Back in the MLS action this Saturday, the Portland Timbers go on the road to take on Chicago Fire (5:30pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, 750 The Game / La Panters 940. Find out everything you need to know about the opposition.
A brief history…
Success was something that Chicago became synonymous with straight away as they completed the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double in their first season in the league under head coach Bob Bradley. Three more U.S. Open Cup victories have since followed as well as one Supporters’ Shield triumph in 2003.
Playing at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Chicago has gone through a number of seasons with mixed results but look to find their way back to being a successful team on the pitch with club legend Frank Klopas charged with that responsibility.
How did they fare last season?
An upturn in fortunes in the second half of the season saw Chicago pick up eight wins to fire (pun intended) their way into the MLS Playoffs. Their regular season record was impressive as they ended up with 57 points from 34 games, but their postseason adventure fell at the first hurdle when they lost 2-1 to Houston Dynamo in an Eastern Conference knock-out game.
Part of the reason why they got that far was the solid backbone that they shaped their team around with Sean Johnson in goal, Austin Berry and Arne Friedrich at the back, Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause in midfield, and Dominic Oduro and Sherjill MacDonald or Chris Rolfe up front. Others made valuable contributions too, but that core made them a tough team to beat.
Who have they brought in for this season?
The big news regarding player changes at Chicago was who departed the club this season with fan favorites Cory Gibbs, Dan Gargan, Pardo, and Oduro all moving on. While both Gibbs and Pardo retired, the trade of Oduro to Columbus Crew was a surprising one – but they did gain Dilly Duka and the rights to Robbie Rogers as part of the deal, so some will argue that it was shrewd business--more on that in a moment.
In terms of new faces, the midfield trio of Jeff Larentowicz, Joel Lindpere and Duka were brought in behind forwards Maicon Santos and Quincy Amarikwa – all of whom have experience of playing in the league. They have also been busy of late, bringing defender Bakary Soumare back to the club and trading Rogers’ rights to LA Galaxy in exchange for signing veteran Mike Magee. They are expected to make more moves over the summer.
How have they done so far this year?
With 11 points taken from 12 games, it has been a difficult start to the season for Chicago. There has been issues all over the pitch with just nine goals scored and 17 conceded, while injuries have left them short of key players and unable to select a consistent lineup. On top of that, it is a team still trying to find its identity after a number of personnel moves.
It took Chicago five games to record their first victory (a 3-1 triumph over New York Red Bulls), although they have only won once since then (edging to a 1-0 win over Columbus Crew). There has been some noticeable improvements in recent weeks, including a draw away to Real Salt Lake and last weekend’s 2-0 win over D.C. United. The midseason arrival of both Magee and Soumare have energized the club and the appear to be on the upswing.
Head coach: Frank Klopas
A true Chicago legend, Klopas first made his name with the Chicago Sting indoor team before earning a move to Greece, where he spent eight years. Upon joining MLS, the United States international began to have a big impact, especially in his final season with Chicago Fire. Since putting up his boots, he has worked in the media, as a Technical Director and then head coach with the Fire. A passionate soccer guy, Klopas is striving to turn the Fire back into a winning team.
Star Player: Mike Magee
Acquired in a trade with LA Galaxy that saw the rights to Rogers go the other way, Magee is someone who could transform the fortunes of Chicago this season. A dynamic attacker, who is comfortable playing wide in midfield or up front, the Illinois native won two MLS Cups with Galaxy and proved to be a key player for them. He scores important goals, links play superbly, works incredibly hard for the team, and is a real leader (on and off the pitch).
One To Watch: Sean Johnson
Rated by United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann as a rising star, this talented goalkeeper has been a regular for Chicago for the past two seasons now. Originally picked up in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, the 23-year-old has excelled in recent years and improved greatly. While his kicking and staying focused at key times can improve, he is already a keeper that a defense can rely on to pull off big saves in big games.
What can the Timbers expect?
So far, Chicago has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league – you just cannot predict which way they will play. When they do click, they can be very dangerous on the break with the speed of Duka and Patrick Nyarko opening up gaps, while Lindpere and Larentowicz have the range of passing to pick out teammates. But they are missing a natural finisher with Rolfe not hitting top form yet.
The 4-2-3-1 formation that they have tended to use in recent weeks allows them to maximize their counter-attacking style, while also having enough cover to be strong defensively. However, they have tended to struggle to dominate games with only 32 percent possession in the draw with Real Salt Lake. But they were a lot more positive in a 4-4-2 system against D.C. last time out.
Who are their main threats?
It will be curious to see where Klopas sees Magee fitting into his lineup and his presence could slightly alter their style of play. If used up front, as he was against D.C., Magee could fill the No. 10 role and take a lot of pressure off Nyarko or Rolfe by dragging defenders out of position. If deployed out wide, he can help provide service into dangerous areas and give Chicago some much-needed width.
The other important attacking players include MacDonald, Maicon Santos and Alex, all of whom can score crucial goals. But it is all about getting the ball into them as the Chicago midfield has not been as effective going forward this season. Yet, they can still hurt teams, especially at set pieces with the likes of Berry and Soumare dominating in the air, while Lindpere can execute free-kicks.
Where are they most vulnerable?
In a lot of games this season, they have showed weakness in every area. In defensive midfield, Larentowicz and Pause – although experienced players in their own right – have not clicked as a partnership, while there has been little cover offered by their outside midfielders, which has put more pressure on their outside backs and led to teams exploiting that.
At the heart of their defense, Friedrich has been a massive loss as he struggles with injury, but the return of Soumare from Philadelphia Union has allowed Berry, who is only in his second season, to share the responsibilities. Chicago has a tendency to sink backwards when put under pressure, which invites opposing teams to shoot from distance, so Klopas will have to address that especially with the likes of Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Will Johnson in the Timbers team.
Previous Meetings in MLS
2011: April 14 – Portland Timbers 4-2 Chicago Fire
2011: July 16 – Chicago Fire 0-1 Portland Timbers
2012: May 20 – Portland Timbers 2-1 Chicago Fire
Record vs Chicago Fire: 3-0-0
Did You Know?
Chicago head coach Frank Klopas won the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup as a player with the Fire – scoring the golden goal in that U.S. Open victory over Columbus Crew in 1998.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.