BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at the standings to understand that Saturday night’s match between the Chicago Fire and the Seattle Sounders is absolutely teeming with playoff implications.
Both squads are sitting squarely on the postseason bubble. Seattle are in a good position, in sixth place in the league with 29 points, but they aren’t heading into the weekend on top form, having lost two CONCACAF Champions League matches over the course of the last 10 days.
Currently stuck in 10th place, Chicago are slightly worse off. They're four points behind the Colorado Rapids for the eighth and final playoff spot. And like Seattle, the Fire also lost their last time out, surrendering an 85th-minute goal to fall to the struggling Houston Dynamo 4-3.
Both Seattle and Chicago need this game. For the Fire, leaving Qwest Field with a positive result could depend upon these three defensive keys:
Limit Montero and Nkufo
Seattle forwards Fredy Montero and Blaise Nkufo form one of the more dynamic strike duos in MLS. One thing that the pair does well is play off of each other. Nkufo will check back to receive the ball, using his big body to free up space for the speedy Montero to run in behind. A well-placed ball usually follows, allowing Montero to make a run at goal or find a teammate on the wing.
The Fire defense is aware of the pair’s ability, and they’ll need to limit the dangerous tandem’s impact if Chicago are to leave the Pacific Northwest with a result.
“[Nkufo’s] a pretty skillful guy,” said Fire defender Gonzalo Segares, who featured for Costa Rica when they took on Nkufo and Switzerland in a June friendly. “He likes to come and check [back] a lot. I think that Montero is definitely taking advantage of that with the space in behind that Nkufo creates. There’s got to be a lot of communication amongst the back four to cover those spaces.”
Watch the flanks
One thing Seattle love to do is attack down the flanks, and they have the chops to do it.
Álvaro Fernández, electrifying youngster Steve Zakuani (who is questionable for Saturday’s match with a pelvic strain), and the in-form Sanna Nyassi are all capable of giving opposing defenses fits. All three players possess solid pace, good attacking know-how, and the ability to hit dangerous crosses into the area.
[inline_node:315436]Chicago’s outside backs will have to mark Seattle’s wingers tightly if they are to slow them down.
“We cannot give them too much space,” Segares said. “We’ve got to be tight on them every time that they receive the ball. If we’re tight on them, there’s no way they’re going to turn around and come attack.”
The Fire’s fullbacks also need to be smart when getting forward. Heading up the field with reckless abandon could leave the Fire exposed to counterattacks, something Chicago can’t afford to have happen.
“You got to be smart and choose your times [to go forward],” Fire right back Steven Kinney told MLSsoccer.com. “You definitely have to pick and choose your times because they can definitely beat you on the counter.”
Improve defending on set pieces
Seattle have shown throughout 2010 that they are dangerous when presented with set-piece opportunities in the attacking third. Montero has the ability to put dead balls on goal and into the area, where big targets like Nkufo, Patrick Ianni, Jeff Parke and Nate Jaqua lurk.
That isn’t good news for the Fire, who gave up a startling four goals on set pieces in last week’s loss to Houston. The Fire defenders will need to control themselves around the box to be successful on Saturday.
When they do give up set plays in dangerous positions, Chicago need to mark tightly, communicate well and get some decisive play from goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
“Just get your mark and don’t let him score,” Segares said. “Do whatever it takes. It could be grabbing, it could be something else … just don’t let your guy get a touch to the ball. If he does, make him as uncomfortable as possible.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.