Matchday 12 is Rivalry Week in MLS and as a result, Chicago will meet its most natural historic and geographic rival for the first time in an MLS match.
Unbeknownst to the MLS schedule makers, however, the game would turn out to be the second in a budding rivalry between the two clubs, thanks to an intensely-played midweek U.S. Open Cup match between the two sides hosted just three and a half days before Saturday’s noon kickoff at Soldier Field.
In the interest of brevity, parts of this preview will be shorter than normal, having just faced St. Louis, after all.
Oh – and it’s a noon kickoff, the Fire are playing in daylight again, and as a result, sunscreen may be in order. Saying to remind a friend.
Series History: 0-0-0
This is the first meeting in MLS play between the two clubs; the Fire defeated St. Louis 2-1 on Tuesday at SeatGeek Stadium in the U.S. Open Cup.
St. Louis CITY FC
Record: 6W-1D-3L (19pts)
After starting their expansion season with a record-breaking 5-0, St. Louis fell on harder times and has gone 1-1-3 in league play since the start of April (with their last league match at FC Dallas suspended due to weather).
And, of course, they lost 2-1 at SeatGeek on Tuesday, with a semi-rotated lineup.
Record: 2W-5D-3L (11pts)
2-1 win. That was the scoreline on Tuesday, that was the scoreline that the Fire had on April 8 against Minnesota which had defeated St. Louis the week prior.
1-0-0 is the Fire’s record under Frank Klopas, though they did lose their last MLS game 3-0 at Nashville last Saturday.
The Fire and St. Louis would seem to be natural rivals by dint of their locations and respective shared history, but they are now rivals on the pitch.
The Fire’s 2-1 victory – in which they, uncharacteristically, got an early lead (and did not relinquish it after) helps set the tone for the repeat in MLS play.
Many commentators around the league have begun to write off the Fire, sitting 14th of 15 teams in the East in the standings – but that’s misleading this early in the season: New York City FC sits in 5th place with 15 points, and the Fire have a game in hand. A Fire victory against St. Louis would put them just one point behind that mark having played the same number of games. When four points is the difference between 8 places in the standings, it’s too early to let position tell the whole story.
In truth, the Fire have been in a position to get a result in every game they’ve played this year except for last week’s showdown in Nashville.
On St. Louis’ part, they haven’t played the same way in the past month and a half. An injury to leading scorer João Klauss hasn’t helped but their skid started weeks before his injury, and the strong start feels like ancient history. The club’s most recent away win came on March 25th.
Frank Klopas’s passion and love for the club in his adopted hometown that has been part of his story for nearly half his life shone through in his first game back in his third stint as head coach. He’s trying to imbue that passion in his squad – will there be a payoff at Soldier Field?
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
St. Louis CITY SC
Out: Rasmus Alm, João Klauss, Joakim Nilsson, Tim Parker
It’s still the same St. Louis team the Fire played on Tuesday (check the U.S. Open Cup Preview for a full rundown of their system) – though Bradley Carnell did rotate his squad somewhat for the midweek match.
They still play a high-press, Red Bulls-inspired system, and though I was wrong on the formation last time – in theory, they ran a 4-3-1-2 though in practice it didn’t look that much like it – it didn’t exactly work out for them, so I’m still thinking they may try to go for a 4-4-2, especially when they will (presumably) be starting the players that were rested on Tuesday.
Starting center back Tim Parker is out for yellow card accumulation – having received one in the suspended match against FC Dallas last week – and will likely be replaced by #24 Lucas Bartlett, who started one match in Parker’s stead earlier in the year.
João Klauss, their highest-scoring player and really a key to their offense, is set to miss Saturday’s match with injury. St. Louis haven’t played the same without him, but in truth, chinks in the armor appeared even with him on the pitch.
Roman Bürki has been their starter in league play and will likely make his return after missing out on the mid-week match.
Out: Jonathan Dean
Questionable: Rafael Czichos, Maren Haile-Selassie, Carlos Terán
Klopas retained the 4-2-3-1 setup of his predecessor, and it worked. This is partly because St. Louis lined up in a more defensive formation than they typically do, but is partly because implementing changes will take time – something the Fire have been short on this week.
As such, the 4-2-3-1 may very well stick around for at least one more match. Klopas’s XI on Tuesday was actually more of a throwback to last season when we often saw Shaqiri centering the attacking midfield with Gutiérrez on the wing. Given that Klopas has spoken about the need to integrate the Fire’s most talented players – Shaqiri and Gutiérrez named specifically – it wouldn’t be surprising to see a reprisal of Shaqiri starting at the #10 and Guti on the wing, though it’s far from out of the question that we might see an inversion of what we saw on Wednesday, with Shaqiri playing out wide and Gutiérrez playing centrally.
Alongside them, wherever they play, Maren Haile-Selassie – hero on Tuesday, thanks to his early goal – is unlikely to be joining them as left the match early and has been dealing with a concussion. Although he isn’t on the injury report, Mueller hasn’t been training with the team so he also likely won’t start, and may not be on the roster, meaning Georgios Koutsias may get his second start with the Fire.
In the back line, Czichos and Terán are both listed as questionable but have been training with the team and will start if able; if one or both are unavailable to start, Wyatt Omsberg and Mauricio Pineda are the likely backups, in that order.
Anchoring the team in net, Brady will all but certainly resume as the starter for the team in MLS play after having been rested in favor of the veteran Spencer Richey midweek.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Play direct: Just as on Tuesday, the Fire need to remember that the best way to play against St. Louis’s high press is to play direct. Get a ball down the pitch to the right player and he’s likely to have time and space to get a shot on goal. The fact that the Fire did this on Tuesday – with 37 accurate long balls to St. Louis’s 24 – was essential to their victory.
- Defend set pieces: The Fire have been killed by goals off of set pieces, particularly late in games, where all too frequently one man is left totally unmarked. The Fire did a better job on Tuesday, facing down now fewer than 10 St. Louis corners. Keeping that focus – even with short rest – is going to be essential on Saturday.
- Work the home crowd: In a busy schedule with little time between matches, the crowd can be the 12th man and help push tired legs a little harder. That’s not my opinion – it’s Kei Kamara’s. A loud crowd on the first daytime game the Fire have played at Soldier Field could be the difference maker for the home team.
Prediction: Fire 2-0 St. Louis
“I should have known better/Nothing can be changed/The past is still the past/The bridge to nowhere” We had our beautiful moment in the Open Cup, but the Fire are the Fire and they can only be the Fire. But it was good for about 140 minutes. Besides, maybe it was just Ezra and we keep a 2-0 lead at the half. But maybe there’s something in the sewage we send downriver.
Prediction: Fire 2-3 St. Louis
New stadium, same St. Louis.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 St. Louis
Although St. Louis’ starting XI will be a bit stronger, we now live in their head rent free so it’s likely they’ll cave and give us more goals similar to Fabian Herbers’.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 St. Louis
My head says the Fire should get a draw but my heart says Klopas’s passion – and possible Greek lunch bump – brings the team together and that’s enough to cruise to a win. Heart wins, so do Fire.
Prediction: Fire 3-1 St. Louis
A thrashing cause the vibes would be great.
Prediction: Fire 4-1 St. Louis
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, May 13, 2023, 12:00 PM
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
Forecast: 62’ expected at kick-off, with 76% humidity, winds NNE at 10mph, 83% cloud cover, and a 6% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free
Radio: 890 WLS-AM (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)