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Know the Enemy: Chicago Fire

No, not the TV show

MLS: Chicago Fire at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been awhile since the Caps have seen the Chicago Fire—July of last year to be exact, when the Caps won 3-2 at BC Place. The matchups have often produced some interesting moments in recent years from the Fire beating Vancouver down at Toyota Park in 2017 (roh ruh) to the Great Masato Kudo Punch Out of 2016 (which culminated in the Great Blas Perez Bicycle Kick of 2016. Good times).

The Fire were busy this past offseason, bringing in a variety of fresh faces. That’s included into this season, with the TAM signing of former Argentina international Nicolas Gaitan from China (who we learn below may well make his full debut Friday).

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for the Fire so far this season, losing an up-and-down match to LA Galaxy in week 1 before overcoming a red card and an early Orlando City goal to earn a 1-1 draw. They proceeded to get thrashed by Seattle 4-2, beat New York Red Bulls and draw with Toronto FC 2-2. The lesson? We don’t really know which Fire team will show up on Friday.

But we turned to our good friends over at Hot Time in the Old Town to help us get acquainted with their team ahead of tomorrow’s matchup. Read on to learn how Vancouver might negate CJ Sapong, the Fire’s leading scorer, how they could exploit a ramshackle defense and what Gaitan brings to the table.

1. The Caps don’t get to see the Fire very often. What has changed for the Fire since the two teams last met in July of 2018?

Since last year, the Fire have lost both starting fullbacks, gotten back their starlet of an attacking Midfielder in Djordje Mihailovic, finally seemed to replace David Accam with Przemysław Frankowski, and signed CJ Sapong. This offense has the potential to rack up goals at an amazing rate. Unfortunately Sapong seems to be the only one on form enough to score goals consistently but they create a lot of chances.

On the Defensive end they lost both outside backs; brandon Vincent to retirement, and Matt Polster to Scotland. They signed a quality center back to pair with Johan Kappelhof in Marcelo, although the conversion of Bastian Schweinsteiger to centerback and the right back hole have pushed Kappelhof out wide. And most importantly over the last two games, Mo Adams has revealed himself to be the midfield destroyer that the club has desperately needed for a long time now. Mo is capable of shutting down the best playmakers in the league, and is a brick wall if you try to dribble around him. He’s the real reason the Fire look better defensively the last two games, and will be the key to victory if the Fire win on Friday.

2. Entering this season, it seemed as though depth on the defensive side of the ball was a real concern. Does that remain true and, if so, how can the Caps exploit that (especially given the injury to Raheem Edwards)?

The defensive depth is still a concern, especially with the fact that the Fire are playing two converts at outside back; both Jeremiah Gutjahr and Johan Kappelhof are center backs traditionally. However, the two games that have been played with the current back four have been a clean sheet win over the Red Bulls, and held TFC to two goals after they dropped a 4 spot on NYCFC the week previous.

The best way to exploit the Fire are to run at their two weakest players, Gutjahr the rookie, and Bastian Schweinsteiger. If you can get Basti on his back foot, he’s not a good one vs one defender. He’ll over commit to challenges leaving him off balance and vulnerable to being crossed over, or he’ll give up fouls in dangerous places. As for Gutjahr, He’s a rookie. He hasn’t been tested all that heavily, but I’m sure that if you run at him enough, the rookie mistakes will eventually show up. It’s inevitable.

3. CJ Sapong looks to have been an inspired signing, with three goals to his name already this season. What does Vancouver need to shut him down?

The real problem with defending CJ Sapong is that you’re going to have to do it one vs one. The real reason Sapong is getting all these other opportunities is because the Fire’s other attacking threats, Nikolic, Katai, and Frankowski are being concentrated on so heavily by defenses, that Sapong is able to take advantage and score goals. If you want to shift attention to Sapong, you risk letting the others in the Fire attack overwhelm you. And one of these days, all the chances the Fire create will be converted into goals.

Bonus: The Nicolas Gaitan signing seemed to really excite Fire fans. Any word on if he might be making his full debut Friday and what does he bring to the team?

We don’t really know what he brings other than what’s been speculated, to be quite honest. In his hour or so on the pitch, he’s been okay, but not all that spectacular. We know he’s a playmaker, and integrating himself into the team is going to take some time. I do expect him to start on Friday, if only because it’s a short week and Djordje started against Toronto,