|Matchup||Chicago Fire (1-2-4, 7 pts.) at Vancouver Whitecaps FC (4-5-2, 14 pts.)|
|Date||Wednesday, May 10 • 9 p.m. CT|
|Location||BC Place; Vancouver, B.C.|
|TV||CSN Chicago Plus (Pregame: 8:30 p.m. CT)|
|Radio||97.5 FM Poder (Spanish)|
|Match Preview||Watch Now|
A new chapter in the Chicago Fire's 2016 MLS campaign begins this week, when the Men In Red (1-2-4, 7 points) embark on a cross-country road trip and a stretch of four games in 11 days. First up for the Fire is a trip to the Pacific Northwest and a Wednesday night date with Vancouver Whitecaps FC (4-5-2, 14 points), kicking off inside BC Place at 9 p.m. CT. Pre-game coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. CT on CSN Chicago Plus.
Here's a look at some of the top storylines entering the midweek matchup:
Going West...At Last
More than two months into the season, the Chicago Fire entered play this week as the only remaining MLS team yet to face a cross-conference opponent (home or away), but that changes with Wednesday's visit to Vancouver. The Fire, who after Wednesday will play three of their next five matches against Western Conference foes, were 2-7-1 in their 10 fixtures against Western Conference clubs in 2015. The West claims an upper hand in MLS cross-conference games thus far in 2016, posting a mark of 14-7-9 against their rivals to the east.
Return to the Scene
Veljko Paunovic's first game as head coach against a Western Conference team comes in the same city where Paunovic made his MLS debut as a player back on June 18, 2011, in the Whitecaps' debut season in the league. Paunovic made the long trip to Vancouver with the Philadelphia Union, starting and playing 59 minutes in a 1-0 loss at Empire Field, the temporary home for the Caps before moving into the renovated BC Place.
With just one match played over the last 23 days, it's been well-documented that the Chicago Fire have spent their extra training sessions building possession and efficiency on the ball on all three lines. Even with the strains that come with cross-country travel, Paunovic is now keen to see his side's hard work on the training ground transfer to matchday -- especially given the Fire's inability to pick up points while playing a league-low seven matches through the early portion of the MLS schedule.
"It’s absolutely important to get points, to win games," Paunovic said Monday. "First because I said we’re working hard, we’re pushing hard and we are waiting for some return. I believe we did a great job not only this week and the week behind but in the whole first part of the season and the preseason too, so I think at some point it has to give us some return. The commitment and consistency that we’ve had so far I think it was great. I believe in the coming games, and why not Vancouver, we can get a return on it."
Not Quite a Rematch
Speaking of preseason, the Fire and Whitecaps are meeting for the second time in 2016 after Chicago claimed a 3-2 victory at the preseason Simple Invitational in Portland back on February 21. An early goal by John Goossens off a Vancouver turnover and second-half penalty kicks by Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike were enough for the Fire to earn the win in a match in which it outshot Vancouver, 14-4 (7-4 SOG).
Of course, even with a number of likely starters on both sides involved in that matchup, a preseason friendly can only tell so much of what one can expect in the regular season nearly three months later. For the Fire, the obvious question remains as to where chances are most likely to be created with Goossens and David Accam still sidelined. Arturo Alvarez will be looking to build off his performance on April 30 in the central attacking midfielder role, while up top, Gilberto is in search of his goal-scoring breakthrough and a reclamation of the finishing flair he possessed throughout the preseason.
Morales as Mr. Everything?
Midfielder and Designated Player Pedro Morales stirred the drink at the offensive end for Vancouver over his first two seasons with the club, particularly in his 10-goal, 12-assist season in 2014. That's why there were some raised eyebrows when head coach Carl Robinson deployed Morales in a deeper lying role in preseason (including against the Fire) and early in the regular season before a hip injury suffered April 2 caused the Chilean to miss time.
But there he was once again in a holding midfielder position against Portland on Saturday, protecting the back line alongside Matias Laba while Nicolas Mezquida pulled the strings offensively. Morales made contributions all over the pitch as the Caps held 57 percent of the possession and peppered the Portland net with 26 shots (13 on target) in a 2-1 victory, suggesting Robinson may very well employ a similar strategy Wednesday against the visiting Fire. The reintroduction of Kekuta Manneh on the wing following suspension coupled with an in-form Christian Bolanos (three-game scoring streak) are likely to keep Chicago at attention on the flanks.
Vancouver Whitecaps Starting XI vs. Portland -- May 7:
Start A New Streak
As the Fire head out for the first of three straight on the road (at Vancouver, at New England, at New York Red Bulls), they're eyeing an opportunity to cast aside the road winless streak that has lingered since July, 2014. Chicago has taken a point from each of its first two road trips this season, while Vancouver has only one loss in six home contests this season (3-1-2). Given that Paunovic, his staff and the majority of his players know only the results from two road contests in 2016, they're entering enemy territory with plans to take three points from all three matches.
"We know where we are, we know it from the very first start, every game for us is a final and we will always go with the mentality to win games," he said. "But we also have to understand that we have to be patient and we can’t let that situation overwhelm us and become exciting. We have to manage that. We will work hard in these games. It’s a great opportunity to start improving and winning points."