Finally, after 146 days of waiting, the Chicago Fire are playing in a game that matters on Saturday as they host New York City in their home and season opener. The visitors come to Soldier Field having lost on the road to Eastern Conference transplants Nashville and come to Chicago hungry for their first win since making it to the Eastern Conference Final of the MLS Cup Playoffs last year.
The Fire come rested and will be looking to start their season off with a win for the first time since 2009. According to Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson, the team is ready to surprise commentators around the league who gave the team very humble expectations going into the season and starting their campaign off with three points is a great way to start that.
To help set the stage for today’s match, be sure to check out MenInRed97’s 2023 Chicago Fire season preview, as well as our guides to the roster’s goalkeepers and defenders, midfielders, and forwards.
All time: Chicago Fire vs. NYCFC: 3W-5D-10L, 19 GF/ 30 GA, 14 pts out of 54
Last Match: August 21st, 2022: Chicago Fire 0 – 2 New York City FC at SeatGeek Stadium
New York City FC
NYCFC looked listless throughout their 2-0 loss to Nashville in last Saturday’s season opener. Although they held position for significant stretches, it was seldom – if ever – in dangerous areas of the pitch. Their struggles were a continuation of issues they had in the preseason, where they only managed a single win alongside two losses and three draws.
The Fire started their preseason on a hot streak, scoring nine goals in their first two matches before struggling to score, and lost 3-0 to Real Salt Lake in their only preseason game against an MLS opponent. They ended their preseason on a high note last Saturday as other MLS clubs were getting ready for their opening match, beating USL Championship team Indy Eleven 3-0 off of goals by Maren Haile-Selassie, acquired in the offseason from sister club FC Lugano, and homegrowns Missael Rodríguez and Victor Bezerra.
New York City FC
NYCFC has more modest expectations this season than they did as defending champions last year and project to be a playoff bubble team in the East. The club struggled with consistency last year after current head coach Nick Cushing replaced Ronny Deila when he departed for Europe last June. The team went on a lengthy losing streak through August and half of September – punctuated only by their 2-0 victory over the Fire. They seemed to turn the corner at the end of the regular season and found some success in the playoffs, making it as far as the Eastern Conference final thanks in no small part to the play of USMNT and former Fire GK Sean Johnson in net.
However, Johnson is gone, along with a host of his teammates from last season. While in previous years, NYCFC might have counted on reinforcements to arrive from throughout the City Football Group empire, with parent club Manchester City under the microscope, that hasn’t yet been the case. Instead, new replacements have been thin on the ground, having brought in goalkeeper Matt Freese from Philadelphia and winger Gabriel Pereira, as well as Braian Cufré and Mitja Ilenić to shore up the back line along with a couple of depth pieces. The team hasn’t undergone a full rebuild, but it isn’t the team the Fire faced last year, either.
Despite the roster turnover, the team will be looking to pick up the form that it found at the end of last season, and the team’s roster has recently been bolstered by recalling USMNT international James Sands from his loan in Scotland. The team’s first-ever homegrown signing was a key part of the team that won MLS Cup in 2021 and will be looking to make a similar impact this year. NYCFC’s home opener is next week, and Cushing’s side will do all that they can to avoid facing their fans with a losing record.
The Fire are rolling into MLS Matchday 2 undefeated, but not entirely by means of their own choosing, as both Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson and team captain Rafael Czichos made it clear that they’d rather have started the season playing rather than with a bye week.
Like NYCFC, the Fire had an offseason with more notable departures – headlined by goalkeeper Gaga Slonina and striker Jhon Durán, both to the Premier League – than arrivals, though most of the core team from last year remains in place. The team has been bolstered by new fullback Arnaud Soquet from Ligue 1 and Kei Kamara, the league’s third-all-time scorer, both of whom will be available for tomorrow’s game. Colin Chough has a full analysis of how the team’s offseason signings will fit into the roster.
The Fire will look to start their campaign on the right foot by getting three points at home as they look to beat expectations in a year in which more than one analyst has called the team a favorite for the Wooden Spoon, the ignominious award given to the league’s last-place team. Hendrickson said that he hopes to use those predictions as “bulletin board” material to motivate the team this season.
The team hasn’t won its first match of the year since 2009, when likely starting GK Chris Brady was five years old. They technically won their home opener in 2020, but it came in August following in the COVID-delayed season. They’ll be looking to change that record and shift the narrative around the team on Saturday.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Injury Report: None
Despite the loss, don’t expect Cushing to tinker too much with his starting XI in the second match of the season. The team announced Wednesday that midfielder James Sands would be returning early from his loan to Rangers in Scotland, and he will be available on Saturday. Although the team might want to give him more time to reacclimate, don’t be surprised to see him start on Saturday – he’s a proven player with the team that is looking to recapture whatever magic it can from the team that won MLS Cup two years ago.
NYCFC mostly played a 4-2-3-1 last season and used that formation last week against Nashville. The team will look to maintain possession and build out from the back, relying on their midfield to help create plays. The team lacks a true starting striker and has been playing former Brazilian youth international Talles Magno up top instead of at his preferred position on the left wing. So far, the experiment hasn’t worked out well, leaving the team able to possess the ball but not translate that possession into dangerous opportunities. Check out our Q&A with an NYCFC expert here.
Injury Report: Out: Sergio Oregel Jr; Justin Reynolds Questionable: Chris Brady; Mauricio Pineda
The Fire have also lined up in a 4-2-3-1 through under Coach Ezra Hendrickson, switching only when injuries forced his hand. Although defensive midfielder Gastón Giménez was injured throughout the preseason, Hendrickson says he’ll be available for the match on Saturday, and look for him to return to his starting role at CDM. Jairo Torres played in his spot through much of the preseason, a shift from last year when he played further forward, and given Hendrickson’s tendency to ease players back into the line up, don’t be surprised if he starts instead of Giménez. It’s also a possibility that Mauricio Pineda may start in that role instead, though he’s also listed as questionable.
New Fire acquisition Kei Kamara will be available on Saturday and while it wouldn’t be shocking to see him start, at 38 years old, Hendrickson will likely want to manage his minutes carefully, particularly until recently-announced acquisition Georgios Koutsias is established with the team – he is currently still in Greece awaiting his visa. Until then, expect Hendrickson to give Kacper Przybylko every opportunity to re-find the form he had in 2021 with Philadelphia, reserving Kamara as a “super sub” off the bench, while possibly giving some minutes to young homegrown striker Victor Bezerra, particularly if the team is able to establish a commanding lead in matches.
Although he’s listed as questionable, look for Chris Brady – fresh off of his 19th birthday the day before the game – to start in net for the Fire if he’s able, and for Brian Gutiérrez to start on the right wing as he begins what could be a breakout season for the young homegrown.
The Fire will look to possess the ball and move it to the attacking third of the pitch quickly. Hendrickson has said that the team’s ability to move the ball up the pitch quicker is a key improvement this year. When combined with having the outside defensive backs arrive faster to complement the offense, another point Hendrickson stressed in the offseason, the team hopes to be significantly more dangerous to opposing defenses than it was last year.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Clip the wings: While NYCFC may not have an energy drink-slinging parent company using wings in a tagline, starting wingers Andrade and Pereira are elite MLS players and if they’re given space and time are capable of scoring or feeding the ball to Talles Magno, who has talent, even if he hasn’t relished his role as a striker.
- Test the goalie: NYCFC no longer can rely on rock-solid Sean Johnson’s services between the sticks to help them out, and probable starter Luis Barraza only has 6 league appearances – and 11 total as a professional, including five in MLS Next Pro – under his belt. Getting the ball on target is never a bad idea, but it’s an especially good one when a team has a relatively untested goalie being asked to step into a much bigger role.
- Integrate Kamara: Unlike NYCFC, the Fire now have one of the most productive strikers in league history in their lineup. Despite his age, Kamara was better than a point-per-game player for Montréal last season, and that kind of performance can change the course of games.
Throughout the 2023 season, MenInRed97’s writing team will be providing predictions for each match as we battle for bragging rights and glory in our Slack channel.
Alex Calabrese: Both Chicago and New York City are teams that were weakened over the offseason, and this should be a relatively open game. Though I do think Chicago will look like the better team, I’m still concerned by the lack of a goalscorer. I think it will be tight, and the Fire will ultimately have to settle for a point.
Fire 1 – 1 NYCFC
John Carollo: “You are my favorite because you’re a longshot.” Fire give up an early lead, but Kamara bungles one in late.
Fire 2 – 1 NYCFC
Colin Chough: Chicago squeaks out a narrow victory in a defensive battle. Kamara off the bench gets the goal.
Fire 1 – 0 NYCFC
Christian Hirschboeck: NYCFC were unimpressive in almost every aspect last weekend against Nashville, and the score should have been closer to 3 or 4 to 0. Although the Fire are a mystery in terms of quality right now, if they’re given the chances Nashville were granted, the Fire should come out on top.
Fire 2 – 1 NYCFC
Tim Hotze: Though many commentators breezily dismissed the team’s chances, there is talent throughout the roster, and unlike NYCFC, they now have proven talent at striker – something that was really missing last season. The Fire aren’t cursed, and there’s no reason they can’t start things off with a W.
Fire 2 – 0 NYCFC
Matt Shabelman: Rafa Czichos scores a late header to win after Peirera’s screamer in the 85th cancels out Mueller’s early goal.
Fire 2 – 1 NYCFC
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, March 4, 2023, 7:30 PM CT
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Forecast: 43’ expected at kick-off, with 78% humidity, winds SW at 7-10mph, 45% cloud cover, and almost no chance of precipitation.
TV: Apple TV