|Matchup||Chicago Fire (12-8-5, 41 pts.) vs. Minnesota United FC (6-14-4, 22 pts.)|
|Date||Saturday, Aug. 26 • 7:30 p.m. CT|
|Location||Bridgeview, Ill. • Toyota Park|
|TV||CSN Chicago Plus (Pregame Show: 7:00 p.m.)|
|Spanish Radio||Univision América 1200 (WRTO)|
|Injuries, Suspensions, Lineup Projection||MLS Match Preview|
It's a first-ever meeting between the Chicago Fire and 2017 expansion side Minnesota United FC at Toyota Park on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. CT, CSN Chicago Plus). For the Fire, the weekend represents an opportunity to begin a new win streak at home after their previous run of nine straight wins was snapped against Toronto last Saturday. For Western Conference trailers Minnesota, it's a chance to get some late-season bragging rights over a potential midwest rival. Ahead of Saturday night's clash, here are a few key facts, faces and figures to keep in mind:
Key number: -17
The Fire are looking to Saturday's match as one that can course-correct the results they've compiled, with losses in five of the last six. Minnesota United have yet to win a match on the road this season (0-8-2), and have a pair of unfavorable defensive stats in common with the New England Revolution, whom the Fire took down 4-1 at home on Aug. 5. As it stands, both teams have a -17 goal differential in road games played in 2017 (trailing only San Jose's -23 as the league's worst), and both are the only teams in MLS to not keep a single clean sheet away from home this season. There should be goals in this one.
Matchup to watch: Nemanja Nikolic vs. Brent Kallman and Michael Boxall
While the Fire as a collective will be looking to break out against Minnesota on Saturday, Nikolic in particular is eager to see a return to the scoresheet. Nikolic was the league's Golden Boot leader for most of the season prior to his current seven-match goalless run as teams have attempted to clog up his service. He'll be looking to get back to his scoring ways and add to his haul of 16 goals this season come kickoff against a defensive unit that has conceded 27 goals inside the box this season, the league's second-highest total to Real Salt Lake's 30. Head coach Adrian Heath has cycled through numerous centerback pairings this year, but Michael Boxall and Brent Kallman have helped provide a measure of stability in recent weeks.
One Big Question: Will either side see key players return from injury?
For Minnesota, this question mostly starts and ends with forward Christian Ramirez, who is listed as questionable after suffering a hamstring injury against D.C. United on July 29 and has subsequently missed his team's last two matches. Ramirez has been far-and-away the Loons' most dangerous goal threat in their debut campaign, having scored 11 times so far this season. For the Fire, injuries along the backline have forced regulars Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent and Joao Meira to the bench. Of the three, Polster appears closest to a return after participating in training this week, but whether head coach Veljko Paunovic opts to slot him back into his matchday lineup right away remains to be seen.
Minnesota made news during the recent transfer window by splashing big cash for former Columbus Crew SC mainstay Ethan Finlay, who starred in Columbus during a 2015 run to MLS Cup but had not scored since 2017 opening day (against the Fire) prior to the trade. Finlay seems to be enjoying his fresh start with the Loons, finding net in his debut with the club Sunday in a 2-1 loss at Seattle. Finlay has scored 31 goals and added 30 assists in 151 career MLS games, including three goals and three assists in 12 appearances against Chicago.
Sizing Up The Series
There isn't much to size up here given that this is the inaugural meeting between these teams, but of note is the fact that the Fire are 4-4-3 all-time in first meetings against new expansion teams. Additionally, Minnesota United sporting director Manny Lagos appeared 10 times with the Fire from 1998-99, and director of player personnel Amos Magee appeared in eight competitive matches for the Fire from 2001-02 -- most notably in the 2001 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, when Magee famously chested in a game-winning goal in the 111th minute at Wheaton College.
Quote of the Week:
"If you underestimate an opponent, it's going to be a hard game. We have to see this as a final."
That's Fire defender Johan Kappelhof on his side's mentality heading into Saturday night and the mentality they're developing as the 2017 MLS postseason looms.