Annnnddd ACTION! Your Hoops are back with a bang this week after the international break gave everyone a chance to take one last breath before the sprint to the finish. This week, FC Dallas travels north to Chicago to take on the Fire.
After a very mediocre first five months of the season, the Fire have warmed up over their last six games with three wins, two losses, and a draw to kind of jump back into the Eastern conference playoff race. With four games left to play, they have 34 points are behind seventh place New England by five points.
After two wins in a row, Dallas is back up to seventh in the West with 43 points, with almost every playoff spot still within reach, but also a playoff miss as well.
The Brimstone Cup is up for grabs this week in one of the oldest “rivalries” in MLS. If at one time you remember this being an important fixture on the schedule, congrats! You’re getting old (#Sorrynotsorry). But fret not, for time brings things back again. What was old can be new. And this game, while clearly no longer a rivalry, has the potential for something special. You see, Dallas is fighting for its playoff life. Right in the thick of things in the West, they are one point up on the LA Galaxy for the final playoff spot. They are tied with Portland for sixth/seventh, one point behind San Jose for fifth, two behind Minnesota in fourth, and only three points (!) behind Real Salt Lake and Seattle for second/third place. With a win this week, and other results going our way, we could vault way up the standings.
Chicago on the other hand, are playing like it’s already the playoffs. With five points between them and the playoff line, they haven’t been eliminated yet. But one slip-up and they are for sure done. But with big improvements over the past month, they still have reason to believe that, however slim the margin, they can make it to the playoffs. Let’s dive in and see what desperation looks like and how Dallas can put them out of their misery.
It all starts, as with every team, in the back…. ummmm wait, what? That’s right. The defense. If ever there was a team held back by a sputtering, crumbling, wayward defense, it’s the Fire. Or rather, it was the Fire. Rather than go through the whole season history, I’ll summarize like this, since the arrival of Jonathon Bornstein, the Fire average one goal against per game, where they previously averaged 1.5 goals against per game. That doesn’t sound like much, but its comparable – over the course of this season – to the difference between Atlanta (1.57) and Columbus (1.07). I’m not trying to be cute with stats or disingenuous. It’s a small sample, it’s out of context with a few things, it doesn’t factor in X, Y, or Z. And yet, game after game, article after article, the difference the new left back has made in relation to overall team improvement cannot be denied. He’s steadied the boat and created a ripple effect that’s moving everyone else into the right spot. For a slightly fuller picture, check out these articles from Hot Time in Old Town.
Now, the next part of this was also a bit revelatory to me. Bastian Schweinsteiger is now a central defender…I’ll let that sink in. One of the greatest midfielders of his generation…is now a full time centerback. And you know what, he’s pretty good at it. It helps having dedicated defenders around him such as Francisco Calvo as his centerback partner and Bornstein and Johan Kappelhof out wide. This group has been able to lock down the back (since the arrival of Bornstein) and pull Chicago back into the playoff chase. Where the defense was a liability for most of the season, they have now become a strength. If only they could have figured it out sooner.
Another change that Bornstein has helped with is the midfield partnership of Dax McCarty and Brandt Bronico. With less mind to worry about covering a weak link in the back, McCarty and Bronico are now free to focus on stopping attacks higher up the field. McCarty has always been a good reader of the game, and solid in a tackle. It appears he’s teaching those attributes to Bronico now to, who was a Fire Superdraft pick from 2017. This is also where I bring up Schweinsteiger again, because now that the back is more secure, Coach Veljko Paunovic has allowed Schweiny to push a bit higher up when Chicago is in possession. He’s allowing him to roam a bit more and be a deep, deep-lying playmaker. And that’s a dangerous weapon to have.
Now, across the attack we find a collection of players who should really worry Dallas. Up top is striker Nemanja Nikolic. Although 11 goals don’t sound amazing, he’s only two season removed from a 24 goal campaign. He’s a classic center forward that moves around the back line, making runs to open up space for others, but then popping up in the box to poach easy goals. Beside him could be CJ Sapong (10 goals/2 assists), Aleksandar Katai (4g/6a) or Przemyslaw Frankowski (2g/7a). All three players bring something slightly different to the table, but they have all managed to be productive. Which brings us finally to Chicago’s biggest transfer of the season, Nicolas Gaitan. With four goals and 10 assists on the season, Gaitan has operated as the team’s central playmaker. If Paunovic has the Fire line up in the above formation, Gaitan will be in the center of the action, pulling strings all around.
Key Matchup: Coach Luchi Gonzalez vs Coach Veljko Paunovic
Ha, threw you a curveball there didn’t I? No this is not a cop-out because I’m running out of players to name and needed something new….well, not fully. You see, with Bryan Acosta out due to card accumulation, there is a real possibility we have another under-age midfield that runs out this weekend. We may see the return of Edwin Cerrillo to the starting lineup or might Luchi move Jesus Ferreria down to the 10 spot. Either of those two alongside Paxton Pomykal and Brandan Servania will be light on “experience” so to speak. And against a veteran laden squad in Chicago, that can be tough. So does Luchi roll with the kids, betting they can deliver or does he insert a veteran like Bressan or Jacori Hayes into the middle to help contain Chicago. On the flip side, Paunovic is a known tactics tinkerer. Will he be able to get the most out of his vets and get them playing right, or will he try something new and see it backfire?
Three Keys to the Game
1. The Cobra – How could it be anything or anyone else. Zdenek Ondrasek has been a revelation over the past few games. While most of us (hand raised) derided the offseason signing, he’s proved his worth this past month. Hopefully a two-week layoff doesn’t knock him out of the awesome groove he was in.
2. Challenge the Keeper – Chicago has had a rough go of things with their net minders this season. First it was David Ousted who started the first 13 games of the season and kept only four clean sheets. Next and now, keeper Kenneth Kronholm has kept things…bad… with just three clean sheets in his 16 games. Both keepers give up about 1.4 goals per game, but the main rap on Kronholm is how poor his decision-making is. Either in the air, or with the ball at his feet, he’s a liability. Dallas needs to take advantage.
3. Don’t Lose – No. Duh. Ok but hear me out. While a win is best case every time, we know how it works in MLS – points are hard to come by on the road. Dallas is no longer in position to come up empty handed. If they can’t get a win, they sure as heck can’t lose either.
For Dallas, this is a test of a different sort. Usually teams with the talent on this Chicago team aren’t playing desperation games this late in the season. To stack them up, talent vs talent, Chicago should be competing at the top of the Eastern Conference rather than clawing at the bottom. So, when Dallas steps on the field in Chicago, they must be hyper aware that the said talent in the other half, isn’t just looking to play spoiler, they are trying to get to the playoffs to prove the talent they have is more than what they’ve shown. Are Chicago’s chances of making it to the promised land good – no, at 14% or something I believe. But winning out might be enough to get them in, that’s how close it will be. Dallas needs to come out and take control of this game as quickly as possible, because that clawing feeling Chicago has will then start to pull them apart. On the flip side, should Dallas lose…well, they will feel that desperation themselves. I think it goes 2-2 in this one, but I’m sure hoping the Hoops prove me wrong.