What is Week 8’s can’t-miss match?
Beyond the necessary advisory that we here at MLSsoccer.com value every single MLS game equally, just like a parent loves each child, several items on the weekend schedule draw the eye.
Vancouver's Friday night visit to Sporting KC should be fun. Columbus need to arrest a three-game losing skid when the New England Revolution hit Cowtown. The star-studded LA Galaxy-Atlanta United matchup will suck up a lot of oxygen, and Seattle and Portland host big national-TV games on Sunday.
To be brutally honest, it’s mostly about the visitors.
The Fire were one of the top teams in the league for most of 2017, reeling off an 11-game unbeaten streak (8-0-3) from mid-May to early July and keeping pace with mighty Toronto FC in the Supporters’ Shield race deep into the dog days of summer.
The head-turning arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger, and the maturation of the plans laid by coach Veljko Paunovic and GM Nelson Rodriguez, restored the competitiveness of a proud club fallen on years of hard times, making the 2017 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target -- vs. Real Madrid at Soldier Field -- a worthy celebration of a great soccer city that had finally vaulted itself back into the national conversation.
That framed this season as a second act, another shot at wreaking havoc among the MLS elite with headliners like Schweinsteiger, Golden Boot holder Nemanja Nikolic and midfield metronome Dax McCarty. But the Men in Red have hardly hit the ground running, slumping to a 1-3-1 start marked by dropping eight of the 12 points on offer at their Toyota Park home, which we learned on Thursday will become SeatGeek Stadium at season’s end.
To seize on the lame but inevitable pun: The Fire have work to do to make theirs a red-hot ticket, and to convince the rest of MLS that they’re for real in 2018.
McCarty and Schweinsteiger | USA Today Sports Images
Last year’s success was built around the iron central midfield triangle of Schweinsteiger, McCarty and loanee Juninho, which provided a solid foundation for the creativity and dynamism of David Accam and Michael de Leeuw to serve Nikolic’s rapier-sharp finishing.
But Juninho returned to Club Tijuana over the winter, Accam was traded to Philadelphia and de Leeuw is out long-term with an ACL injury. The club certainly didn’t stand pat, bringing in Aleksandar Katai, Alan Gordon and a host of younger names in the offseason, even if Rodriguez himself has called the current roster “incomplete.” Yet the new version of the Fire has thus far looked like a pale shadow of last year’s best, and it hasn’t helped that regulars like Matt Polster, Luis Solignac and Djordje Mihailovic have been sidelined by injury.
Saturday’s visit from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy showed both what’s possible and what’s problematic in Chicago. A sellout crowd braved a nasty cold front to cheer their team on against MLS royalty in front of a national-television audience, and the Fire kept pace with and at times roundly outpaced the Galaxy. Yet when a clutch moment was required, it was Ibrahimovic rising over Schweinsteiger to nod home the game-winner from six yards out.
That disheartening moment distilled several of the challenges facing Paunovic at present. Capitalizing on a moment of broken play, LA left back Ashley Cole was able to pick up a loose ball in acres of space, a pocket opening up between right wingback Johan Kappelhof and rookie midfielder Elliot Collier in the Fire’s 5-3-2 that gave Cole ample opportunity to ping a sharp cross onto Zlatan’s famous head.
The delivery cut out Schweinsteiger, who’s brought useful organizational skills in his new sweeper role but is simply not a natural center back. And it left McCarty, Kappelhof and Jonathan Campbell, the central triangle that anchored last year’s defensive shape, helpless, hapless bystanders. Moving his German World Cup winner deeper helped to plug some leaks after Chicago conceded five goals in their opening two games. But Paunovic has seen it set off dominoes elsewhere, with Collier, Tony Tchani and Katai not quite filling the shoes of their predecessors and Nikolic forced to adapt to a new lay of the land up front.
“We’re below average right now and the results speak to that,” said McCarty postgame. “It’s not easy times right now, we’re just lacking a little bit of quality all over the field. That’s the brutal, honest truth. You have to be honest with yourself. When you reflect on teams and on games, you have to be honest and say that we’ve been second-best most of the season.”
There’s been a minor stir around Toyota Park this week because of how markedly those words contrasted with Paunovic’s mostly positive talk of “growing” and “getting better.” But when a respected veteran like McCarty speaks this way, people listen, and rightly so.
Granted, it’s possible for both of them to be right here, though the situation does point to the urgency that hangs over the Fire – or should, at least.
Schweinsteiger remains the key cog in this machine. He turns 34 in August and his body showed difficulties with the MLS grind down the stretch last year. He can be Chicago’s man of the match in just about any position on the pitch – “he can even play as a goalkeeper,” joked Paunovic last week. But if you remove him from the engine room, it leaves a hole that few in MLS, let alone the Windy City, can fill.
Chicago have been linked to the likes of Lee Nguyen and Juan Quintero and Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres – and others – in recent months. They still have time to make moves before the MLS primary transfer window closes on May 1, and there’s always the summer market, too. In the meantime, however, Paunovic can squeeze plenty more out of what he’s already got, and with the Fire already near the back of the Eastern Conference pack, he needs to do so quickly.
McCarty clashes with RBNY's Tyler Adams during the 2017 Knockout Round | USA Today Sports Images
Saturday’s visit to Red Bull Arena, where RBNY’s home-field advantage is as strong as any in the league, would be a perfect time to catch a spark. It’s a chance for revenge, as it marks these teams’ first meeting since the Red Bulls rudely, emphatically and prematurely ended the Fire’s 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a 4-0 upset last fall, the latest in their seven-game unbeaten streak vs. Chicago. And it’s a big stage on which to make a statement, with a wide audience on Univision and Twitter, the second of Chicago’s five scheduled appearances on national TV.
A formation change? Improvement from the current XI? Fresh blood off the bench like Jon Bakero or Daniel Johnson? Paunovic and Schweinsteiger have faced and conquered far bigger challenges than this in their careers, but this is their next one.
“We have not been in good form, even though there have been improvements in terms of generating game and possession. Now we face one of the best teams in the league in their stadium. It won’t be easy, but we do not lack in courage and motivation because this is a great opportunity to show our improvement,” Paunovic said this week.
“Anyone can beat anyone in this league, and even if we have not had good performances against them, it is a good opportunity to hit them right in the heart, meaning in their own stadium, where they feel comfortable.”