CJ Sapong used to play there. Courtesy Major League Soccer
Each Nashville SC game, I go to a local reporter for the intel on the upcoming opponent. With Chicago Fire making a trip to Nissan Stadium tomorrow, Hot Time in Old Town‘s Patrick McCraney stops by to fill us in on a team that has had more logo updates in the past 18 months than New England has in 25 years.
Tim Sullivan: A multi-year trend of underachieving the underlying numbers (whether that’s expected goals, possession, etc.) is not great. Have there been common threads to why that’s happened, or does it seem to boil down mostly to bad luck?
Patrick McCraney: “It’s been a combination of bad management decisions, and some bad luck, too. Luckily, the Fire have a new owner named Joe Mansueto who is heavily involved, and genuinely seems determined to dig the Fire out of this mess. They’ve made some great progress off the field–moving back downtown to Soldier Field, getting the Fire back on over-the-air TV on WGN in Chicago, and hiring Arlo White, Tyler Terens and Tony Meola for the TV broadcasts. The club has plans for a huge new training complex, has increased spending massively behind the scenes, and the rebrand-of-the-rebrand on the team’s logo and colors seems to be a hit. Now, they need to just translate that success on the field.”
TS: The Fire started the year pretty poorly, but the past three games have been among the best. What’s gone into the ability to earn seven of nine available points after earning just four of 27 prior to that?
PM: Three games ago, after an ugly, 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati, Raphael Wicky switched to a 3-5-2. At the time, it seemed like a last-ditch effort to save his job, but it’s really worked. The change has helped in a couple of ways: 1.) The defense is a lot more stable, and less prone to bad mistakes, and 2.) Alvaro Medran, the Fire’s central midfielder, has been reborn under the new formation. Medran has five assists over the last three matches, and has made the MLS Team of the Week three straight times.
TS: Speaking of that 3-5-2, how has the personnel shaken out since the tactical shift? Who is getting more time than before, and who has been left on the bench more than previously?
PM: A couple of veteran defenders, Jonathan Bornstein and Johan Kappelhof, have seen a lot more time as the two outside central defenders in the system. Bornstein is in for Francisco Calvo, the team’s regular captain, who is away with Costa Rica at the Gold Cup. “Jonny B” has been so good during that stretch that a lot of Fire fans are calling for him to keep the starting job–and the armband–after Calvo returns. Kappelhof was hurt most of last season, and had struggled to find a place in Wicky’s lineups prior to the tactical switch. This change really seems to suit his style, too. Both guys have been excellent.
TS: Who is going to have to step up and have a big game if the three-game unbeaten run is to continue? Is there an under-the-radar guy who might play a major role?
PM: The team’s forwards are going to need to produce more. After a 12-goal debut season, DP striker Robert Beric has just two goals this season–one in the very first game, and one in the most recent game. He, obviously, will need to start scoring on a more regular basis. Ignacio Aliseda, the team’s young DP forward, won MLS Player of the Week after a two goal, one assist performance against Atlanta United. Outside of that one great week, he’s been out injured quite a bit this season. Aliseda will need to stay healthy and keep contributing for the Fire to keep this up.
TS: Dax McCarty and CJ Sapong are both recent ex-Fire players. How are they regarded by fans in the Windy City? Is it going to be bittersweet to see them suiting up for the opposition?
PM: We still love both of those guys here in Chicago. In addition to being good players and solid teammates, CJ and Dax are both great guys (and they both always come through with fantastic quotes for reporters!) We got to see Dax wearing yellow last season, so that should make it a little easier to stomach. As for CJ, after the season he endured last year having to spend time away from the team because of the premature birth of his daughter, I’m just happy he seems to be thriving as a new dad and as a player in Nashville. I wish that guy nothing but the best.
TS: Do you have any predictions for the match (including a final score if you’re comfortable giving one)?
PM: This one’s tough. On one hand, the Fire are rolling over their last three. On the other, they haven’t won a road match since October 2019, when Bastian Schweinsteiger was still on the team. I’ll say it ends in a 1-1 draw, with goals from Robert Beric and CJ Sapong.