The end of the first chapter of the Fire’s second half of their season arrives Saturday night as the team hosts Toronto FC in their last game before the MLS Regular Season takes a month-long pause for the Leagues Cup.
The chapter has generally been a kind one for the Fire, who have managed to win four of their five games since the June international break. They’ll look to end with an exclamation point before turning the page against a Toronto FC team that has been, at best, hapless through most of the 2023 MLS season.
The game is one that the Fire should think is highly winnable, and a victory and the ensuing three points could buoy the Fire’s position in the standings, possibly propelling them into eighth place, looking to climb the standings further as they make a case for a postseason appearance.
All time: 10W-12D-15L, 56 GF/ 64 GA, 42 pts out of 111
Last Match: May 31, 2023: Toronto FC 0-0 Chicago Fire at BMO Field, Toronto, Ont.
Record: 3W-10D-10L (19 pts)
Toronto lost to St. Louis at home last Saturday and 4-0 in Orlando on July 4. The last time the Fire played TFC, their most recent victory came on May 27, and that’s still true today. Their most recent victory on the road? Checks notes… Happened last season. However, they managed one draw at home and one away in early June, with both coming immediately after the team’s 0-0 match with the Fire on May 31, giving Toronto exactly two more points than they had when the Fire left them back in May.
Record: 8W-8D-7L (29 pts)
On Wednesday, the team took on CF Montréal, an Eastern Conference opponent tied with them on points but holding the last playoff spot in the conference due to a tiebreaker, beat them 3-0 and grabbed sole possession of ninth in the East. Before that, they beat Nashville, currently second in the East, 1-0. Their sole loss in the past month came away in Orlando.
There are always multiple ways to communicate that you’ve got a problem and need help. If you’re a Karen, you ask for the manager. If you’re a football club, you might just fire the manager instead, and that’s precisely what the Fire (in May) and Toronto (in late June) did.
One difference is that while Chicago did it early in their season – arguably at a point when Ezra Hendrickson still had a good chance at turning things around – Toronto arguably did it too late when the team was sitting on 19 points after 20 games. Well, now they’re sitting on 19 points after 23 games, so… “new manager bump” was achieved.
Another difference is that Bob Bradley was both the head coach and sporting director and was relieved of both posts simultaneously. Yet he was always in somewhat of an unenviable place as a sporting director, being given the keys to the bus after it was already filled with passengers, including Designated Players Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, who present a real conundrum to any manager: Insigne hasn’t played well, while Bernardeschi has contributed on the field, he’s also shown an inability to follow simple instructions like “no vaping on the team plane.”
So, regardless, Toronto fired their coach and sporting director (the man who incidentally coached the Fire to The Double in their first year), went on to lose the next three games, and now look like a ship up a creek without a rudder, while the Fire, meanwhile, put gave Frank Klopas the title of Interim Head Coach at the club for this time and results have followed, with the Fire now the proud holders of a spot that, if they hold on to it, guarantees entrance to the postseason.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Injured: Michael Bradley, Adama Diomande, Cristian Gutiérrez, Victor Vázquez
Suspended: Federico Bernardeschi
Questionable: Matt Hedges, Lorenzo Insigne, DeAndre Kerr, Greg Ranjitsingh, Sigurd Rosted
Honestly? It’s possible to go on about the attacking talent that theoretically could be brought to bear for the Reds, but it hasn’t been working, so what’s the point? The fact of the matter is that even though former coach and sporting director Bob Bradley didn’t sign the DPs, he did have control over the roster, and one of the things he did was ship a lot of the younger, more exciting talent out and didn’t get much in return.
Some of that is starting to change – they recently U-22 defensive midfielder Franco Ibarra from Atlanta on loan, though under some amount of duress, and on Thursday shipped 28-year-old Canadian international Mark-Anthony Kaye to New England, receiving 26-year-old Ghanaian midfielder Latif Blessing in return. He may start on Saturday, but we don’t yet have his jersey number.
Though as much as they’ve added youth, they’ve also added experience, bringing in former Fire player C.J. Sapong from Nashville, and they lost Richie Laryea after his loan expired at the end of June.
The team should once again have former Fire player Sean Johnson as well as Jonathan Osorio and Tomas Romero available as their spells in the Gold Cup have ended, and there’s a reasonable chance that Lorenzo Insigne will once again be available – though whether that’s a net positive for TFC or not is an exercise left to the reader, and as he’s coming off injury, he may well be on the bench at the start of the match even if he is available.
One thing in Toronto’s favo(u)r – they didn’t play Wednesday so they will be the more rested of the two squads, though on the other hand, in addition to Insigne, their other DP Italian is out as Federico Bernardeschi is serving a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Oh, and regarding formation and tactics – under interim head coach Terry Dunfield, the team has played a few different formations, but he seems to be settling on a 4-4-2. Despite being born in Canada, Dunfield spent virtually his entire career playing in England, and his one appearance for England’s youth system (according to Wikipedia) seems to have made that formation call to him irresistibly, like a siren song. King, Country, 4-4-2.
Out: Victor Bezerra, Javier Casas, Jr, Chris Mueller, Federico Navarro, Wyatt Omsberg, Carlos Terán
Tried legs are likely to be a factor as the Fire play their third game in a span of eight days – at a time when injury considerations are forcing Frank Klopas’s hands somewhat – Carlos Terán succumbed to an injury moments before the Fire’s previous match against Montréal, forcing some juggling of the lineups. Brian Gutiérrez and Gastón Giménez were taken off, though Klopas indicated that was primarily precautionary.
Terán’s injury – the extent of which is still unclear – pushed Mauricio Pineda back to playing alongside Rafael Czichos and gave Gastón Giménez the start in his place in the defensive midfield. With Federico Navarro still injured, Giménez will likely get the start if available next to Fabian Herbers in the defensive midfield.
At striker, Kei Kamara was selected by MLS Commissioner Don Garber to play in the MLS All-Star Game next week, the first Fire player to get the nod since Bastian Schweinsteiger in 2017. He’s also at #3 in career MLS goals, just one shy of Landon Donovan’s tally of 145. Giving him the chance to make it to the All-Star game in second place seems like where the heart of Klopas – former striker himself – would lead him. Kamara has had his minutes managed over the past week, and you have to expect that it was to save him for this match. Still, Georgios Koutsias’s improved play of late certainly makes the case for more minutes, and Kamara was projected to be a late-minute sub when he signed with the team, not a regular starter.
Behind whoever starts at striker, however, is also a challenge – Shaqiri has played well – arguably scoring his most Shaqiri-esque goal since arriving in Chicago, but he’s also played a lot – basically two full games in the past week. Normally you’d expect him to be rested in favor of Gutiérrez, but it’s not immediately clear who would best be able to take the #10 role if he isn’t available. So: Shaqiri will likely start or get significant minutes unless Klopas wants to roll the dice on a formation that we haven’t seen from the Fire this season, and Gutiérrez will get the nod on the wing – Koutsias and Aceves are options if he isn’t able to make it.
Still, it’s one game to go before the Fire have eleven days off, and sometimes, you’ve got to play the players you’ve got, even if they’re fatigued. Starting Maren Haile-Selassie next to them is a no-brainer, regardless, particularly with Fabian Herbers’s services needed in the double pivot.
In front of Chris Brady, it should be Miguel Ángel Navarro, Mauricio Pineda, Rafael Czichos, and Arnaud Souquet, but if for whatever reason, Giménez isn’t available to start, Pineda will likely get pushed to the midfield, and Kendall Burks will get the nod in his stead.
Ousmane Doumbia can’t arrive soon enough, given where the Fire’s injuries seem to be occurring.
Fire Keys to Victory
- SHOOT. THE. BALL. PLEASE.: Yes, the Fire got three goals against Montréal. But they did it on five shots. Yes, all were on target, and that’s great, but that isn’t something that the Fire can do every match. Even if no other teams had played on Wednesday, the Fire would still be in last place in the league for the shot tally. They need to shoot more if they want more goals where they get three in the back of the net.
- Take it: This is a game the Fire can win. Full stop, but then again, in MLS, every game is “winnable” for any team – what’s unique is that this is a game the Fire should win. More than almost any other game this season, they need to go out of the tunnel believing in the player in front of them and behind them, believing in the game plan, and knowing that if they execute, they should walk away with three points. It’s a kind of confidence that might seem almost foreign to the team these days, but hopefully, if the Fire get in the mindset for this one, they might just get used to it.
- Don’t care about the standings: The Fire are above the playoff line. All they have to do to stay there is match or better the teams below them in the standings – and given that the Fire have dropped the most points in the league off of late miscues, they’re arguably in a position where they should be confident that they can actually be better than the teams behind them. They made it here last year but, for whatever reason, didn’t stick around – Chris Brady said this may have been partly because of standings-gazing. Resist the temptation, play the game against a winnable opponent and all will be well.
Vibes are high. Klopas has the team cooking, and long may it continue.
Prediction: Fire 2-0 Toronto
“She hopes I’m cursed forever to sleep on a twin-sized mattress in somebody’s attic or basement my whole life.” The Fire are cursed. Maybe some day they’ll graduate up in size, but they’re not going to keep getting away with it. Anyone who has looked at these games analytically can tell that they just haven’t shown enough to prove that they are a quality team. Toronto is bad rn, but they were also able to do this before. It’s gonna be stupid and boring and our nightmares will have nightmares our whole lives (until the Fire actually fix things).
Prediction: Fire 0-0 Toronto
This feels like a match where the Fire should be able to make it look easy, but they won’t. However, they’ll still win against a Toronto team that can’t find its True North.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Toronto
Prediction: Fire 4-0 Toronto
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, July 15, 2023, 7:30PM
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Forecast: 79’F expected at kick off, with 67% humidity, winds WNW at 6mph, 38% cloud cover and a 9% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free
Radio: 890 WLS-AM (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)