Be Chicago. Be Fire. Be Football. Be Club.
Time for some MLS competition, baby! Nashville SC will take on Eastern Conference side Chicago Fire in Tampa this afternoon. What should we expect?
Opponent: Chicago Fire (10-12-12 last season) • 42 points, 8th place East
Time, Location: Thursday Jan. 30, 2:00 p.m. CST (3:00 local) • Tournament Sportsplex, Tampa, Fla.
Weather: 80ºF, 14% chance of rain, 77% humidity, 21 MPH SSW winds
Watch • Listen: No streams 😦
Etc.: The full Nashville SC 2020 preseason schedule. Recap of the IF Elfsborg game.
Chicago Fire FC
The semi-annoying name change isn’t the only thing different in the Windy City this soccer season, and nor is a change of venue to actually be in said city: The Fire will see the greatest personnel turnover (measured in minutes played) of any MLS team from 2019 to 2020:
That’s probably a positive for the Fire. They were middle-of-the-pack at best in terms of results. However, it’s fair to say that they vastly underachieved: from an xG standpoint (which tends to be more predictive of future results than the goals actually scored and conceded), they were the second-best team in the league, and based on my power ratings taking into consideration both factors, joined the San Jose Earthquakes as a team whose gap between process and results bumped them from “totally elite” to “not even in the playoffs.”
So… does a reboot help maintain some of the things that allowed them to perform at a high level in xG terms while shedding some of the characteristics that led them to underachieve those performances on the scoreboard? Is there an indication that their finish in the table was anything more than just rotten luck? Either way, I think the lack of continuity essentially means we should start from scratch when analyzing them.
Unfortunately for the new-look Fire, our only evidence for what the club will look like in 2020 is far from positive: an uncompetitive friendly thrashing at the hands of the Philadelphia Union. Per the game report, here were their first-half and second-half lineups:
Chicago first-half XI: Kenneth Kronholm; Jeremiah Gutjahr, Johan Kappelholf, Francisco Calvo, Jonathan Bornstein; Fabian Herbers, Mauricio Pineda, Djordje Mihailovic, Przemyslaw Frankowski; Robert Beric, Alex Monis^
Chicago second-half XI: Connor Sparrow; Brandt Bronico, Jonathan Campbell^, Jesus Vazquez^, Raheem Edwards; Alvaro Medran, Michael Azira, Javier Casas^, Jonathan Jimenez^; CJ Sapong, Elliot Collier^
My assumption is that we’ll see two 45-minute halves today, rather than three 30-minute segments as was the case last week. I’m also going to assume that we’ll see fairly close to a first-choice XI in the opening period. Is what we saw from the Fire last week that XI? Sure, for now.
Kenneth Kronholm was a slightly below-average keeper last year (effectively average). The defense also wasn’t the primary source of the massive gap between xG numbers and actual goal-scoring, so returning Johan Kappelhoff, Francisco Calvo, and Jonathan Bornstein (who joined mid-season in 2019 and became an immediate starter) is probably a good thing. In the defensive midfield, Chicago does lose its minutes leader, a name you may recognize in “Dax McCarty.”
The offensive side of things… may still be a work in progress. Another year of development from occasional USMNTer Djordje Mihailovic could see him become a more well-rounded creator. Since this is a friendly we won’t be able to see, I can’t bring myself to delve into the stats in-depth. Fellow midfielder Przemyslaw Frankowski provided some offense last year, as well.
Who scores though? Aleksander Katai took 105 shots last year (to be fair, the fact that he only converted six of them – only 0.6 below his xG, but potentially taking better shots away from teammates – probably played a role in Chicago’s disappointing season). Nemanja Nikolic was by fair the team’s leader in xG, with 13.50. They need a finisher, at the very least. With a robust sample size of “one preseason friendly,” they don’t have that.
Worryingly, they played an unsigned trialist – former Fire striker Elliot Collier, who played with Memphis 901 last season – up top to begin the game. That could give indication that they didn’t go “first-choice, second-choice” by half, since DP Robert Beric is expected to be The Man this season.
We got some indication of what could be a first-choice group for Nashville in last weekend’s friendly, but the absences of both projected starting wingers (Randall Leal to international duty, David Accam to injury) probably means we see at least Leal and potentially a healthy Accam plugged in. Striker Daniel Ríos was also unavailable a week ago, and could be an answer to the goal-scoring deficiency that resulted against IF Elfsborg. That’s not to say he’d be a panacea if healthy, but another bullet in the chamber is always good.
Largely, though, I think those players will continue to rest, so only Leal gets added to the squad (late-arriving Miguel Nazarit, who had a delay in getting his entry visa, will also take a bit of time to integrate with the squad and may be another few days away, even if his talent is worthy of first-choice).
Give-or-take the health and performances of a couple players in there.
Keys to the game
- Get better in preparation for the regular season.
Time for this team to score. In fact, I say it about both sides. After a 0-0 draw last week…
- Chicago’s Djordje Mihailovic feeds Robert Beric through the middle for the striker’s first goal in a Fire uniform.
- Nashville SC’s Randall Leal creates an opportunity after getting in behind on a throughball from Hany Mukhtar. While Abu Danladi can’t finish his pass, Mukhtar follows up to dunk it home.
- One of the teams finds a winner in “mostly backups” time. I’ll assume Nashville because that would be a happier occasion and I love to predict happiness for the readers.
Nashville SC gets its first (unofficial) win as an MLS side 2-1.