Fresh off a victory in their opening U.S. Open Cup match of the year, the Fire return to Soldier Field to host the New York Red Bulls in their third game in seven days.
Chicago will be hoping to take the momentum from their midweek Open Cup victory, while the Red Bulls come to town rested, having a bye to the next round of the competition thanks to their strong finish in MLS last season.
Both teams should be eager to savor the sweet taste of victory to wash away the bitterness of defeats off own goals on Matchday 9.
All time: 30-14-21, 103 GF / 87 GA, 104 pts out of 195
Last Match: May 18, 2022: Fire 3 – 3 Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena
New York Red Bulls
Record: 1W-5D-3L (8pts)
The Red Bulls lost 2-0 to CF Montréal last week in a game where Montréal played down a man for nearly 30 minutes. Adding insult to injury, one of Montéal’s two goals came when the team was short-handed in stoppage time, and their first tally of the night was an own goal as Chinonso Offor challenged a Red Bulls defender in the box. The Red Bulls had previously played Houston and San Jose to 1-1 draws at home. Their lone win of the season came at home against Columbus on March 18.
Record: 2W-4D-2L (10pts)
The Fire started their U.S. Open Cup quest midweek, dispatching amateur side Chicago House A.C. 3-0 in a memorable Chicago Derby in which defender Kendall Burks scored a brace, and Alonso Aceves got his first start. In their previous MLS game, a 90th minute goal by Kacper Przybyłko to bring their match in Atlanta to an apparent draw simply set up greater heartbreak as an own goal of Maren Haile-Selassie handed the Fire the loss.
The match presents a golden opportunity for the Fire, still undefeated at home, to close out the month of April with a win at home before heading into a month of May when the team faces a number of strong opponents: New York Red Bulls might not be a team in crisis, but they’re certainly not far away from it.
They’re currently without their star striker Dante Vanzier after the player, who the team acquired for a team-record transfer fee in February, made a racially-insensitive remark during their game against the San Jose Earthquakes, earning him a six-match suspension. Compounding matters, supporters protested the manner in which NYRB Head Coach Gerhard Struber handled the situation both on the matchday and in an apology that many supporters felt was inadequate. The drama rubs salt into an already wounded squad that has struggled to get results all season and currently has a number of other key players missing.
Struber is certainly feeling pressure from matters both on and off the pitch and would like nothing more than to repeat their performance last year at Soldier Field, where the Red Bulls were able to grab a win off a late PK when the Fire were down to 9 men.
Fire Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson is also likely feeling increasing heat to get wins after a string of matches where strong play through the majority of games failed to yield results due to late breakdowns or blown leads.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
New York Red Bulls
Out: Franke Amaya, Luqinhas, Lewis Morgan, Serge Ngoma, Matt Nocita, Steven Sserwadda
Suspended: Kyle Duncan, Dante Vanzier
The Red Bull teams, from Austria to the German Bundesliga to MLS, have used a style of play so consistently that it’s become eponymous with the organization. Love it or hate it, Red Bull Football – or “energy drink football” to some – calls a high-intensity style of play that relies on an aggressive high press to get teams to turn over the ball in their own end and a lot of running both with and without the ball. Coaches come in because they fit the system, and Struber – who played a significant portion of his career at the club now known as Red Bull Salzburg – is no exception.
Still, even within the system, there’s considerable room for alteration, and necessity is sometimes the mother of change. Sturber’s variety most frequently relies on the team playing out of a 4-2-3-1 formation, not unlike the Fire, but they press higher to try to create turnovers. In their system, formations are relatively fluid, and backs are expected to join the attack just as attacking players are expected to track back quickly to defend.
Stuber is playing with far from a full deck, however, with defender Kyle Duncan suspended off of yellow card accumulation and a number of key players likely out with injuries. That means he’ll have to get creative with his lineup, playing some players out of their preferred positions and finding good finishing options will likely be an acute challenge for the coach.
If you see two players with “Nealis” on the pitch, don’t be surprised – right back Dylan Nealis is the brother of team captain (and center back) Sean Nealis, and they wear similar-looking numbers (12 and 15, respectively).
Out: Victor Bezerra
Ezra Hendrickson heavily rotated the squad for the mid-week game against Chicago House A.C. so many of the preferred XI are available, giving Hendrickson a (relative) embarrassment of riches as he chooses his starting lineup – particularly compared to the situation just a few weeks ago when a half-dozen Fire players were unavailable forcing the coach to scramble. He may still have to manage minutes to avoid the chance of reinjury, however.
The Fire will almost certainly remain in Hendrickson’s traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. Expect Chris Brady to return to starting duties that he ceded midweek to Spencer Richey. In front of him, the Fire’s top center back pairing of Rafa Czichos and Carlos Terán, neither of whom played on Wednesday, should return. Arnaud Souquet, whose play has improved notably of late, will likely start at right back.
At left back, Hendrickson has interesting choices – Jonathan Dean, who started in the position against Atlanta, Miguel Ángel Navarro, and Alonso Aceves all started against the House, with Dean and Navarro going the full 90. Though Aceves’ strong play in that game likely earned him more minutes, he was used as a winger on Wednesday and sprinted up and down the pitch as he worked to secure the Fire victory. The most likely candidate to start, then, is Dean, who has played well in his first MLS season.
Hendrickson also has some difficult choices at central midfield: Two starting candidates, Fede Navarro and Gastón Giménez, are both working their way back to full health after injuries, and both played on Wednesday, as did Mauricio Pineda. Jairo Torres, who had been playing as a CM early in the season and in the preseason, is finally healthy after an injury in the Fire’s first game of the season, though Hendrickson may want to bring him in off the bench rather than throw him into the starting lineup.
Navarro and Pineda played well together against House A.C., and both have the speed to play well against the Red Bulls’ high press, but Pineda’s ability to play numerous roles for the Fire means he will likely be kept as a sub. Assuming Shaqiri is good to start, having picked up a slight knock against Atlanta, Brian Gutiérrez’s abilities as a creative playmaker that can help break down RBNY’s press and lines should earn him his second start at central midfield.
In that case, Shaqiri should return in the #10 role as we saw against Atlanta, flanked by Chris Mueller and Maren Haile-Selassie, who played the first half in the Fire’s Open Cup victory. Kei Kamara, 38 years old but looking ageless on the pitch, should reclaim his starting role at striker.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Go Wide, Go Deep: One of the better ways to counter the Red Bulls high press is to use the full extent of the pitch to create space. The Fire believe that they’ve got strength on their roster out wide, and they should take advantage of it, and use goal kicks and play from the double pivot to stretch the pitch, which should force the Red Bulls to play deeper. Long plays like that are particularly effective at making more opposing players run, particularly useful since the Red Bulls, unlike the Fire, have had a full week off.
- Go Between the Lines: Red Bulls are likely to mob Chicago’s defenders when they have the ball, but that creates space that other players can exploit by having a runner receive the ball between two lines, thereby breaking the press and creating space and time for an attack.
- Go 90: If soccer games lasted 60 minutes, the Fire would have a much better record. Conceding late goals, however, has cost the team numerous times this year, despite the Fire often having outplayed their opposition for the majority of the game. In the last 20 or 30 minutes, Fire players often fail to get back into position on transitions, taking the fangs out of the attack and the structure out of the defense. Even if some players will inevitably be playing in their second game in three days, the Fire need to stay sharp for the full 90 minutes.
This is a must-win game for the Fire against a team in crisis, and anything less would be a big failure. Ezra Hendrickson should be able to get it right, provided that his team can prove to be eggs rather than potatoes.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Red Bulls
“Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.” I don’t know how Struber and Vanzier still have jobs. Especially Struber. They deserve the L. Corey Burke gets his usual goal and that’s it.
Prediction: Fire 3-1 Red Bulls
After the heartbreak of last weekend, the Fire will put on a strong performance in front of a home crowd at Soldier Field.
Prediction: Fire 2-0 Red Bulls
The Red Bulls are currently all over the place and the win over the house should prove to be a decent momentum booster for the whole squad. With those factors combined, I think the fire should come out on top.
Prediction: Fire 2-0 Red Bulls
The Red Bulls’ locker room can’t be a fun place to be right now. Fire are the better side but tired legs might cost the team a goal.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Red Bulls
Cause RB have bad vibes.
Prediction: Fire 3-0 Red Bulls
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, April 29, 2023, 7:30PM
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
Forecast: 51’ expected at kick off, with 70% humidity, winds WNW at 15-18mph, 90% cloud cover and a 50% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: 890 WLS-AM (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)