Four days after hosting a team-record crowd at Soldier Field, the Fire host their regular season home finale Saturday against Charlotte FC, a team that is battling for the same postseason spots as Chicago.
The team’s 4-1 over Inter Miami came at a crucial time for the Fire, and if the team’s buzz from Wednesday night continues through to Saturday – a win along with some help could clinch the team’s first postseason spot in six years, and given the schedule, it’s entirely possible that the crowd at the Fire’s last home game of the regular season could be celebrating clinching a postseason spot for the first time since 2017.
All time: 1W-0D-2L, 6 GF / 7 GA, 3 pts out of 9
Last Match: May 17, 2023: Fire 1-2 Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
Record: 8W-12D-11L (36 pts)
Charlotte traveled to Toronto and in the MLS version of passing “GO” and collecting $200, they got a win and three points. The win was the first for Charlotte since August 26, when they beat LAFC 2-1 at home.
They’ve been an inconsistent team all year – managing draws against Orlando and Philadelphia (both at home), besting Open Cup-winning Houston in the Leagues Cup, the team has had just two wins in league play since the end of May, both at home. Charlotte’s last road win came on May 27th against the L.A. Galaxy who at that point had won just two games all season.
Record: 10W-10D-12L (40 pts)
The circus – in the form of Inter Miami – came to town, and it was the Chicago Fire who put on the show, winning 4-1. The match in front of a sold-out Soldier Field was the team’s second win in a row, propelling them back into a postseason spot. It also marked the first time in a decade that the team has had ten wins in back-to-back seasons.
The Fire once again are in control of their own destiny. Regardless of results elsewhere, a win against Charlotte combined with a win on Decision Day at New York City will see the team making into the postseason, breaking a streak that has continued since Bastian Schweinsteiger’s first year with the team.
If two of the teams below the Fire in the standings with two games remaining either lose or draw (that’s New York City FC, Montréal and the New York Red Bulls), the Fire clinch a postseason spot with a win on Saturday.
The win would have a certain amount of poetry: It was the Fire’s loss to Charlotte in the fixture last year, held in late September, that officially knocked the team out of postseason contention, something that visiting Charlotte fans took no small amount of pleasure in pointing out to the home team.
At that point, it looked like the club from Queen City was cruising to a playoff spot in its first year, but Charlotte would ultimately stumble, winning just one more game and missing out of the playoffs.
Charlotte’s season is not yet over – a win would propel them to within a point of the Fire setting up a crucial away-and-home series with Inter Miami in their final two matches, with Lionel Messi out for international duty on at least the first of those games.
As Xherdan Shaqiri said in a postgame interview on Wednesday, every game for the Fire from this point onwards is a knockout game. If the team that showed up that night shows up again at Soldier Field, they might just continue after Decision Day.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Injured: Ben Bender, Vincinius Mello
Despite the ups and downs in his first full season with the club, Charlotte FC’s head coach Christian Lattanzio’s system hasn’t shifted much from when the Fire played them in May. The team still wants to possess the ball – they’re currently sixth in the league in that department.
Playing out of a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, they rely on the attacking players (whether nominally functioning as a striker or as attacking midfielders) to be able to both create chances for others, including fullbacks playing forward in a wingback role or a late-arriving defensive midfielder, and finish the job themselves.
The issue with Charlotte hasn’t been that those attacking players haven’t been able to do that – Designated Player and Polish international Karol Świderski has 11 goals and four assists on the year – but that they haven’t been able to do it enough to overcome the fact that by the time they get the numbers forward, they need to be successful offensively, they’re very vulnerable to quick counters. Their defense hasn’t been able to get back in time to help out goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina, and as a result, the team has allowed a total of 50 goals to date – only three teams in the league have allowed more, and Charlotte has played a game fewer than most of the clubs that have let in more.
The other issue that Charlotte has had is that outside of Świderski, they haven’t gotten nearly enough production from his countryman and fellow Designated Player Kamil Jóźwiak (two goals, three assists on the year), or their third DP Enzo Copetti (five goals, one assist). Copetti, who arrived this year, has been a particular disappointment, as he was the club’s only significant international offseason signing.
The club started its inaugural year with a roster that many assumed would simply be the starting point as more players could be added in future years, but that hasn’t happened, and instead, the club has relied on a few intra-MLS trades to try to enhance their roster.
Former Fire player Brandt Bronico has remained virtually a lock in the club’s defensive midfield, starting 27 games so far this season, and he’s added a goal and three assists this campaign.
Injured: Victor Bezerra, Chris Mueller, Federico Navarro, Mauricio Pineda
Questionable: Carlos Terán, Jairo Torres
It is, truly, do-or-die time for the Fire, and even if it is the club’s third game in the span of a week, the vast majority of the squad has time to rest and recuperate during the international break.
While squad rotation is necessary to have effective legs out there, the fact is that the team needs its best players on the pitch to give it the best chance possible of getting a critical win at home.
First, some good news: Two players on the team’s back line who were not starters at the beginning of the season – Jonathan Dean and Wyatt Omsberg – have been playing and looking like they fully belong. Miguel Ángel Navarro has been playing like one of the league’s best left backs over the past few games – on both ends of the ball. Fire fans have seen flashes of how strong he can be defensively in some games, and flashes of his ability to get up and join the attack on others, but seldom both at the same time. He’s done that. And Rafael Czichos has remained the anchor ahead of Chris Brady.
Carlos Terán may well be available either on or off the bench, but the Fire have been trying to ensure that he did not worsen a slight injury he’d picked up, and Arnaud Souquet is available on the bench. Having multiple starting-caliber defensive substitutions on the bench for the Fire – while Mauricio Pineda is injured, no less – is simply a world away from where the Fire have been at times over the past few seasons.
Ahead of them, we’re likely to see Ousmane Doumbia and Gastón Giménez return in the double pivot. Slowly but surely, they’ve been growing more comfortable with each other, with Gastón Giménez primarily taking up the reigns as the #8 playing farther up the field, while Ousmane Doumbia takes care of defensive duties as a #6. That increased comfort between the midfielders is a key reason that we’ve seen Giménez more involved in pressing and joining the attack of late (he picked up an assist on the Fire’s fourth goal on Wednesday).
It’s the attacking midfield where the Fire’s bench begins to look a little short: Fabian Herbers played extremely well on Wednesday, assisting on both of the Fire’s opening goals as he flew up and down the field. He did play into the 85’ on Wednesday, and with Pineda and Federico Navarro injured, he’s the only other player who can play in the defensive midfield should Giménez or Doumbia get injured, and if he doesn’t start on the wing, someone else has to, meaning he’d be the only available option there as well.
Brian Gutiérrez, who had been dealing with an injury, was taken off early in the second half to try to ensure that he’d remain healthy for Saturday’s match and beyond. Look for him to start again, but don’t be surprised if he is once again relieved in the second half. That means that the team will be relying on Xherdan Shaqiri to start, even though he’s played nearly two full matches in the past week. Maren Haile-Selassie, who scored a quick second-half brace on Wednesday, making him the team’s leading scorer with six goals, has certainly earned the start.
The question, then, is at forward. Kei Kamara, now tied for second-leading team scorer with Shaqiri, hasn’t played since September 23. He is rested and likely hungry for goal #145, tying him (excuse this if you’ve heard it before) for second all-time in MLS history with Landon Donovan.
Yet – Georgios Koutsias has played very well over the past week. It isn’t just the goal that sent the team to its 1-0 victory over the Red Bulls last Saturday or the two shots he registered against Miami: It’s how he plays off the ball that has had a significant impact. Though he didn’t appear on the scoresheet in Wednesday’s win over Miami, he was heavily involved in the offense. Just watch Shaqiri’s second goal – it’s a classic Shaqiri strike with the Swiss star bearing down on Miami’s goal, but the reason he had so much time and space is that Koutsias was driving into the box, pulling a gaggle of pink shirts with him.
He also pressed more effectively than we’ve seen a Fire forward do in a long time.
My bet is the young Greek player gets another start.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Keep on shooting: The Fire got four goals on Wednesday, in no small part because they had 15 shots, with seven on target. If you want to get the ball in the back of the net, shooting works. That’s particularly true against Charlotte, who don’t have a back of Kamal Miller’s quality nor a goalkeeper of Drake Callendar’s.
- How low can you go: The Fire have typically played out of a mid-block this season, but were willing to switch that to a low block, defending deeper than they traditionally have, as a calculated gamble to take Sergio Busquets out of the equation, realizing that without Lionel Messi, Miami lacked a connecting piece to get the ball to Josef Martínez consistently. They might try the same here, against a Charlotte team that is prone to over-possessing the ball at their own peril, and which is vulnerable to counters. That’s particularly true as, despite tired legs on both sides, both the Fire are the faster team at a number of positions.
- Do it for the fans: This is the Fire’s last regular season home game. Early indicators are that the team is expecting a healthy crowd, with many fans buying tickets for Saturday’s match in connection with Wednesday’s as part of a package and interest in the team picking up following the experience on Wednesday. The team is in the midst of a league-leading playoff drought (the Houston Dynamo, who had been their partners in this streak, have already clinched a postseason spot). A win in front of a home crowd could make for another magical night by the lakefront.
What a time to be alive.
Prediction: Fire 3-0 Charlotte
The Fire actually look like a changed team. Unfortunately, the latest report says that it may keep Heitz around. Charlotte is bad, Fire have momentum. They should win. But again, at what cost?
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Charlotte
I’m not changing this if I don’t have to. As I said before: if I predict a win it won’t happen.
Prediction: Fire 1-1 Charlotte
We’re so back.
Prediction: Fire 7-0 Charlotte
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, October 7, 2023, 7:30 PM CT
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Forecast: 52’F expected at kick off, with 53% humidity, winds NW at 11mph, 30% cloud cover and a 0% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: WLS-AM 890 (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)