#NYvCHI: Head-to-head, who are the clear favorites?

 

Hans Backe revealed Thursday that Luis Robles, who's got one MLS game (and a lot of bench time in Europe) under his belt, will stay between the pipes against the Fire. He showed well against Toronto (then again, who doesn't?), but this is still a clear weakness for New York.

GOALKEEPERS

  

Sean Johnson is capable of some egregious errors, as we've seen recently in his team's win over Columbus and loss vs. D.C. But he's also put in some of the season's best performances, including a 1-1 draw at San Jose this summer that was simply epic.

Hans Backe seems to have hit upon a quartet he trusts in Brandon Barklage, Markus Holgersson, Heath Pearce and Wilman Conde. They can be caught out, certainly, and they give up plenty of chances on set pieces, but they've rarely been overrun. Still, there have to be concerns about a group that lacks speed and experience playing together.

DEFENDERS

Up until the last 180 minutes, Chicago have had one of the steadiest defenses in the league. With Gonzalo Segares returning, they now have their preferred back four and a fair helping of desperation to get a result they want badly. The trust they've developed over the past several months together should serve them well vs. the RBNY attack.

Backe has said that he'll go with the team that dismantled Toronto, which means the Red Bulls get the nod in midfield. Joel Lindpere is a rock, Tim Cahill's been steady if not spectacular as a midseason DP, and both Jan Gunnar Solli and Lloyd Sam, if he plays, are capable at right midfield. The key, though, is using Dax McCarty as a true No. 6. When he's there, New York are very tough to beat.

MIDFIELDERS

Part of the reason Chicago have struggled recently is that Pável Pardo has been hurt. The Mexican legend is still one of the best string-pullers in the league and is way more active defensively than he gets credit for. If he's healthy this part of the field is pretty much a wash, but the fact that it's an "if" makes it tilt a little bit in NY's favor. Álvaro Fernández, by the way, is the wild card. If he's on, the Fire are tough to stop; if he's not, they can be handled easily.  

Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper have probably been the league's best forward tandem this season (all due respect to Wondo and Gordon). Henry's ability to both control the tempo and ignite the attack is unmatched in MLS, and Cooper's been solid running the channels and finishing efficiently all season. 

FORWARDS

Chris Rolfe was off-target against Sporting, then outright bad against Philadelphia. It was a drastic dip in form for a guy who was one of the league's best throughout the summer. Sherjill MacDonald is a load up top, but not really a top scoring threat. Even if the Fire were on form, the nod would go to NY here. 

"Despite, not because of" has been the mantra of New York fans throughout Backe's tenure. He tinkers when he doesn't need to, plays head games with his 'keeper, and only subs if he's at the point of a gun. It's always bizarre with the well-traveled Swede around.

MANAGER

Frank Klopas is Chicago soccer, and his players know and respect it. They play hard and dedicated soccer for him, and while I often question his in-game moves, his club has a habit of improving as the year goes on. The Fire have the obvious edge here.

Sébastien Le Toux, who has 30 goals and 22 assists over the past three seasons, comes of the bench. So does Solli, most likely. And Teemu Tainio, and Connor Lade, and Roy Miller and Stephen Keel. All these guys have played quality MLS minutes. The only issue with RBNY's bench is Backe's unwillingness to use them. 

BENCH

Chicago just don't have the same kind of quality, proven options to bring in. Dom Oduro scored a dozen goals last season and six more this year, but he's profligate. Alex has shown flashes from attacking midfield, but not much production. Other guys, like Dan Gargan and Daniel Paladini, are grinders, not game-changers.
New York rarely go into a game with a talent deficit, and that'll be the case again. It's always been about lining the pieces up correctly, which doesn't look like it's going to be an issue this time out. Add in home-field advantage, and they're clear favorites.

OVERALL

Which is not to say that Chicago should be counted out. Rolfe has seven goals in 15 career games against the Red Bulls, and frankly, they're too good a team to go on a three-game losing streak at this point in the season. So NY have the edge, but I'm calling it a draw.