After a 3-0 shellacking courtesy of a Cucho Hernández hat trick – the second fastest in league history – at Lower.com field in Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday, the Chicago Fire return to Soldier Field for their first and only home game in the month of September.
Their opponent is the New England Revolution, a team whose nickname is probably feeling a little too apt at the moment, given that the team are now playing under their third head coach of the season following an apparent player revolt a week and a half ago.
Both teams want a win to right the ship, though one of them is sitting far lower in the water than the other.
All time: 27W-19D-24L, 103GF, 96GA, (100 pts out of 210)
Last Match: May 27, 2023: New England Revolution 3-3 Chicago Fire at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
New England Revolution
Record: 13W-9D-6L (48 pts)
In their most recent game last Saturday, the Revs traveled to Colorado, a team who had only won a single match at home all season and lost to the Rapids 2-1. Well, who can blame them after the week they had. That loss dropped the Revs to 1W-2D-2L since the Leagues Cup, with their most recent victory coming August 30 against the Red Bulls.
Amazingly, considering the team had been in second place in the East for what seemed like an eternity, the team’s most recent victory on the road was May 6th against a hapless Toronto team; overall, only three of the team’s 13 victories have happened away.
The Fire showed up in Columbus, conceded a penalty in the opening minutes of the game, another not long after, both of which resulted in goals, and a third goal a few minutes later, all off the feet of Cucho Hernández, giving him the second-fastest hat trick in MLS history by the 23rd minute. The Fire went down 3-0, and as a result the team are now in their midst of the longest goalless drought in team history, at 493 minutes and counting.
The Fire crack the top 10 list for consecutive minutes without a goal in MLS history if they don’t score in the opening 14 minutes of the game, overtaking Orlando City’s tally of 507 set in 2018 – hey, take the records where you can get ‘em.
There’s really not one, but two distinct storylines playing out when these teams take to the pitch at Soldier Field on Saturday.
First, the standard one: What each team is playing for at this point in the season, what a win will do for them, what the consequences are of dropping points.
That is relatively simple: For the Fire, get a goal. Preferably more than one, and preferably at least one more than their opponent. If they do that, they get something called a “win” which is worth three points in the standings. That bumps the Fire back into the postseason discussion, though the odds remain stacked against them.
New England, meanwhile, are comfortably in possession of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, although things are looking a lot tighter than they were just a few days ago, when the Revs were in second place in the conference. Now, they’re in fifth and no longer in possession of a spot that confers home field advantage in the first round. An Atlanta win combined with a Revs loss or draw on Saturday sends the team to 6th; if the Revs win, they’re likely in possession of a home spot again.
However, there’s a second storyline playing out with the Revolution, centered around their coaching situation. On July 30, their Head Coach Bruce Arena was placed on administrative leave as the league investigated allegations that he had made “inappropriate and insensitive” remarks. The investigation dragged out for over a month, with no updates made to the public, and, according to reports, to Revs players, until September 9th, when MLS announced they had “confirmed certain of these allegations,” and that as a result, Arena would resign.
During the investigation, Assistant Coach Richie Williams, who has known Arena since he played for him at the University of Virginia in the late 1980s, was placed in charge of the squad. According to reports from The Athletic, complaints filed by Williams were at least part of the investigation. After Arena’s resignation, the players demanded a meeting with Williams, wo, reportedly declined to comment. Unsatisfied with his answers and apparently distrustful of Williams, players refused to train with him.
A day later, the Revolution announced that they had “parted ways” with assistant coaches Shalrie Joseph and Dave van den Bergh and that, Clint Peay, the Revolution II head coach, would become interim head coach for the first team “effective immediately” while Williams remained a “valuable member of the organization.”
So the Revolution, who throughout this ordeal were in second place in the Eastern Conference, are effectively on their third head coach in the past two months and are effectively three assistant coaches short of where they were at the start of the ordeal.
It’s certainly, well, something.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
New England Revolution
Out: Dylan Borrero, Brandon Bye, Henry Kessler, Maciel, Tomas Vaclik
When you were in school, did you ever show up to the class and the teacher wasn’t there? Or do you wonder what would happen if your boss just didn’t show up to work? What if there was no boss? What if you were able to just keep on doing your job with your coworkers. Would things work out? Would it become Animal Farm?
That’s not exactly what has happened with the Revs but it’s close. Normally, when a head coach is dismissed, at least some of the assistants stick around to run training and keep some sense of continuity of tactics and identity while everything is sorted out. That was certainly the plan in New England, but nothing has gone to plan.
All of the first-team assistants are no longer involved with the team, at least at the moment, and acting Head Coach Clint Peay has had little time with the team. There’s some serious questions here – how are trainings run?
Did Peay ask Williams what he did? There were reports of clashes between Williams and other coaches, and displeasure from the players about how he was doing things, so would Peay trust that? Did Peay ask team veterans – like former Fire midfielder Matt Polster – what they normally did and go from there?
That’s not to say Peay isn’t a capable coach – far from it. Though results in MLS Next Pro are often more a reflection of the squad composition than anything else, the Revolution II team that Peay coached put down some impressive numbers – they’re currently third in the league and second in the Eastern Conference on points, top in the Eastern Conference (and third in the league) with goals, and 3rd in the Eastern Conference on goal differential.
They’re a top 10 team in possession and passing, and have played a brand of soccer that’s notably different than Arena’s more counter-attack-and-trust-the-individual style.
While it’s unlikely that Peay will try to upend the apple cart so quickly, especially after Arena had years in charge of the team, he at least had the advantage of a full week to train, as the Revs were one of the teams that was off on Wednesday.
One advantage Peay won’t have? One of the best goaltenders of the league, which is something the Revs enjoyed for most of the season until they sold Đorđe Petrović to Chelsea in late August. In his stead, 31-year-old journeyman GK Earl Edwards Jr. has taken over the starting role. He’s been fine but there is undoubtedly a quality downgrade in net for New England.
In terms of what to expect from the Revs, tactically? Probably something more akin to what the team did under Arena, but we all live to be surprised sometimes. Oh, and they still have Carles Gil, one of, if not the, best #10s in the league not named “Messi,” and strong forwards like Giacomo Vrioni, Gustavo Bou and a reinvigorated Bobby Wood playing in front of a midfield that mixes veterans like Polster with promising young players like Noel Buck. Arena may be gone but he’s left a legacy of a strong roster that endures, at least for now
Despite the chaos around their coaching, there’s a chance that the locker room may be (pardon the pun) revved up: There’s reportedly anger at the former coach Williams, anger at how they were kept in the dark throughout the investigation, anger that a coach that has a reputation for being well-loved by his players (if no one else) was taken from them. That means they now have every reason to play for their teammates and the badge, and screw the rest.
Teams in that mindset can be tough opponents to crack. On the other hand, maybe they’ll go out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. It’s that kind of league sometimes.
Out: Victor Bezerra, Javier Casas, Chris Mueller, Federico Navarro, Mauricio Pineda
Questionable: Rafael Czichos
Suspended: Xherdan Shaqiri, Arnaud Souquet
Let’s just get this out of the way first: On Wednesday, Frank Klopas, undoubtedly looking for the offense that has been sorely missing since the Leagues Cup, tried a formation other than the 4-2-3-1 for the second time since then. Last time, it was against Vancouver, when he rolled out a 3-5-2. It didn’t work, and the team didn’t score, despite playing with two forwards. This time, the “new” formation was actually the oldest one in the book – the 4-4-2. And once again the team didn’t score.
They also finished with their second-lowest possession of the season, at 34%. (Somewhat surprisingly, they won both their worst tally in that department of the season, against Inter Miami in March, and their second worst, another 34% against Sporting KC in late June.)
There isn’t time and frankly at this point, it’s likely none of us really care enough to get into why the 4-4-2 might not have been the best option, and why it’s endangered if not yet extinct in the modern game.
Let’s just take it as read: The 4-2-3-1 isn’t perfect, but at this point, with five games remaining an all but one of the teams wins having come when the team is playing out of that formation (with the sole exception coming in an Open Cup game when both squads had plenty of usual starters on the bench), it’s what the team should play.
Formations aren’t set in stone, of course, and do shift significantly based on game state, who is on the pitch, and specific assignments. Some of the best football this team has played all season came when Xherdan Shaqiri was nominally the #10 and Brian Gutiérrez was nominally out wide, but both were given the freedom to swap as they saw fit.
As for who will fit into the 4-2-3-1 on Saturday? At times, that’s a challenge because Klopas has a wealth of options, all rested and ready to go.
That isn’t the situation for this match. That isn’t a problem for this match – if anything, it’s wondering how he’s going to find a way to count to XI. Injuries have once again begun to pile up – Klopas has indicated that Federico Navarro will likely be out for an extended period of time.
That leaves Gastón Giménez and Ousmane Doumbia likely to return to starting positions in the double pivot, but Fabian Herbers is an option there as well – still, his ability to play on the wing in addition to in the d-mid makes him a smart option to keep on the bench, particularly because he has looked more effective as a sub.
In the back line, both starting center backs on Wednesday in Mauricio Pineda and Rafael Czichos left early with injuries. They may be good for Saturday, but Wyatt Omsberg and Carlos Terán (himself working his way back to full fitness) saw out the match and are likely starters Saturday.
Miguel Ángel Navarro is also working his way back to health, but if he’s remotely able, I wouldn’t be surprised for Klopas to go with his more experienced left back. One player that won’t be in the back line? Arnaud Souquet, who earned his fifth yellow and hence, a one game suspension. Jonathan Dean, it’s your time to shine.
Shaqiri was also suspended, having earned a red – his career first – so we know he won’t be available. That probably means it’s going to be Jairo Torres, Gutiérrez and Maren Haile Selassie, but frankly given the shifts Torres and Haile-Selassie put in on Wednesday, you can understand if he wanted to switch things up and give Herbers a try.
At forward? Who knows. Kei Kamara looked incredibly effective at the beginning of the season, but hasn’t scored in league play since late June. Georgios Koutsias hasn’t looked particularly dangerous and so Klopas even tried throwing a Zdrowaś Maryjo in the form of subbing on Kacper Przybyłko in the second half and it didn’t work.
Smart money is on Kamara, though: When no one is scoring or getting great chances, it’s hard to put that all at the feet of the striker, especially since he’s done it so well, for so long, for so many teams in this league.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Forget about it: There is no sugar coating this: The team is in a slump. The longest goalless drought in team history. But you know what? If you forget about all of that, the team laces up its boots the same as they did when they were on a winning streak. They are the same players they were when the team was on a winning streak. There’s a psychological snowball effect to bad results, but the way out is just living in the moment and forgetting about the past, since, barring a TARDIS in the bowels of Soldier Field (don’t fully discount this possibility), there’s nothing that can be done about it. At its apex the team had, by my rough numbers and possibly bad math, something like a three-in-four chance of making the playoffs, possibly as high as 80% or so. Now that’s something a hair under one-in-three. Losing puts it in the 24% range. No one – pundits, supporters, fans – expects the team to make the playoffs. They still can, but it’d be unexpected. The pressure has, by dint of a major losing streak, been lifted. Just, play.
- Wide but not that wide: The Fire believe their strength is, at least in part, in being able to control the wide parts of the final third. Fine, as far as it goes but so far that’s far too often resulted in blind crosses that don’t result in chances or just possessing the ball only to cough it up before that chance even happens. The team, even with the players out, has the talent where they should be able to control the ball centrally at least some of the time, and work through the half-spaces as well. That presents an additional threat, which if nothing else at least gives opposition defenders twice as much to think about.
- Oh, and yeah, shots are important: Montréal took 19 shots against the Fire last Saturday. That’s as many shots as the Fire had in that game plus their one against Columbus, combined. Yes, the Fire played down a man for over a half hour but even if shooting won’t solve all of the Fire’s problems (they had four shots on target against Montréal and didn’t score, though only one against Columbus, none from really dangerous spots), it is a part of the solution, especially when combined with getting a player with the ball through the half spaces – something the Fire have been woefully unwilling or unable to do.
Who wins in a fight between a headless chicken and a frail chicken? Nobody.
Prediction: Fire 0 – 0 New England
Everyone is in turmoil, but the difference is that the Fire weren’t already a good team. They are in turmoil because they suck. The Revs only started to suck after they went into turmoil. So… Yeah. Whatever. Fire Heitz. I don’t care if he’s gone at the end of the season, get him out now so you can prove to the fans that you care.
Prediction: Fire 0-3 New England
What happens when two teams in turmoil meet? I have no idea. The Fire deserve a goal. They really do. Not Heitz, maybe, but the team, the players, sometimes individually and definitely as a group do. Brady deserves a season of clean sheets. But this is also a cruel world. Let’s split the difference and say the team salvages a point that is basically meaningless for their postseason prospects while continuing the ignominious honor that is the team record streak without finding the back of the net.
Prediction: Fire 0-0 New England
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, September 23, 2023, 7:30PM CT
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Forecast: 70’F expected at kick off, with 68% humidity, winds NE at 10mph and 4% cloud cover and a 2% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free
Radio: WLS-AM 890, TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)