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Know Your Enemy: Chicago Fire – Meeting the First, Part One – The Lineup and Form

Preview of TFC's upcoming opponent, the Chicago Fire, kickstarting the buildup to Saturday's encounter with a look at their lineup and form

Yallop ain't happy with Chicago's start to the season
Yallop ain't happy with Chicago's start to the season
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Two successive matches, two successive spots of controversy, but Toronto FC must pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and prepare for another potential roasting, as Saturday sees them return to the pitch, for an encounter against an Eastern Conference foe.

The first three matches of the 2015 season have thus far been a mixed bag – the loss in Salt Lake was exemplary of that fact: better than expected, but ultimately disappointing.

The next match, however, brings with it new promise, new hope, a chance at victory and to collect some points before the season truly normalizes with a home opener in a mere five-weeks time.

For Saturday's opponent, 2015 has been equally unkind.

Rebuilding a club is a difficult task, and with just four games under their belt it is not the moment to be writing off a team's potential, but no doubt Frank Yallop and company would have wanted more from their off-season than has come to fruition.

Though they may be down on their luck – tied with Toronto in the lower reaches of the standings – Yallop's side is not to be underestimated.

No doubt, a closer look at this round's opponent, the Chicago Fire, is in order.

The Lineup

It is not unusual for an MLS side to undergo heavy renovations in the off-season. All clubs experience some turnover and most see significant changes, but with fourteen players coming in and sixteen players heading out – according to the Transaction tracker, Chicago is in the upper limits of what can be considered 'normal'.

Not only did the fringe players in the squad experience a heavy cull, but a few core changes have taken place as well. Two of the longest serving members of the side – Logan Pause and Gonzalo Segares, who had been with the club longer than TFC has existed (although Segares spent some time in Cyprus in between stints) – retired, draining the club of the experience and continuity that is often underrated in modern professional sports.

Other veterans heading through the out door included Patrick Ianni, Bakary Soumare – who had some unpleasant words for his former employers – and former Toronto, now Vancouver striker Robert Earnshaw. Ianni and Earnshaw saw their options declined, while Soumare was selected in the Re-Entry Draft, landing in Montreal with former Chicago bench-boss Frank Klopas.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, Chicago cut ties with some once-promising youngsters: Victor Pineda, a homegrown talent, saw his option declined, while Benji Joya's loan expired, as too did the loan of Tottenham midfielder Grant Ward, while Florent Sinama-Pongolle, no longer a youngster to be sure, had his option declined as well.

Another designated player exited as well, with Juan Luis Anangono's dire spell coming to an end with his a transfer to Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico.

Approaching a blank slate, Yallop, entering his second season at the helm, set about rebuilding the squad in his own image, beginning with a trio designated players: the speedy David Accam was acquired from Helsingborgs IF in Sweden, the tenacious Kennedy Igboananike was brought in from Stockholm based AIK, while Shaun Maloney transferred from English Championship side Wigan Athletic.

The international sourcing did not end there, as left-sided attacker/defender Joevin Jones joined from Jamaican side W Connection, centre-back Adailton transferred from Bahia in his native Brazil, fellow Brazilian Guly do Prado, formerly of Southampton, was acquired on as a free agent, and most recently, Spanish midfielder Victor Perez signed, on loan, from Real Valladolid, via Levante, where he was similarly on loan.

Dollars invested, Yallop rounded out the squad with a few homegrown signings – Collin Fernandez and Patrick Doody – and a few draft picks – Matt Polster and Kingsley Bryce – as well as bringing in some MLS experience in midfielder Michael Stephens, goalkeeper Jon Busch – both on frees – and acquiring Eric Gehrig from Orlando City after they had selected him out of Columbus in the Expansion Draft.

They also re-signed Alex, who has grown into MLS, entering his fourth-season in the league.

Add that lengthy list to the select talent that remained in place, and Yallop has a ton of options at his disposal, though that does create a bit of a headache, especially with a roster so congested in the midfield and up top.

Having won their first game of the season on the weekend, one would expect an old-school coach like Yallop to stick with a winning side, but, and it is a big one, both Maloney and Accam will be available again after international duty, so the question is: do they go immediately back into the starting eleven?

He offered some thoughts on the choices, and hinted at his decision, though of course, there could be an element of deception at play: "It’s good for any coach to have, obviously it’s not good for all the players vying for the spots to play. From the start of it, I’ve had a vision for how we’re going to look, how we’re going to play. Obviously people beat other people out for places, and there were some good performances on Sunday. We’ve got two really good players returning and I expect them to come back into it. It’s getting a little cluttered for starting spots so it’s up to me to sort out and figure out what’s going to go on in the future. "

Further adding to the confusion, word has come down that Razvan Cocis, yet another midfielder, is recovering from a bout of plantar fasciitis, and could be available. Thankfully, for the purposes of projection and for TFC's fortunes, both Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko are both expected to remain on the sidelines for a while still, following hip surgery and ACL/MCL issues, respectively.

With all those cavaets in place, their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Sean Johnson in goal; from right to left – Eric Gehrig, Jeff Larentowicz, Adailton, and Lovel Palmer across the back-line; Matt Polster will patrol in front of the back four, with Harrison Shipp, Michael Stephens, and Joevin Jones across the midfield; Kennedy Igboananike will pair with the indomitable Quincy Amarikwa up top.

football formations

Now, the obvious omission are the two internationals, Maloney and Accam, who could by all means be inserted back into the eleven – Accam would likely to the place of Igboananike, while Maloney would line up centrally, forcing Stephens to the right, Shipp over the left, and Jones, possibly, to the left-back spot.

Accam's Ghana played two games during the International window, both in France, the last of which was played on Tuesday. Maloney and Scotland similarly placed twice – a friendly win over Northern Ireland last Wednesday and a demolition of Gibraltar in EURO qualifying on Sunday. Both will likely have returned in time, but whether it is wise to rush them back into the side, or give them a rest, is the decision at Yallop's desk.

Chicago has a rather light schedule this month with just three matches – a bye week follows next round before a trip to Montreal and hosting New York City; another factor to be considered.

Should they indeed be left out of the lineup, expect to see them join from the bench.

Aside from those alterations, the midfield is the most likely spot to see tinkering. Matt Watson entered from the bench against Philadelphia for his first taste of action. Guly has regularly entered the contest in the second half, while Alex saw scant minutes against Vancouver, and Chris Ritter, he of the Luke Moore red card last season, is yet to see any action this season. Then there is Cocis, who is unlikely to be more than a substitute, if in the eighteen at all. And finally, there is the new arrival Perez; yet another option in the midfield. He is purportedly a defensive mid.

On the back-line, Greg Cochrane is a left-sided option, while Gehrig did see action at centre-back in the opener with Adailton injured, forcing Palmer into the right-back spot.

One will have to wait and see what Yallop has up his sleeve for Saturday.

The Form

For what is is worth – not much – Chicago will enter the match in eighth place in the East, tied on points with Toronto (three), but having played an additional game.

Through four matches, Chicago has lost three, opening the season with a three-match losing skid, before finally collecting some points with a 1-0 win over Philadelphia on Sunday.

With Accam and Maloney away, Chicago rode the good play of the likes of Shipp and Stephens to victory, the winner coming from a left-sided Shipp corner kick in the 37th minute that was flicked on at the near-post by Adailton to beat Rais M'bolhi.

A red card to the Union's Fred in the 72nd minute, for a silly swat at Shipp helped to seal the result.

The Fire opened the season in LA, facing the Galaxy in the first Friday night match of the year, falling 2-0 in bland performance. They held firm for an hour, before Jose Villarreal nabbed the first goal of the nascent campaign in the 65th minute, pouncing on a failed clearance from Larentowicz to send a low shot to the bottom corner. Robbie Keane would double the damage in the 81st, hammering a right-footer past Johnson in the Chicago net.

Already dispirited from that dour performance, Chicago suffered another blow in their home opener as Octavio Rivero struck in the 86th minute, sweeping a right-footer into the bottom left-corner of the goal after a poor clearing header from Palmer fell to Steven Beitashour, who found the striker in space on the left-side of the area.

They then faced the difficult task of opening San Jose's new Avaya Stadium, falling 2-1 to the Earthquakes on goals from Fatai Alashe and Ty Harden inside the first 21 minutes. Alashe was able to nod in from close range after Clarence Goodson directed a Matias Perez Garcia corner kick towards goal and Harden touched in from a similar distance after Goodson header Garcia's free-kick towards the Chicago net – goalkeeper Johnson did not cover himself in glory on either occasion (#foreshadow).

Shipp would draw one back for the visitors in the 29th minute, slipping his finish under David Bingham after Jones slid him in behind the San Jose defences.

Three points from four matches is not a great return; Yallop and the Fire will be eager to carry the positivity from the win over Philadelphia into Saturday's match against Toronto.

Part Two, discussing Chicago's strengths and weakness with some game film, and highlight some points of interest will be posted soon.