Orlando City ended May on a good note after struggling to get results for most of the month. It was a far cry from the way March and April went. What June will bring remains to be seen but it’s safe to say none of us are taking points for granted.
If the Lions are going to start June off on the right foot, they’ll have to get past the hottest team in the league not named Toronto FC, a Chicago Fire side that has won four straight and is unbeaten in its last five. Orlando City hasn’t lost to Chicago in league play yet (2-0-3) but also hasn’t beaten the Fire at home (0-0-2). But it’s reasonable to assert that this is by far the best Chicago team that Orlando City has faced since entering MLS at the start of 2015.
Like Orlando City, Chicago is one of the Eastern Conference’s biggest turnaround stories in 2017. Is it as simple as adding Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger, or is there more to the Fire’s (pun intended) hot start?
Sean Spence: Better players make better football, absolutely - but the additions don't stop at Basti and Niko. I'd argue that adding Dax McCarty - whom y'all will miss because he's with the USA national team - was more important for the shape and attitude of the team than those two. And don't sleep on Juninho, who the Fire picked up on loan from Leon. In those two, the Fire had already revamped their central midfield with two Best XI level guys before Basti fell into their laps. In one offseason, the Men in Red went from building around a reactive, turnover-prone central midfield to possibly the most experienced, proactive and technically clean central midfield in MLS history. It's impossible to overstate the difference in terms of ability to control a game.
Niko was the type of striker the Fire have cried out for for literally years - a hungry dude who can finish both real chances and the odd rebound or half-look. Patrick Nyarko, now with DC, has to look at Niko's finishing ruefully after wasting his best years of elite chance creation for a succession of Chicago forwards who couldn't finish.
Not only is Chicago scoring goals, but the Fire also are tied for second in fewest goals conceded in the conference. What’s behind the team’s defensive renaissance?
SS: There's a few reasons the defense looks better. The first is that the defenders - particularly centerbacks Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira - were never as bad as they looked last year; the turnover-plagued midfield subjected those two to a sort of five-month-long fast-break drill. This year, their tasks are much more pedestrian, marking up runs and making the odd intervention instead of whirling in place as the entire place goes up in flames. This is perhaps the most telling contribution of Dax to the success of the team - his ability to ghost out runners and eliminate options on the break, combined with the quality of his passes out of pressure, relieve a tremendous amount of pressure on the centerbacks. Add in Schweinsteiger, who shows all the same abilities whenever he deems them important to the team at the moment, and you've got a tremendously strong defensive spine to this team; creating chances through the middle of the pitch is perilously difficult against the Fire. Finally, Kappelhof and Meira have played some pretty outstanding football for long stretches this season. Kappelhof is classier, the glider who intervenes at a crucial moment and can carry the ball forward. Meira is all sweat and labor, a guy who'll just sort of lean on a striker all day long, who oh-by-the-way is a 90-percent passer.
What on-the-field individual battles do you see as the deciding factor when Chicago and Orlando City meet?
SS: Jonathan Spector v Nemanja Nikolic: Niko's style is one that Spector should find familiar from his many years in England - the grinder, the goal-hungry poacher. It's maybe been a while since he's had to mark a guy like this, though. Niko is relentless.
Basti v Kaka: Germans take a lot of pleasure in dismantling Brazilians on the soccer field, and Basti is nothing if not a German. On his current form - since rounding into game shape a couple weeks ago - he's been an absolute force all over the pitch, a guy who can take over the game with telling passes or mark, say (and just off the top of my head) a slightly prissy Brazilian maestro completely out of a game. He plays with a weird combination of self-effacement and arrogance. If Ricky can get the better of Basti - a prospect I find highly unlikely - that would certainly bode well for the guys in purple.
Injuries/suspensions/projected lineup/score prediction?
SS: The Fire are really quite healthy. One potential starter who's a question mark is Juninho — the Brazilian has fought an ankle knock for the better part of a month, and his availability for Sunday's game is not certain. Rookie winger Daniel Johnson missed what would've been his first career start against DC United with a leg injury, so he's questionable as well. And, of course, Dax will be with the USA.
Predicted lineup (4-2-3-1): Matt Lampson; Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Matt Polster; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho; David Accam, Michael de Leeuw, Luis Solignac; Nemanja Nikolic.
Prediction: 1-2 Chicago in a game that's not that close.
Big thanks to Sean from Hot Time in Old Town for stopping by to help us learn more about the Chicago Fire.