For the first time in
four score and seven ye 35 days, the Fire return to Soldier Field to play a regular season MLS game, hosting Orlando City SC. The match comes well over two weeks after the Fire’s last game across all competitions, a 1-0 loss to Club América in the Leagues Cup.
For their part, Orlando have also had a lengthy break with their Leagues Cup campaign coming to an end in the Round of 32 at the hands of Inter Miami, and they will want to start the final stretch of the season on the right foot.
The Fire will hope that they can pick their season up right where they left off, having won five of their previous six matches, making them the hottest team in the league since the June international break. Their sole loss during that span came in Orlando, and the Fire will be looking to get revenge on their home turf.
The game comes amongst a full slate of games on Sunday evening, with twenty-two teams kicking off across the league between 6:30 PM and 9:30 PM Central Time.
All time: 7W-6D-6L, 27 GF/22 GA, 27 pts out of 57
Last Match: July 1, 2023: Fire 1-3 Orlando at Exploria Stadium, Orlando Fl.
Record: 10W-7D-6L (37 pts)
When the Fire visited Orlando, the team’s performance had been described as consistently inconsistent. That’s continued – the team notched a 4-0 victory at home against a hapless Toronto side that was playing down a man for the final 30 minutes of the game, before traveling to Real Salt Lake who beat them 4-0. In their most recent MLS game, they beat Atlanta 2-1 in a closely fought contest that saw the team get outshot and out-possessed.
Though inconsistent, it’s been enough to see the team climb from 7th to 5th in the standings since the Fire last played them. In Leagues Cup they managed to beat the Houston Dynamo on penalties and Santa Laguna in regulation before falling 3-1 against Inter Miami in their first knockout game.
Despite the early exit from the Leagues Cup, the team has only lost twice since mid-May in MLS play, though they have five draws accompanying their six losses in that span.
Record: 8W-8D-7L (32 pts)
The Fire went 1-1-0 in the group stage of the Leagues Cup, beating Minnesota and losing to Puebla on penalty kicks that had no bearing on the competition’s standings, before facing and losing to, Club América 1-0 in a hard-fought match in the Round of 32. In MLS play, they won the three matches they played – all at home – since falling to Orlando, and their most recent – and only – loss at home this season came over two months ago against Columbus.
What difference does a month make? The question isn’t rhetorical – with the longest break in league play since COVID lockdowns in 2020, it’s a question of paramount importance to the Fire. The team was scorching hot between mid-June and mid-July, and a team that had accumulated just three wins alongside eight draws in the first half of its season already has five wins just six games into the second half of their season.
The one game they lost in that stretch – to Orlando. Getting a win would not only help the team in its quest to earn its first postseason berth in half a decade, but it should also galvanize the confidence of a squad that has finally started to play like a coherent team.
When the Fire last met Orlando, Chicago were 12th in the Eastern Conference and Orlando were seventh, holding the last playoff (proper) spot, and the teams were five points apart. Both teams have since climbed the ladder, and the five-point margin between the two teams in the standings remains.
Now, the Fire are eighth and Orlando are fifth, and a win Sunday night would have them just two points behind the team from Central Florida. If other results go their way – namely an Atlanta loss to the Sounders and Columbus losing in the second leg of the Hell is Real derby – the Fire would firmly be in the thick of the playoff (rather than play-in) spot contention.
The team could begin looking with confidence at climbing the ladder of the Eastern Conference standings, aiming for playoff positioning, rather than worrying about results below their position in the table hurting their chances of making the postseason.
Orlando, on the other hand, would love a victory that would even up the all-time series between the clubs at seven wins a piece with six draws. Likely more important to the squad, however, would be the three points as the team looks to work its way to a spot in the playoffs that would give the team home-field advantage.
Both teams are likely to have some rust, having last played their most recent competitive match more than two weeks prior, but the break also gave both sides time to heal physically and prepare mentally for the final third of the season.
The Fire have won three in a row, and kept a clean sheet in all three matches. The last goal they conceded came off the foot of Orlando’s Ramiro Enrique in the 75’ of their previous meeting. A win would be poetic justice – and what’s more, the last time the Fire won four in a row was in 2017, en route to their most recent playoff spot.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
QUESTIONABLE: Mikey Halliday, Júnior Urso
OUT: Gastón González
Let’s get this out of the way first: Typically, the projected starting lineups for opposing teams are educated guesses, made by reviewing availability reports, watching the club’s most recent games, at times going to games games further back in the season if there’s reason to think that the head coach may approach the Fire with a similar lineup and tactics as they did a previous opponent.
Not here. The projected XI comes, helpfully, from Orlando City’s communications team who helpfully provided the information in the media guide, however, there’s a catch: The team had the players above lined up in a 4-4-2, a formation Orlando City Head Coach Óscar Pareja hasn’t used all season (he did try a 4-4-1-1 on one occasion back in April).
In reality, Orlando has favored a 4-2-3-1 formation, and smart money says that’s how the team will play on Sunday. Orlando defends in a low block and is fast in transition.
Once they have the ball, their wingers – likely #77 Ivan Angulo and #17 Facundo Torres – are capable of breaking down lines quickly. When the team can’t score off a quick transition, they work to create overloads, and their #10 Mauricio Pereyra is capable of cycling the ball through their offensive players.
Designated player #9 Ercan Kara is still likely the team’s starting striker, but he isn’t the team’s leading scorer. That would be #13 Duancn McGuire, a SuperDraf pick who has added two goals to his tally since the Fire last played Orlando, making him tied for 12th in the league in scoring – but he’s done that in just 816 minutes, still, as last time, tied for second in the league behind Atlanta’s Giorgos Giakoumakis.
At first blush, you could argue he’s been lucky – his 8 goals more than double his expected goals (xG) – but at this stage, you don’t want to bet against the Creighton University product, and his four points off the bench are tied for most in the league. That’s where he’ll likely to start the match, but not where he’s likely to end it.
Questionable: Chris Brady
Out: Javier Casas, Chris Mueller
Suspended: Rafael Czichos
Starting with the player whose position in the XI is so consistent that he’s often overlooked, Chris Brady: He was injured in the game against Club América on August 4, with an apparent issue with his back. The team initially listed him as being out, then changed that to questionable, but dollars to donuts, he won’t start on Sunday. Spencer Richey has played well all season and will likely get the nod instead, but whether Brady or Jeff Gal is on the bench instead is an open question.
Ahead of him, one of the other locks in the XI, captain Rafael Czichos, is also unavailable – technically it’s due to yellow card accumulation but there are twists involving the league’s good behavior policy, a fine issued in the days after the Portland game resulting from the red card that was issued – and rescinded on the spot – in that game. Ask me the details if you want – it took a long while to track down – but regardless, he is suspended for the match.
Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas has indicated that part of the reason Carlos Terán and Mauricio Pineda started against Club América was to give the pair more minutes together due to Czichos’s suspension, and making them a safe bet to get the nod instead. Arnaud Souquet and Miguel Ángel Navarro are basically locked in as starters alongside the central duo.
With Federico Navarro fully healed from the injury that kept him out the last time the Fire played an MLS match, Klopas now has an embarrassment of riches for the double pivot. Ousmane Doumbia played extremely well in the Leagues Cup, and there’s no reason to think that that won’t continue in MLS play. Alongside him, Gastón Giménez has continued to play some of the best football we’ve seen from him in a Fire shirt, and Federico Navarro remains a potent option.
Doumbia is probably more of a box-to-box player than either of the Giménez or Navarro and that makes him likely to start. He seems to have been developing some chemistry with Giménez, making him the more likely partner, though we’ll inevitably see variations of all three before the season is out.
Ahead of him, Klopas faces the same question he’s faced all season, however will likely take the simplest option given that his squad is well-rested and doesn’t play again until next Saturday: Xherdan Shaqiri nominally in the central #10 role, Brian Gutiérrez nominally on the left wing, but both will be given license to roam as they fit, with the speedy Maren Haile-Selassie starting on the right.
At striker, Georgios Koutsias has slowly but surely been earning Klopas’s trust and more of the minutes that would have previously gone to Kei Kamara, but here’s the thing – Kamara has scored nine goals in 12 career games against Orlando. He also remains, stubbornly, one goal behind Landon Donovan’s 145 for second overall career goals in MLS. This seems like as good a time as any for him to add to his tally, given his history against Orlando, he’ll likely get the start.
Oh – and if the Fire’s bench looks more crowded than normal, you aren’t imagining things – Nikolaos Kostenoglu and Theodoros Antonopoulos, both formerly of the Cyprus national team, have joined the team as assistant coaches.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Nose to the grindstone: It’s easy to lose focus after a lengthy break. No matter how hard the team has trained, there are certainly going to be some cobwebs and possibly tired legs by the later stages of the match. Orlando has the speed and offensive firepower to punish even momentary lapses. Stay focused, put in a shift for the full 90.
- Mind the overloads: Klopas noted that when Orlando maintains possession, they like to create overloads on their right side – stage right, so the one under the responsibility of Miguel Navarro. Especially with a center back pairing that have had limited game time together, the team needs to be aware of when that happens and not let the numbers turn into real chances for Orlando.
- Sweet home: The Fire have won three in a row at home, and lost just once at Soldier Field all season. Use the energy of the home crowd, get a result and make the final ten matches that much easier with three more points added to the tally.
Vibes are high. Let’s hope they stay there. They will: Brian Gutiérrez scores.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Orlando
I have no clue which way this game is going to go. I think that the massive break in between games has meaning, but it also doesn’t because the last time the team took a big break, they came back on a tear. It’s a solid Orlando team, but it’s at home. Brady’s injured, but maybe he’ll be back in time? And maybe Richey will do well? This whole thing is incredibly cloudy. Maybe we’ll get another late game-winner here. At the very least, if the Fire go down a goal, they’re not gonna come back from it. They’re gonna have to stay ahead the whole game.
Prediction: Fire ?-? Orlando
Prediction: Fire 2-0 Orlando
Prediction: Fire 2-0 Orlando
Kamara finally matches Landon’s tally; the team gets a narrow victory. It’s enough to say that the Fire picked up where they left off.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Orlando
Prediction: Fire 3-1 Orlando
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Sunday, August 20, 7:30 PM CT
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Forecast: 78’F expected at kick off, with 79% humidity, winds NNE at 10mph, 38% cloud cover and 4% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: wlsam.com (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)