It is often said that the middle of an MLS season has little meaning, with no teams working their way in or out of the playoffs – a refrain that is likely to be heard louder this year with an expanded playoff field, but Wednesday’s match against CF Montréal is a perfect example of why that isn’t the case.
The Chicago Fire sit in 11th place in the East, still out of a playoff spot despite a good run of form in the second half. CF Montréal are currently in the ninth and final postseason spot. The two teams, however, are tied with 26 points each, with the Canadian club holding the higher position thanks to their eight victories compared to the Fire’s six.
That makes this contest a six-point game for both clubs – the opportunity not only to gain ground in a contested Eastern Conference standings but also the opportunity to deny a competing club a chance at three points.
All time: 7W-6D-12L, 32GF, 37 GA, 27 pts out of 69
Last Match: September 13, 2022: Montréal 3-2 Fire at Stade Saputo, Montreal, QC
Record: 8W-2D-11L (26 pts)
Montréal lost 1-0 to Atlanta at home on Saturday, marking the second loss for the club in a row, having lost to New York City FC at Stade Saputo the week prior. Prior to that, they managed a draw in Charlotte and, like the Fire, a 1-0 victory over Nashville at home. The match in Charlotte marked rare points on the road for the club: Their previous draw on the road was against D.C. United on May 31, and their only victory on the road this year came on April 29 against Sporting KC.
Record: 7W-8D-7L (26 pts)
For the third time in four games, Fabian Herbers scored, and for the third time in four games, the Fire won a soccer game, this time at home, giving the Fire their first-ever victory over Nashville SC. After losing in Orlando a week prior, it set the FIre back on winning ways and meant that the Fire have only lost once at home – but it was also just the Fire’s third victory at Soldier Field this season, having amassed six draws in front of home fans.
With the All-Star game and then the Leagues Cup putting a halt to MLS league play for a month, every team in the league wants to put itself in the most advantageous position it can going into the lengthy break.
The Fire have been doing that – with nine points in four games since the June international break and firmly in the hunt for a playoff spot, and now the team’s mission is simple: Win at home against CF Montréal – a team whose only road victory on the year came back in April against an injury-wracked Sporting KC squad – and the Fire go to bed Wednesday night in sole possession of the East’s ninth and final playoff spot.
From then on, the team simply needs to meet or beat the record of the teams below it in the standings, and they’ll make the postseason for the first time since 2017.
However, Montréal will do its best to deny the Fire that opportunity, and despite the team’s poor road record, Hernán Losada’s squad are far from pushovers. Losada took over for a squad that saw significant turnover in the past year, with the departures of key players like Djordje Mihailovic as well as one of the most exciting new coaching talents in the league in Wilfred Nancy.
The match will be the first time that Frank Klopas will meet Montréal as a head coach since his tenure as head coach of the then-Impact from 2013-2015, and it will also be a battle of the swapped strikers, with the Fire having sent Chinoso Offor to Montréal last August and signed Kei Kamara from the same club in the offseason.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Out: Mathieu Choinière, Lassi Lappalainen, Rommel Quioto
Last year, Wilfred Nancy coached CF Montréal into one of the most exciting teams to watch in Major League Soccer. The club featured talent throughout the pitch, anchored by strong defending talents like Kamal Miller and Alistair Johnston. The midfield was overseen by Canadian international Ismaël Koné and Djordje Mihailović, who had grown into one of the league’s most promising young playmakers, supplying an attack lead by Rommell Quioto with Kei Kamara as a dangerous option off the bench.
Every one of those names is no longer in Montréal save for Rommell Quioto, who has been injured since May.
As a result Montréal signed Losada to helm the team after his tenure as head coach of D.C. United early in 2022, and frankly not that much other talent. The team did acquire George Campbell from Atlanta, Aaron Herrera from Real Salt Lake, and brought in Bryce Duke and Ariel Lassiter in the trade that sent Kamal Miller – one of the better center backs in this league – and, inexplicably, $1.3m in GAM, to Inter Miami. None of the players brought in – or the coach, for that matter – have really measured up to last year’s edition of the squad that finished the season second in the Eastern Conference and in third place for the Supporter’s Shield.
Most recently, the team used some of the mountain of GAM acquired in all of their outgoing transfers to bring in Kwadwo Opoku from LAFC on July 5, bolstering the squad at striker. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him start the match, given the number of matches the club will have to play in a week. (However, we don’t have an accurate jersey number for him.)
The club should also have Zachary Braut-Guillard and Aaron Herrera available after their national teams (Canada and Guatemala, respectively) were eliminated from the Gold Cup over the weekend.
Though the style Montréal plays isn’t a carbon copy of Losada’s system with D.C. United, it remains a high-energy, high-press system, trying to force the opposition to work quickly, make mistakes and punish them as a result. The challenge? First, injuries, all too often a byproduct of that kind of high-press system (and Losada’s rigorous training sessions, which were one factor that led to his departure in D.C.), and Montréal has certainly been hit by the injury bug.
Particularly with Quioto injured, they haven’t really had anyone to do the “punish them as a result” part of the game plan. Despite having played in just seven matches, he’s still tied with Offor for the team lead in goals with three. More than that, losing players like Mihailović has left the team without many players that can connect and generate opportunities – Mathieu Choinière has the team lead for assists with three, but, as you might have guessed, he’s also out with injury. As a result, the team has managed just 20 goals so far this season, tied for 26th in the 29-team league.
Out: Victor Bezerra, Javier Casas, Jr, Chris Mueller, Federico Navarro, Wyatt Omsberg
With the Fire set to play three games in a set of eight days, Frank Klopas was careful with managing the squad’s minutes on Saturday, most notably by giving Georgios Koutsias his fifth start of the season, allowing Kei Kamara to start on the bench.
A fair assumption is that Klopas did this partly to give Kamara the opportunity for serious minutes against both Canadian teams that the Fire are set to face this week. That’s also likely one of the reasons why Carlos Terán – still freshly recovered from injury – didn’t make the starting XI and likely one of the reasons that Gastón Giménez was limited to 64’ on Saturday.
Xherdan Shaqiri, though, did go more than 90’ – being subbed off in second-half stoppage time – so will likely start on the bench for this match. Alongside Arnaud Souquet serving a mandatory one-match vacation in Club Red, the Fire should have relatively fresh legs against a Montréal squad that played on Saturday and isn’t horribly deep.
Although the team nominally started out of a 4-2-3-1 with Shaqiri playing the #10 role, in practice, Shaqiri spent a lot of time wide and Brian Gutiérrez took over some of the ball distribution duties normally associated with the role – it’s something we’ve seen the pair do before, and seems as if it’s becoming more of an established trend.
Against Montréal, however, Gutiérrez may well get the position officially with Shaqiri on the bench, giving Fabian Herbers – responsible for the opening goal in all three matches that the Fire have won since the June International break – a chance to return to a starting role on the left wing.
That will necessitate some creativity on Klopas’s part in the midfield, and Mauricio Pineda will likely return to the midfield after having started as a center back last game, as Terán reclaims his starting spot in the lineup and the injured Federico Navarro looks on from the press box; Jairo Torres would be the other option to fill that role and is more offensively-minded.
Whatever happens, the game plan will probably be to try to get goals early so that younger legs can rotate on to keep the squad ready for another winnable game against Toronto on Saturday.
Fire Keys to Victory
- SHOOT. THE. BALL. MORE.: This will be repeated until the team starts shooting the ball more. Yes, they beat a very good Nashville team at home on Saturday, but they did it with just six shots – only one on frame, giving the team just 201 shots this season, good for dead last in that statistic. Nashville, for their part, had 18 shots, two on target. If the Fire want to make a habit of winning, they just need to shoot more.
- Fast Transitions: Montréal’s high press leaves them vulnerable to quick counters if the team can quickly get the ball up the field and in the right position. Against Nashville, the team did have some fast progressive passes into the final third, but all too often the attack wasn’t set and the Fire ended up settling for a fairly blind cross instead of a more coherent, focused attack. (Having Ousmane Doumbia would help in this regard, but there’s still no word on his visa clearance.)
- Get Kei His Just Desserts: Kei Kamara is currently sitting with 144 goals, just one behind Landon Donovan for second on the all time list. The Fire’s attack against Nashville suffered – dangerous-looking chances in the box weren’t finished as Georgios Koutsias simply doesn’t have the size and hasn’t yet developed the finishing prowess of Kamara. There’s poetry in Kamara moving into second place (whether tied or sole possession) against his former club, and he’s coming into the match rested and ready.
“Difficult to see… always in motion is the future.” – Master Yoda // However, what cannot be denied is practically every Fire game this season has been determined by one goal or less. That will continue.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Montréal
“I have always thought in the back of my mind, Cheese and Onions“ Once, I went to Montreal for an away trip, and for lunch, I decided I wanted a quesadilla. My dad and I went to a random upscale-looking Mexican place near the foot of the mountain, and I ordered a chicken quesadilla. That quesadilla was like 10% chicken, 20% cheese, and 70% onion slices. I will never forgive the Quebecois for what they did to Mexican food. The Fire won that day. They will win on Star Wars Night.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Montréal
I smell B2B home wins.
Prediction: Fire 3-1 Montréal
An early Chinoso Offor goal gets canceled out by Fabian Herbers and Kei Kamara. I just read the script and that’s what it said.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Montréal
This game is winnable for the Fire. If the team is going to do anything this season, they need to win games like this one. Need to. Get the ball in the net more than the other guys, find yourself in a playoff spot.
Prediction: Fire 2-0 Montréal
Prediction: Fire 4-0 Montréal
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Wednesday, July 12, 2023, 7:30PM
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Forecast: 75’ expected at kick off, with 81% humidity, winds SSW at 8mph, 65% cloud cover, and a 33% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: 890 WLS-AM (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)