With three wins on the bounce, the Fire are on the brink of a playoff spot with only one game to go. The Men in Red could be in before the start of play on Sunday but the earliest they’ll know is a little over an hour from kickoff of their match vs. New York Red Bulls (LIVE 3:30pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports WI; 4pm on UniMas).
Still, there is plenty to play for, including a possible third place finish thus avoiding the play-in game. For New York no incentive is bigger than knowing a win against the Fire will guarantee the team’s first ever trophy. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Patrick Nyarko and Jalil Anibaba vs New York’s left back – taking advantage of a Red Bulls weak spot
Left back has been a problem position for the Red Bulls this season and with the two natural left backs nursing injuries, the Red Bulls may have to resort to playing right-back Brandon Barklage out of position as cover. Red Bulls coach Mike Petke admitted that he is wary of Patrick Nyarko and hinted that it could be Barklage that gets the start due to his strong 1v1 defending.
WATCH: Segares, Nyarko preview NYRB
With that in mind, I feel the Fire coaching staff will be encouraging Nyarko to get the ball and take the left back on as much as possible. Left midfielder Johnny Steele is not the best at tracking back and helping in the defensive third and this could also allow Jalil Anibaba to get forward and support Nyarko on the Fire’s right.
Anibaba’s crossing ability has improved dramatically this year and regardless of who New York starts on the left, I expect the majority of the Fire’s attacks to come down that side.
Logan Pause vs Alex – who will partner Rios in the middle?
The toughest decision for the Fire’s coaching staff this week is who will replace the suspended Jeff Larentowicz in the center of the midfield alongside Arevalo Rios. One of Logan Pause, Alex or Daniel Paladini will be half of the tandem that will have to compete against one of the strongest midfield pairings in MLS: Dax McCarty and Tim Cahill.
On the one hand, the Fire know that the Red Bulls will be playing for the win and the Supporters Shield crown that comes with the points. On the other, the Fire will also be going for the win, knowing what they will have to do to finish in either fifth, fourth or even third.
With this in mind, Alex would be a more logical pick to start alongside Rios due to his attacking creativity and willingness to get forward and support the strikers. To those who argue that starting Alex over Logan would mean the team loses some defensive clout, coach Frank Klopas would argue that Alex’s defensive play has been excellent this season.
Tactically, I think starting Logan Pause would be the wiser choice, especially when you take into account the fluidity of the New York attack. The center midfielders and strikers for the Red Bulls are never static, with players like Henry often drifting wide and Cahill moving forward to play as the target striker.
With Pause alongside Rios, the Fire would form a very solid block of four, similar to the formation that the Republic of Ireland played under Giovanni Trapattoni. This formation would make the Fire very difficult to break down but would put a lot more emphasis on the wide players to create. This coaching decision has the potential to have huge impact on the match.
Shutting down Fabian Espindola – a player easily lost in the shadows of Henry and Cahill
In the Red Bulls last home match against New England, Mike Petke started with Henry and Fabian Espindola up front and in the first half in particular, Espindola was unstoppable. The New England defense could not keep up with the Argentine striker, who dropped deep and wide in search of the ball, dragging defenders out of position along the way.
Espindola is a player that any coach would love to have due to his tireless work rate. He also hounds opposition defenders when they are in possession, always looking to force a turnover or mistake and does not give up possession easily.
His low center of gravity can be very difficult for defenders to contain and he will certainly pose a challenge for the Fire’s backline on Sunday afternoon. The Fire defenders must not allow Espindola to get behind the backline.
Individually the defenders must not allow him to drag them out of position and create space for players like Cahill and McCarty to move into.
Prediction: With both teams knowing a win would be massively rewarding, I expect an end to end thriller, especially if there is an early goal. 2-2 with goals from Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko.