Erik Palmer-Brown -- Kicks -- At Ilsinho

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Erik Palmer-Brown has already been called upon to step up in central defense for Sporting Kansas City. Now the United States captain at this year’s Under-20 World Cup is preparing to face his biggest challenge to date this season.

The Chicago Fire visit Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE), fresh off their first loss in league play since April at NYCFC last week. Striker Nemanja Nikolic will be looking to add to his MLS-leading 16-goal tally and get the resurgent side back on track.

“He’s a strong forward, a good finisher,” Palmer-Brown told earlier this week. “You can’t give him too many opportunities. You’ve just got to play as hard as you can.”

The 20-year-old Homegrown center back has been doing just that of late, making three straight starts across all competitions – with two full-90 outings in MLS play and a 120-minute showing when Sporting beat FC Dallas 3-0 on July 11 in a wild quarterfinal of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Over those three starts, Sporting are unbeaten and have conceded just twice, with Palmer-Brown – while still showing his youth on occasion – making a number of big plays in the back. There’s every likelihood that he’ll be called upon to do the same against Chicago.

Ike Opara returned to training this week after sustaining a Grade 3 concussion in the Open Cup quarterfinals, but is not expected to be available on Saturday. Matt Besler is finished with CONCACAF Gold Cup duty for the US national team, but he went the full 90 in Wednesday’s hard-fought 2-1 win over Jamaica in the title match.

That could leave Palmer-Brown playing a big role – if not the leading role for the second straight match – against Nikolic. Throw in David Accam, who has 11 MLS goals for the Fire this season, and that’s a doubly daunting challenge even with Besler in the XI.

Palmer-Brown said he’s looking forward to it.

“You like to test yourself, and I think it’s a great opportunity for whoever’s defending him, whoever’s out there on the pitch,” he said. “You get excited for those moments. You think that you want to be the one to shut him down.”

Sporting aren’t relying only on their backline to deal with Nikolic, though.

“When a player comes with this level of confidence, we have to be ready for him, but we have to be ready as a team,” defensive midfielder Ilie said. “You cannot mark him as individuals. You have to have good defensive tactics. I hope that he will not have a good day and we can control him.”