Following yet another match at Soldier Field where the Fire found a way to settle for a draw off a late goal, the Fire head to Nashville looking to get their season back on track – or at least avoid a repeat of their last visit.
Nashville will be looking to continue the form they had against Atlanta last week, where they cruised to a 3-1 victory in a match that always seemed firmly in their hands.
The teams didn’t meet in 2022 but will be seeing a lot more of each other in the future as Nashville has returned to the Eastern Conference after a year away.
All time: 0W-2D-1L, 2GF, 6 GA
Last Match: September 6th, 2021: Fire 0- 0 Nashville at Soldier Field
Record: 4W-3D-3L (15pts)
Nashville cruised comfortably to a 3-1 victory over Atlanta United last week. Although a Thiago Almada penalty off of a Dax McCarty foul pulled Atlanta to within a goal in the 72nd minute, Nashville continued playing confidently, and the outcome didn’t feel like it was truly in doubt. Prior to that, they beat lower-division San Antonio FC in the US Open Cup and had a draw at home against high-powered LAFC on April 22. Their last defeat came the week before that, where they lost 2-1 at NYCFC. Their only defeat at home this season came March 25 against FC Cincinnati.
Record: 2W-5D-2L (11pts)
Coaches often preach the importance of consistency, but the Fire have been consistently dropping points late in matches. Following a 3-0 victory over Chicago House AC in the U.S. Open Cup, they hosted the New York Red Bulls last Saturday. In an all-too-familiar script, they snatched a draw out of the mouth of victory, with Cory Burke finding an 89th minute equalizer after Kei Kamara opened the scoring late in the first half.
The narrative around the two teams is very different – Nashville are already being spoken of as one of the best teams in the East, and a lock for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year (and fourth year in the league), while the Fire are spoken of as a carbon-copy of last year (and the previous year’s) editions, that is, enjoying time off when the playoffs start.
Despite that, their records aren’t radically different – the Fire have 11 points and a game in hand; if they manage a win, they’ll be just a single point behind Nashville, ahead of them on points per game basis, and firmly in a playoff spot entering the 3rd full month of the MLS regular season.
That doesn’t, however, explain how this matchup feels going in. The Fire’s most recent loss was away to Atlanta, a team that then traveled to Nashville and never looked like they were capable of winning the game.
With the ‘Yotes back in the Eastern Conference, matches between the two teams are going to be more common again, and the Fire will be looking for their first-ever victory against Nashville after their getting drummed 5-1 by the home team in their only previous visit.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Out: Nick DePuy
Questionable: Fafà Picault, Randall Leal
Much like the New York Red Bulls last week, Nashville is a team that plays a brand of high-energy soccer built around being able to kill you from counters. Unlike the Red Bulls, Nashville has Hany Mukhtar. Mukhtar, the 2022 MLS MVP, has arguably been the league’s best player again this season (Thiago Almada fans, come at me), and set up all three of the ‘Yotes goals last week against Atlanta.
He’s the creative driving force behind the attack, but he can also score goals: 23 of them last season in 32 games, and his three goals between the 10th and 16th minutes the last time Chicago went to Nashville stands as the fastest hat trick in league history. (Fortunately, the Fire won’t have Johan Kappelhof effectively playing for Nashville while wearing a Fire uniform in this match.)
The team most often starts in a 4-4-2 – possibly because, despite Mukhtar’s goal-scoring prowess, he’s more of a creative #10 than he is a sniper, and Nashville is short on proven strikers in the traditional sense – or possibly because Nashville SC Head Coach Gary Smith is English, and you can take the lad out of England, but you’ll have to pry the 4-4-2 from his cold, dead hands. The team has, however, also lined up in a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-5-2 this season.
Regardless of formation, the philosophy typically remains the same: Be defensively solid, score a goal off a set piece, and then, with the opponent down a goal and forced to go on the attack, score more goals on quick counters. Having said that, they do have the talent to build out from the back and possess the ball, with players like Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moore as likely starters on the back line, and a talented midfield including former Chicago Fire captain Dax McCarty and Nashville has played a more possession-oriented game at home.
Up top, Mukhtar will likely be partnered with veteran Teal Bunbury or the younger Jacob Shaffelburg. Shaffelburg can also play in the midfield, however, and with regular starting midfielder Fafà Picault likely out with injury, Smith will likely put Shaffelburg there. He might also choose to play Luke Haakenson in his place again, who has so far been used as a sub in limited minutes, given that like the Fire, they have two games in the week ahead. As always, Alex Calabrese has an opposition report for a Nashville-based perspective on the match.
Out: Victor Bezerra
Predicting who will be in the Fire’s starting XI is starting to become an exercise in madness: Hendrickson has insisted that the best starting lineup for the team includes Shaqiri and Jairo Torres if they are healthy, which all but certainly means disrupting the Fire’s attacking midfield trio of Chris Mueller, Brian Gutiérrez and Maren Haile-Selassie as a result, even if the team has played noticeably better with those three on the field together.
Adding to the Through the Looking Glass vibes of roster prediction, we’ve sometimes been told retroactively that players were injured, even if they were listed as healthy before the match. That, apparently, is why Wyatt Omsberg didn’t make the gameday roster last week against the Red Bulls.
More confusingly, Shaqiri started the week prior against Atlanta (though he was listed as questionable), was still listed as questionable for the U.S. Open Cup match midweek (though he wouldn’t have been expected on a gameday roster for that game anyways), was listed as healthy by Saturday… and then we were told after that he wasn’t a starter not because of Gutiérrez’s strong performance at the #10 role, but instead because Shaqiri wasn’t healthy.
Throw in the fact that we’ve seen three nominally attacking midfielders find their way to the double pivot (Herbers, Gutiérrez, and Torres, before he was injured), and left back Alonso Aceves get his first start at as a winger (admittedly, against an amateur opponent), and making these predictions is becoming a fool’s errand – or at least one that’s prone to making the author look like a fool.
The formation, however, remains much simpler to predict: As they have for all but one match this season, the Fire are likely to start the game in a 4-2-3-1.
Brady will start in net. Czichos will be in front of him. Souquet and Navarro are all but locks at starters. The fourth spot in the back line? Carlos Terán left the match early with an apparent injury and hasn’t been practicing with the team. He’s not on the injury report that the team sent out, but he hasn’t been practicing with the team this week.
Wyatt Omsberg is also not on the report, but he was apparently hurt enough to be off the gameday roster entirely a week ago (despite him being listed as available pre-match), but has been practicing with the team. So: I think Wyatt will play, and if he can’t, expect Mauricio Pineda in his stead.
Ahead of him is even more of a mystery – Federico Navarro and Gastón Giménez are the best options at double pivot, but they’re working their way back from injury and Hendrickson has said that means limited minutes. Brian Gutiérrez, Mauricio Pineda, Fabian Herbers and Jairo Torres have played there this season. Hendrickson has been clear that both Navarro and Giménez are working their way back to full match fitness, but in a game against a team like Nashville, they should start: Much of Nashville’s success last week against Atlanta in a 4-2-3-1 came because the ‘Yotes were able to play through the midfield unimpeded, and Fede and Gastón give the team the best shot at a different outcome than Atlanta had.
When Brian Gutiérrez started in the #10 spot last Saturday, with Shaqiri not on the injured or questionable list, many Fire fans believed that Hendrickson had seen the light and Guti would be the starter going forward. Asked about Shaqiri’s substitute appearance in the match, however, Hendrickson said that it was a fitness issue on Shaqiri’s part that gave the young homegrown the start. Still, Guti has been the best player at the position, and it’s a particularly hard knock to keep him from the U-20 World Cup, saying he’s indispensable to the team then bench him despite his strong play. So let’s say he’ll start alongside Chris Mueller and Maren Haile-Selassie.
Up top, Kei Kamara should again get the start. Partly because he’s the most goal-dangerous player the Fire have, partly because Henrickson seems on a mission to make his former teammate’s 38-year-old joints ache worse than his 51-year-old joints, leaving his most dangerous striker on the pitch for 90 minutes last week, even as he substituted off all three players behind huim.
Is this likely to be the XI that actually starts? No, but thanks for the company down this rabbit hole.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Strong in the Middle: Nashville was able to dismantle Atlanta due in large part to the fact that the defensive midfield duo of Matheus Rossetto and Santiago Sosa struggled to contain Nashville. Giménez and Federico Navarro – or whoever is playing the double pivot – must do a better job, and if they do, Nashville’s bite will be limited.
- No parking, please: For the umpteenth time this season, Hendrickson has substituted off attacking options for defenders with a narrow lead. This may have partly been an attempt to change the team’s shape, but to what is unclear because opposing teams played through it effectively enough that we never figured it out, and the Fire were punished as a result. Teams that don’t play to win find ways not to, and that’s been the Fire’s lot far too much this season.
- Play like you practice: Nashville are very dangerous on set pieces, and their MO is to score off one then make the game come to them and punish you for it on counters. The Fire have seemingly lost the ability to count to 11 off of set pieces. They have left players entirely unmarked off of pieces and lost points as a result – typically late in games but the point stands. Assuming that this isn’t an issue in practice – and that at this point Hendrickson has the team practicing defending off of set pieces a lot – the team needs to flip the old adage and play as hard as they practice.
Shaqiri won’t be put in a position to succeed, will struggle again, and the Fire will lose despite a good fight.
Prediction: Nashville 2-1 Fire
“I don’t know. I can’t say. I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.” I just know it’s an L. Kamara might score again tho.
Prediction: Nashville 3-1 Fire
The Fire dig deep for a point in a match where they are second best.
Prediction: Nashville 1-1 Fire
Considering we lost to Atlanta 2-1 and Nashville just beat Atlanta 3-1, things aren’t looking too great for us here. We also haven’t had a crazy defensive mistake in a while and we are certainly due for that. I just cannot see us putting up too much of a fight given our own recent results.
Prediction: Nashville 3-1 Fire
The last time the team played in Music City, they lost 5-1 and allowed Mukhtar to take the MLS record for fastest hat trick. They’ll improve on that this time. “Trust the process,” as the team has been saying.
Prediction: Nashville 3-1 Fire
‘Cause Imma be there.
Prediction: Nashville 0-2 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, May 6, 2023, 7:30PM CT
Location: GEODIS Park, Nashville, TN
Forecast: 73’ expected at kick off, with 70% humidity, winds SE at 8-12mph, 65% cloud cover and a 25% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: 890 WLS-AM (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)