BRIDGEVIEW, IL – Last season, Vejlko Paunovic turned his Chicago Fire SC around in a nearly worst-to-first fashion. The Fire were in a battle for the top spot in MLS all season long.
After re-tooling this season, however, Chicago has struggled to find consistent form.
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Chicago Fire SC (5W-7L-5D; 20pts, 7th in the East)
Chicago has had a frustrating season from an outsider’s perspective. Early wins against both Columbus and the Red Bulls – teams now both vying for the Supporter’s Shield – seemed to indicate that despite early struggles this team could still hang with the best in the league. Indeed, Chicago are unbeaten in their last four matches, but they’re only getting draws against bottom-feeding teams like Colorado and Seattle.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty are still anchoring the Chicago midfield, and Nemanja Nikolic is still up front pounding away at goal (6). Paunovic has added another impact player – Aleksandar Katai – on loan from Alaves in La Liga. The 27-year-old Serb can play anywhere as an attacking midfielder or forward – and well. Katai currently has a goal or an assist in six of Chicago’s last seven matches.
Chicago is not without their absences. Then-rookie midfielder Djordje Mihailovic (1 goal, 2 assists in 17 appearances in 2017) suffered an ACL rupture in the playoffs of last year and is still sidelined after repair surgery. Michael de Leeuw and Matt Polster – also Chicago mainstays – both suffered ACL and MCL tears respectively and will be out. Finally, defensive midfielder Johan Kappelhoff, who had been making spot starts as a centerback, is serving a suspension.
New York City FC (9W-3L-4D; 31pts, 2nd in the East)
Domè Torrent will be on the touchline for his first away match with NYCFC. The Pigeons haven’t lost a match to Chicago since 2015, when Ryan Meara went for a walk outside the box and was immediately punished by David Accam (#RedBullDNA). In the six matches since then, NYCFC has gone 3-0-3 with a +5 goal differential. Also of note, NYCFC seems to like being penalized against Chicago, as they’ve twice seen red in that same span (winning once and drawing once).
NYCFC has had their own struggles with consistency as of late, but have begun Torrent’s tenure on the right foot. After beginning 2018 unbeaten in their first seven matches, they are 4W-3L-2D in their last nine. Their away record has continued to look strong, playing to a 2W-3L-3D line that reflects the 13W-14L-7D combined mark after Patrick Vieira took over in 2016.
Jo Inge Berget may have at last broken out of his goal slump, netting two against a depleted Toronto FC defense last weekend. With David Villa out for at least this week, Berget will once again line up as City’s #9. In fact, we may (and should!) see an identical lineup to the one we saw last weekend. Torrent has commented that it will take about two weeks for him to implement his own touches to the club, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.