The Chicago Fire head out west for an afternoon match-up against the San Jose Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium. The Fire are coming off back-to-back victories for the first time since July 2017 after defeating Minnesota United at SeatGeek Stadium.
To make it three wins in a row, the team will have to do it without two of its star players in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nico Gaitán. The German defender/midfielder picked up his fifth yellow card against Minnesota and is suspended for the match. The Argentine misses the match after suffering what the team is calling a “thigh injury” and not a hamstring injury as first feared.
Schweinsteiger and Gaitán have been responsible for the Fire’s turnaround in their last couple of games. Not being able to count on them is going to severely affect not only how the team plays, but also in how they line up. Especially with the absence of the latter, the Fire looked a completely different team.
Despite those two absences, there is still room for optimism.
San Jose is coming off a loss against the New England Revolution -a team the Fire beat comfortably- and sit ninth in the Western Conference. They also possess a pretty abhorrent goal differential of -8, so the Fire, even without the Argentine, should be able to create at least a couple of goal-scoring opportunities.
But the Fire do need to be careful because all three of San Jose’s wins this season have come at home and despite losing to New England, the team has been performing better as they look to have bought into Matias Almeyda’s tactics and the Fire have had their problems with opposition who they should be beating.
What to watch for
Who replaces Nico Gaitán?
The big question for this game, and going forward, is who the Fire deploy to take over for the injured Argentine. When he was subbed out last game, Brandt Bronico took his place on the field but Bronico does not really possess the same attributes as Gaitán. We could see Djordje Mihailovic move up and occupy that space. It’s where he was used earlier in the season before Nico’s arrival.
Another option could be CJ Sapong, who has recuperated from his injury. The question then becomes who plays through the middle because neither he, Katai, or Frankowski typically play there. Regardless of what Paunovic decides, this game will be the testing ground for the first experiment on how they will make up for Gaitán’s absence moving forward.
Aiming for a fourth straight clean sheet
The Fire’s defense had been a weakness last season as well as early on this season. But ever since they decided to move Schweinsteiger back to defense, the club has kept three consecutive shut-outs all the while winning two of those and drawing the other. With him being suspended, Paunovic now is tasked with replacing the leader of that backline.
Fortunately for him and the Fire, Francisco Calvo has been plugged in straight away and played really well in his first few games. However, that’s been in a back three with Kappelhof, Schweinsteiger, and the aforementioned Calvo. The question with the defense is how the manager tinkers with that assuming Marcelo is still unavailable. If he does go to a back-four with Calvo and Kappelhof as the center-backs, that means Corrales goes back to left-back and either Frankowski or Campos as makeshift right-backs.
We’ve seen how much the Fire struggled and how predictable their attacks become when using that backline. With their only other defender in Grant Lillard being loaned out, the Fire are left with really no center-back options so a move back to what we saw earlier in the season is the most likely scenario.
Breaking another dubious record
The Fire are coming off winning consecutive games for the first time in nearly two years. Getting that proverbial monkey off their back is important and should give them the confidence to break another poor record when it comes to playing outside SeatGeek Stadium.
Chicago have not won a game away from home in their last 17 road games. They’ve drawn five and lost twelve, and they know that if they want to contend for a playoff spot, they need to start performing better on the road. Dax McCarty said as much in his postgame interview after their last game.
If the Fire want to break that record, there’s no time like the present and against San Jose who, despite playing better as of late, are still trying to find themselves under a new manager.