Three days after a disappointing 1-0 loss to the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps, the Fire head back on the road for a crucial matchup against D.C. United.
D.C. are in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, two points and one spot behind the Fire, who retain a hold – however tenuous – on the ninth and final postseason spot in the conference.
The match is the last for both clubs before a week off due to the international match window, and both want nothing more than to head into the break in possession of a spot in the postseason and control of their own destiny.
All time: 26W-22D-28L, 100 pts out of 228
Last Match: April 1, 2023: Fire 0 – D.C. 0 at Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Record: 8W-6D-12L (30 pts)
D.C. were off midweek. Since Leagues Cup, where they lost to the Philadelphia Union on PKs in the Round of 32, they lost 1-0 to the N.Y. Red Bulls on August 20 and 3-1 to the Union last Saturday. Their most recent victory across all competitions was July 26 against Montréal in their opening Leagues Cup match; their most recent victory in MLS play came June 24, when they beat FC Cincinnati 3-0 at home.
Record: 8W-8D-10L (32 pts)
The Fire hosted the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday, and ended up losing 1-0 off a first half goal that may or may not have actually crossed the goal line (for his part, Brady swears it didn’t). The loss was the third in a row for the Fire since returning from the Leagues Cup, and like their opponents, their most recent win came in the opening game of that tournament, which incidentally was also their most recent win on the road.
The team’s string of wins seems a long way in the past now.
With eight games left to play for both clubs the storyline is simple: In or out? Do you want to make the postseason, or would you be making vacation plans for late October?
The Fire likely need 11 points, for D.C. the number is 13, though with Miami expected to work its way into the discussion, it’s possible more may be necessary. There’s few enough games left that the math for the Fire is becoming plain, even for those who hated algebra in school: The Fire can afford no more than four more losses this year if they want to end their postseason drought. Four wins (probably) does the trick, as does three wins, two draws and three losses.
Still, the actual point total varies – you just need more points than the 10th place team – and both D.C. United and the Fire are still in a position where they can control their own destiny, and Saturday’s contest is a true six point matchup for both clubs. The Fire hold a two scant two point lead over D.C. United and Charlotte, who, with a game in hand, now are ahead of the Fire on a points-per-game basis.
Both teams have two options as they enter the final two months of the season: Will you make it to the postseason, go down fighting, or slip away quietly into the night?
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Out: Mohanad Jeahze, Tyler Miller, Martín Rodríguez
Something uncanny has happened to D.C. United head coach Wayne Rooney since his squad last met the Fire: The Englishman has basically stopped playing his squad out of a 4-4-2; in fact, they haven’t lined up that way since April 16th against Montréal.
Instead, Rooney had been lining up his team mostly out of a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-1-2, but, alas, that, too, has passed. The reason that it’s passed is that one of the two strikers in that setup was Taxi Fountas, who was suspended from team activities in July and left in August after being accused of racist behavior.
With Fountas gone, Rooney has been relying on #20 Christian Benteke to take the mantle as sole striker out of a 3-4-2-1.
So far, it hasn’t worked: Their one victory since Fountas’s departure (though they had lost the last few games in which he played, so it’s not like he was exactly helping the team reach lofty heights) came in the Leagues Cup when they Rooney tried a two-striker setup with #12 Cristian Dájome playing alongside Benteke, and it actually came off the foot of a recently subbed-on Erik Hurtado, who himself also typically plays as a forward.
Playing three strikers is fun and all, but probably not a strategy we’ll see too often from D.C. (or anyone else). The one thing that you will see often from D.C. United under Rooney is the goalkeeper playing far off his net.
Essentially, Rooney wants his backs to play wide and to have the goalkeeper travel outside the penalty area, essentially adding one more player on the back line. Sometimes it works and basically gives D.C. one more outfield player.
It certainly enables the team to make a lot of progressive passes – starting GK Tyler Miller leads the league in progressive passing distance, and it isn’t even close: He’s progressive passes have totaled 21,291 meters and second place is Austin’s Brad Stuver, at a shade under 15,000. Miller is out for 4-6 weeks, which could mean the rest of the season, and even then, he probably has first place locked up in that statistic. And when it doesn’t work? Well, let’s just say that having your goalie play way out of position on a regular basis might have some predictable consequences.
Overall, though, D.C. are sixth in the league for progressive passing distance, and yet they’re 21st in total passing distance. Wayne Rooney’s squad may not pass a lot, but when they do, they hoof it forward. The 4-4-2 may be dead, but the English football spirit lives on.
Out: Javier Casas, Chris Mueller
The Fire have played three in the back several times this season. It has worked. Once. It did not work out the first time the Fire tried it, away at Nashville in a game that turned out to be Ezra Hendrickson’s last as Fire head coach, and it did not work on Wednesday against Vancouver.
Current Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas reverted to four in the back by the second half, and the Fire’s play looked better, though to be clear, the team did have looks on goal playing with both three and four in the back line, they just lacked the final touch to put the ball in the back of the net, and they seemed to rely too much on crosses in lieu of actual planned service.
Regardless, Klopas will likely be reverting to the 4-2-3-1 against D.C. Arnaud Souquet seems to have worked himself back into the equation, though it’s unclear why he was out of it in the first place. Regardless, he was picked ahead of Jonathan Dean at halftime, so he seems to be the option that will be chosen at right back. Let’s just treat Miguel Ángel Navarro, Rafa Czichos and Carlos Terán as read: If they’re good to go, they’re going to go – though Mauricio Pineda can more than an ample claim to a spot at center back.
In the double pivot ahead of them, Ousmane Doumbia had a number of stand out plays on Wednesday and should start. Federico Navarro looked and played like a starter during Gastón Giménez’s one-match stay in Club Red, and in some ways his game compliments Doumbia’s game best out of the possible midfield pairings. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a Doumbia-Giménez pair.
Ahead of them, Xherdan Shaqiri started two games in the past week and seemed to have some kind of tightness before coming off, so will likely start on the bench. That makes Brian Gutiérrez the likely #10, with Maren Haile-Selassie to his right (youth has recovery benefits). On the left, either Jairo Torres or Fabian Herbers are the most likely candidates, though it seems that Herbers is the more likely of the two in Klopas’ estimation.
Finally, at striker, with Kei Kamara having played the 90 minutes on Wednesday, he’s all but certain to be on the bench at the debut Saturday, with Georgios Koutsias the likely replacement.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Score a goal: Something the Fire have not done in 223 minutes (not counting stoppage time), but which is actually critical to getting a win. Simple, but actually effective. The Fire need to score.
- Score early: When the Fire get a goal early on, they simply play differently throughout the match. Earlier in the season, an issue was their ability to hold on to leads, but arguably the Fire’s greater problem has really been opening games up. When they come out, play well and are rewarded with a goal, they play a lot better for the rest of the match, regardless of what else happens.
- Score more goals: Actually, just one more goal than the other team is sufficient. We’re going back to basics, but sometimes that’s what works best: just keeping things simple. Score a goal. Then score more goals than the other team. It’s honestly important to winning games. Trust me on this.
Things seem to be spiralling for the Fire, and with three straight losses, the annual midsummer renaissance which seemed to go on longer than usual has firmly come to an end. D.C. wins, and the Fire will drop below the line for the first time in a few months.
Prediction: D.C. 2-0 Fire
“Have you heard the news that you’re dead?”
Some fans aren’t looking the monitor anymore. Despite the fact that there’s still life in the season, it all makes sense for it to be over very quickly. And that comes from a fourth straight L.
Prediction: D.C. 2-1 Fire
Seems like the Fire are due for a win, doesn’t it? In all honesty – the Fire did have chances but didn’t have the final touch. This is really becoming do or die. Just do, against a D.C. team that has to have a locker room that feels nine steps away from being happy at the moment.
Prediction: D.C. 1-2 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, September 2, 6:30 PM CT
Location: Audi Field, Washington, D.C.
Forecast: 79’F expected at kick off, with 49% humidity, winds S at 7 mph, 8% cloud cover and 0% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: wlsam.com (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)