Chicago Fire fans have a lot to be excited about this season. The team is sitting second in the East and a single point out of the Supporters Shield race. Their team is on an eight-match unbeaten streak. Their team has played 11 matches at home without losing (stretching back to last season). And their team is on a full week of rest facing a team that played a midweek match in Seattle and is without the services of their star striker who is undergoing the league's mandatory SABH program after getting a DUI.
Given all that and given the low win rate for teams in MLS on the road, it's very tempting to call this match an "easy win" for Chicago at home. But for Chicago to take all three points from the match, it will require changing history, since the 1998 MLS Cup winners have never beaten Orlando City in MLS league play. In six meetings, the Fire are 0 - 2 - 4 against Orlando City, with the two losses coming at Toyota Park. And the last match between the two sides seemed Chicago's best chance for points yet, with the meddling of activist referee "Red Card Teddy" Unkel gifting the Fire an unjustified 2-man adavantage. Even so, the Fire were unable to score against the Orlando nine and the match ended in a scoreless draw. Given all that history, both sides will have circled this match as one they desperately want to win: Orlando City to prove that they can win on the road without Cyle Larin, and Chicago to finally get the monkey off their back of never having taken full points from the Lions.
Players to Watch
For the Fire, there are many dynamic and exciting players capable of creating and finishing goal-scoring chances. MLS Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic enters the match on 13 goals for the season. The always dangerous David Accam comes to the match with 7 goals in his account for the season, and Luis Solignac has added four goals of his own. And the Fire roster is filled with prolific playmakers, too, with seven players on the roster that have all contributed 3 or more assists on the season: David Accam (5), Michael de Leeuw and Bastian Schweinsteiger (4 each), and Luis Solignac, Dax McCarty, Johan Kappelhof, and Brandon Vincent (3 each). The team is also defending well. As a unit they have scored 27 goals on the season while giving up only 17, to sit on a +10 goal differential.
For Orlando City, the question is going to be how many of its star players will actually start this match. The team is playing its third match in 8 days, all three without Cyle Larin. Carlos Rivas, Scott Sutter, Jonathan Spector, Cristian Higuita, and Kaka have all played 180+ minutes over the last two matches, while Giles Barnes, Danny Toia, and MPG have all contributed between 150 and 175 minutes in the two contests since June 17. There are bound to be some tired legs on the squad, and one wonders how many of the players that have gone the full distance both games will even make an appearance in this match.
This is setting up like a "perfect storm" scenario for Orlando City. They are facing a team on a hot streak that is desperate to get a win over a club they have not yet beaten in league play, they are missing their star goal scorer, and they are coming off of two nail-biting draws that saw Orlando City claw back a point in stoppage time on goals by two unlikely scorers: Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter. Added to that, 8 of their regular starters have played deep into the last two matches and the team is on only three days rest.
For Chicago fans, the only thing seemingly to worry about is the "Buckeye" effect from the 2007 BCS National Championship game. That matchup saw the unanimous No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes face off against the controversial No. 2 Florida Gators, who had jumped from fourth to second on the strength of beating Arkansas in the SEC National Championship game. Ohio State was undefeated at 12 - 0, while the Gators had lost to Auburn on the road in the middle of the season.
The pundits all predicted Ohio State would win due to its explosive offense, led by Heismann Trophy winning quarterback, Troy Smith. Indeed, the game started off looking like it would go the way of the Buckeyes, with Ted Ginn, Jr. returning the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and putting the Buckeyes up before the Gators ever had a chance to touch the ball. But the scrappy Gators had a great game plan and recovered from the opening score to eventually win the game in convincing fashion, 41 - 14.
But wait, you say--this is not NCAA football, this is MLS soccer. You are right about that. And in theory professional athletes should not get seduced into overconfidence and believing in their own hype the way that college athletes often do. And after going scoreless against a 9-man Orlando side a couple of weeks ago on the road, I don't think that Chicago is going to suffer any mental lapses in this game. I'm going to have to break with tradition in this one and go with my head over my heart. Unfortunately I think the home side wins this one, with Chicago recording a 2 - 0 victory.
What are your thoughts on the match? Do you think Orlando City will fall on the road, or do you think that the team will defy the odds and manage to bring back a result from Chicago, getting even deeper into the heads of this opponent? Let me know in the comments below!