Following a controversial draw at home against Toronto FC last weekend, the Fire's playoff chances continue to dwindle. This week, the team remains at Toyota Park to face Eastern Conference leading D.C. United on Saturday night (7:00pm CT on My50/TWCSC).
D.C. hasn't played an MLS game for 10 days but will be looking to extend a lead at the top of the East.
Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Putting pressure on the engine room - forcing mistakes from Kitchen and Arnaud
I attended D.C.'s last MLS game which happened to be in New Jersey against the Red Bulls. In that match, the away team set up to play on the counter attack before being forced to bunker after receiving a red card. D.C. rely on their central midfield partnership of Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen to both break up the play defensively but also to start attacks because most of the balls out of the back go through them.
Arnaud is a converted winger and thus is a lot more attack-minded than his partner Kitchen and if the Fire can take advantage of these situations when the Men in Red have the ball and Kitchen or Arnaud is left exposed, it could lead to the breakthrough.
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We saw something similar to this happen in the match between the Fire and TFC last weekend where late in the first half, Quincy Amarikwa was able to pick up the ball in the TFC half after a turnover and made a great run before setting up Alex for a shot that would've given the team a two-goal lead.
If players like Amarikwa, Matt Watson and Sanna Nyassi can continue this tactic of high pressure and force turnovers as they have in the previous matches, it can certainly cause D.C. problems.
Preparing for the return of Eddie Johnson - how to stop the American international
In D.C.'s match against New York, Fabian Espindola picked up a very controversial red card in the first half which rules him out of this weekend's match. Espindola reminded D.C. fans of how big a loss he will be on Saturday by scoring a sublime chip in D.C.'s CONCACAF Champions League match in midweek.
Attempting to replace Espindola's nine goals and nine assists on Saturday will be DP striker Eddie Johnson. Johnson was the highest profile of D.C.'s many offseason signings but has failed to live up to the expectations - scoring five goals to date this season.
With Chris Rolfe and Espindola out and D.C. only two points ahead in the East, Johnson knows that he will have to start producing soon and the match against the Fire would be the perfect time. As of late, the Fire have made some major errors from set pieces and the communication between Sean Johnson and his back four hasn't been the best. I'm sure those errors were discussed in training this week as well as dealing with EJ.
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Despite entering his 30's Johnson's speed is still something to be wary of. He also is able to find little pockets of space between defenders -- something we saw last weekend when Dwayne DeRosario popped up to score the equalizer for TFC.
It is unclear as to who will start in the middle for the Fire but the central pair must watch Eddie's runs -- especially when he moves into the channels. Luis Silva has led the line in recent weeks for D.C. but with Johnson back a switch to a two striker attack is likely.
If the Fire can keep Johnson and partner Silva quiet, a big three points could be in the offing.
Avoiding the middle & playing down D.C.'s left - more attacking play from Grant Ward
Against TFC last weekend, Grant Ward looked dangerous playing on the right-wing particularly getting into 1v1 situations out wide and putting crosses into the box. One in particular almost led to another first half goal for the Men in Red when the young Englishman put in a low cross to Quincy Amarikwa who wasn't able to find the back of the net. He also made a great run in the second half to earn the Fire's penalty kick.
Against D.C. on Saturday, Ward or whoever the starter is on the right wing will be up against another returning D.C. player, Chris Korb, who has been out for a number of weeks. I believe Ward's pace, combined with the forward runs of Lovel Palmer, can cause Korb or deputizing left back Taylor Kemp major problems on Saturday evening.
While both Fire outside defenders are keen to join the attack, Palmer has been much more effective this season. Because D.C. play with two holding central midfielders, the Fire should find more success down the wings thus avoiding the clogged middle.
If Ward can put in another good performance on Saturday, it can only help the Fire's chances of picking up some badly needed points and momentum heading into the home stretch.
Prediction: 2-2 with goals from Grant Ward and Robert Earnshaw.