The Fire start the 2013 MLS season at the Home Depot Center on Sunday against the two-time defending champions LA Galaxy (LIVE 4pm CT on UniMas). Both teams made some major changes over the off-season and will be looking to start 2013 off on the right step. Here are a few tactical things to keep an eye on...
New central midfield pairing – how will the JL’s play together?
Last season, the Fire paired Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo in central midfield. This season, two new midfielders take their places: MLS veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere. Both have played together in preseason but the regular season, against the defending champions at the Home Depot Center is a different animal.
Lindpere is noted for his attacking ability but he will be required to help Larentowicz defensively, especially when the Fire turn the ball over. It will be important for both players to hold their positions and not get caught too far apart.
In an away match, it is vital to hold on to possession when you get it and it will be important for both of the JL’s to link well with each other through the match.
Set pieces – how will LA deal with service from Lindpere?
One thing that really stood out during the preseason was Lindpere’s ability to deliver a good ball into the box, especially from dead ball situations. Time after time, Lindpere put balls into the danger area – the space between the penalty spot and the six yard box. The Fire got some goals from set pieces last year and players like Austin Berry are a major threat from them.
Larentowicz is also good in the air, scoring a header in the Carolina Challenge Cup from a Lindpere corner. The Galaxy will be looking to avoid giving up silly free kicks around the area and will try to limit the number of corners the Fire but with Lindpere’s quality, the Fire can be very dangerous in this department.
LA will be debuting the vastly experienced ‘keeper Carlo Cudincini and the Fire’s set pieces will question whether he and his defense are on the same page.
Dilly Duka vs Sean Franklin – youthful exuberance vs experience
Dilly Duka looks set to make his debut for the Fire on Sunday, starting on the left wing. Duka’s opponent will likely be Sean Franklin, one of the best right backs in the league and a player with well over 100 MLS games under his belt.
This matchup is fascinating because just as Duka loves to get forward and take on his man, Franklin regularly pushes up to support in the attack, contributing with his fair share of assists. Duka will need to find a good balance between trying to keep Franklin pinned back by pushing forward, and helping out Gonzalo Segares when Franklin does advance to support the attack.
Duka is a very creative player and could end up giving Franklin a tough time but on the other side of the coin, if Segares and Duka are not in tandem, Franklin could hurt the Fire.
Robbie Keane – it’s not just all about goals
Robbie Keane’s goals dragged the Gals to their second MLS Cup victory in a row last season but his play is not all about goals. He likes to drop into the hole and link up with the Galaxy’s midfielders. Keane is very good and holding onto the ball in tight spaces and playing through balls to advancing players.
At Euro 2012, Keane played a similar role for the Republic of Ireland but was often crowed out, something the Fire should look to do if and when Keane drops deeper into the hole. Keane will certainly miss Landon Donovan and Mike Magee on Sunday but even without them, he is a major threat and should prove a handful for Berry, Friedrich and co.
Prediction: 2-1 Fire with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Arne Friedrich.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.