put together last year and is benefitting from that familiarity. The Fire's reconfiguration was essentially complete before Schweinsteiger fell into Chicago's lap in March, so it's certainly not all the German - Dax McCarty remains, in my opinion, the best defensive midfielder in the league, and Juninho has been instrumental in several dominant MLS midfield alignments. The improvement in central midfield has allowed everyone else on the field more freedom to do the things they're good at - with Dax et al snuffing out counters, it's a lot easier to feel comfortable trying things to unlock the defense.
BDS: Speaking of Schweinsteiger, how has Chicago responded to the addition of him on the team? Has it been a big boost to the gate numbers? Has he been worth the money so far?
HTIOT: Chicago's response to Schweinsteiger has been great, but it's been dwarfed by Basti's response to Chicago - the guy's Instagram is a walking Chicago Chamber of Commerce ad, as he and his tennis superstar wife get used to the shock of being able to see the sights without causing outsized public distrubances. Also, the sense of 'oh my god we can go out like normal people' in those shots is as effective an advertisement as is imaginable for the charms of MLS life for elite players. He seems to truly love living in Chicago. That's cranked the already-positive fan and supporter reaction upward; that virtuous cycle is ongoing at this time.
It's early days to count ROI on this deal, and the early data is mixed. The Fire did sell out a Saturday prime-time game against Seattle, which hasn't happened in a few years, but the attendance after that 4-1 curb-stomping drooped to less than 11k for a midweek clash against an unsexy Colorado side. It's likely that the people evaluating this acquisition will use rubrics other than simple dollars in/out; the growth of the Fire's Q-rating in the Chicago market, its continued exclusion from top-line coverage in major metro sports sections, and associated problems are likely to be part of any scoring.
He's been best on the field, though. I thought he'd be very good, and I underestimated him considerably. In Dax and Basti the Fire have a central midfield of steel and stone, clever and fierce and neat-footed. The German looks rejuvenated, increasingly exuberant and affecting. It's exciting to watch.
BDS: What are some keys for the Fire on Thursday to remain unbeaten at home?
HTIOT: Don't switch off: Dallas are mentally tough as nails, and won't be content to just ride out any deficit - marking and clearing set pieces will be crucial.
Don't let Dallas keep the ball: This will be a high-tempo, high-skill midfield scrum; it may not be possible to comprehensively win the midfield battle, but it is important not to lose it. Expect the center to become a maze of blood and bone.
David gonna David: Accam is the Fire's X-factor, his pace an unanswerable problem when put into the right situations. If the Fire can isolate him, that will create chances for Nemanja Nikolic, with Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac working complimentary runs.
Lineup prediction: Velko Paunovic has stuck with a stable XI through the recent run of good form, and there's no reason to expect that to change.
4-2-3-1: Matt Lampson; Matt Polster, Johan Kappelhof, Joao Meira, Brandon Vincent; Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Luis Solignac, Michael de Leeuw, David Accam; Nemanja Nikolic.