BRIDGEVIEW, IL - JUNE 4: Mauro Rosales #10 of the Seattle Sounders FC and Gonzalo Segares #13 of the Chicago Fire battle for the ball in an MLS match on June 4, 2011 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
The Chicago Fire's ongoing reinvention seems to be going well, but the Seattle Sounders still head to Toyota Park as heavy favorites.
The Chicago Fire haven't had the easiest go of things these past few years. Things haven't been the same since the departure of inaugural head coach Bob Bradley, and though things looked as though they might be heading in the right direction under Carlos de los Cobos an early-season stagnation lead to his dismissal and the subsequent interim appointment of Frank Klopas. After a strong finish to the year the Fire cut the interim tag from Klopas' title and Chicago appears to have picked up where they left off last season, on track for a playoff spot (at least at this absurdly early stage) and sporting one of the league's premiere defenses. Despite the encouraging start, the Sounders come to town as by far the most difficult competition the Fire has faced, and if Chicago wants to keep the momentum going they'll need to shut down what will likely be the best lineup the Sounders have put on the field in MLS play so far this season.
It's important to remember that the Sounders have to this point been without Mauro Rosales, Adam Johansson, Eddie Johnson, Brad Evans, Alvaro Fernandez and Osvaldo Alonso for portions of this young season. And to this point, they've managed a healthy clip of two points per game, their best-ever start at the MLS level. Seattle will be without Alvaro Fernandez, but the inclusion of Rosales and Johansson-as well as an increasingly fit Johnson-will give them an attacking edge they've been sorely missing. That's likely to give them a boost over a lineup that's averaged just 1.2 goals per game so far this season, something that will be a major boost against a Fire side that's surrendered just six goals through eight games.
Tightening up at the back has been the hallmark of the Klopas era to this point, the Fire favoring a possession-based approach in order to keep the ball out of the hands of their opposition. That strategy hasn't paid off in terms of goals scored to this point, but with attacking threats such as Dominic Oduro, Patrick Nyarko and playmaker Sebastian Grazzini that pace seems unsustainably low. Chicago's narrow diamond 4-4-2 is of the type that's given the Sounders some difficulty this season, taking away the central areas in which Seattle is the most dangerous, but at the same time it lessens the impact of the tricky Marco Papppa who has been forced to share space with Grazzini.
One of Seattle's greatest strengths last season was their ability to adapt to differing defensive schemes; the ability of Rosales and Fernandez to switch off and spread or contract the game at will made for one of the more versatile attacks in the league, with Fredy Montero drifting into whatever space was available in order to bring some central stability to Seattle's offensive game. without that balance from wide areas Montero has found himself the sole target of opposition defenses, but despite the added pressure the Sounders' key attacking force has thrived thus far; with Rosales returning too the mix, Montero may well find the space he needs in which to make an impact that shows on the scoresheet.
With a significant disadvantage in terms of games played, the Sounders find themselves in 4th place in the Western Conference and 7th overall in MLS, but a strong run over the next three games could see them closing in on Sporting Kansas City's blistering pace and vault them to the top of the standings in short order. May will be a crucial month for Seattle, with seven MLS games on the slate and three against teams that should at this point be considered to be their biggest rivals for the conference crown. It's always ideal to begin such a difficult run of games with a win, and given that the Sounders are as close to full strength as they've been all season it's a fair bet that the club Sounders fans were hoping for will be in evidence in Chicago on Saturday night.