The Fire travel to LiveStrong Sporting Park on Friday night to face Sporting KC (LIVE 7:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network) in a game which could go a long way toward determining who wins the Eastern Conference crown. Both teams are playing well and it has all the makings of a classic. Here are a few things to watch out for from a tactical perspective...
Balls over the top: Fire defenders beware
Sporting KC have a tendency to look for balls into space behind the opposing teams outside defenders and the Fire will need to be wary of this tactic Friday night. KC attackers such as Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong all like to make these runs which often drag a central defender out of position to cover, leaving space in the middle for the other attackers to move into.
PREVIEW: Fire vs. Sporting KC
The difficult part about defending these through balls is the fact that they can come from anywhere. In KC's last home match against Houston, it wasn't just midfielders like Roger Espinoza playing the balls into space but the defenders were getting in on the act, too.
Though he has played extremely well over the past month or so, Jalil Anibaba can sometimes stray too far forward which leaves space in behind him for players to run into and exploit. On the other side of the field, left back Gonzalo Segares also needs to be cautious.
High pressure: harass KC
In the Fire's past few matches, the team's policy of applying pressure to the opposition high up the field has been very effective. Not only does the pressure offer up the opportunity for a turnover, but it also disrupts the other team’s attacking rhythm.
In KC's last game away to Montreal, the Impact used the high pressure tactic and caused all sorts of problems for the away side. I look for the likes of Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko to be pressuring the KC players all night when they are in possession.
In the absence of Pavel Pardo, Alex has excelled in his new holding midfield position and his energy in the center of the park will be needed against Sporting KC. If he can also use his pace to pressure the KC midfield without straying too far out of position, it will be crucial to the Fire's chances of coming away with points.
Playoff atmosphere: keeping a cool head
There is so much riding on Friday night’s match and both teams know what is a stake, which is all the more reason for the Fire players to keep cool heads throughout the game. Kansas City has a tendency to get riled up very easily, starting with their coach, Peter Vermes. Players such as Kai Kamara and Michael Harrington also can get very emotional on the pitch, especially if they feel calls are not going their way.
With this in mind, I'm sure Frank Klopas has reiterated to his players not to let their emotions get the better of them in this high pressure game. For the most part, the Fire haven't had any problems with this aspect of their game this season but in a match of such importance where there isn't much between the teams, keeping your head can mean the difference between a positive and negative result.
Scoring first: stopping the bad habit
Though not necessarily a tactical point, a worrying trait that many would like to see addressed is reversing the trend of giving up the first goal.
This season, the Fire have gone a goal behind in games much too often for the coaches, fans and players liking. Though the team has often come back to tie the game and gone on to win it in many cases, sooner or later giving up the first goal is going to come back to haunt the Men in Red.
Clearly there is no one reason for going behind in so many games this season but if the team can reverse that trend it will make everyone happy. In the regular season to date, the Fire have only kept five clean sheets, the last of which came 11 games ago (1-0 July 14 vs. Vancouver). A clean sheet away from home Friday against Sporting KC would be a fantastic achievement.
Prediction: 1-0. Nyarko scores and Fire keep first clean sheet in 11 games to move into first place in the East.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.