From last place in the Eastern Conference in 2016 to nearly the top this season, the Chicago Fire have had quite the turnaround.
Sure, the club added Bastian Schweinsteiger early in the year and the addition of Dax McCarty and Juninho likely help, but there’s got to be more to this massive change in standings, right?
In preparation for Saturday’s match, we went to our friends at Hot Time in Old Town to learn a little more about Chicago, a team Crew SC hasn’t since since early April. Sean Spence was kind of enough to answer our questions about his side to help preview this old-school MLS clash.
Here’s what he had to say.
Questions for Hot Time in Old Town
Massive Report: The Fire's home vs. road form is something that's come up quite a bit around this week. What's been the major difference in your eyes between the team at Toyota Park as opposed to other stadiums.
Hot Time in Old Town: For me, there's not as clear a difference in the Fire's level of play as the numbers suggest. They beat New England fairly easily on the road, played a full-strength Timbers side to a draw. Those were both sides that came at the Fire a bit. But against teams that sit back, the Fire struggle. The weird fact is the Fire have played quite a lot of time on the road while up a man - both the 0-0 draw in Orlando and the 2-1 loss in Yankee Stadium were against teams that went down a man early and packed it in. And that's the Fire's real Achilles heel so far: Teams that sit deep while in a neutral or better game-state.
This may seem counter-intuitive - why don't the Fire get jammed up at home? The key there seems to be Chicago's ability and willingness to attack from the opening whistle, desperately pursuing the lead that will force the visitors to do something besides defend and counter.
MR: This Fire offense has come alive this year. Is it the combination of Nicolic and Accam? Is it the addition of the guys in the midfield? What's made things fire on all cylinders in 2017?
HTiOT: The Fire have just been playing on an astonishingly high level overall for long stretches of this season, the entire machine working to control games more thoroughly than I really thought possible in MLS. Nikolic is just what it says on the package, a relentless grinder who plays with a smile on his face. Accam has blossomed into a truly elite wing forward now that he's surrounded by people he can trust. And I should probably write a column about the work-rate twins, the pistons that drive the pressing engine, Luis Solignac and Michael de Leeuw.
But none of this would be happening without the best central midfield duo in league history behind them. (Yeah, I went there.) Playing in front of Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger - with them setting the tempo, snuffing out mistakes before they happen, dragging the defenders out of position for giggles then switching the ball back into acres of space - makes the game a great deal simpler: Beat this guy, get a look at goal, make it count.
MR: We love to see Columbus-native Matt Lampson doing well. What's it been like for him to fight for this starting spot and how has he done since taking over?
HTiOT: When Son of Lamp took over, we were in the process of watching Jorge Bava age like Dorian Grey (post-portrait), so IT WAS FANTASTIC. And Matt is clearly a great guy, a fighter and competitor who's putting up good numbers for us this year. Is he protected by a team that just doesn't give up many good shots? Absolutely. And is keeper a position that the Fire will look to upgrade - again - in the offseason? Fo sho. Lampson's not an elite keeper, but he's absolutely perfect as a backup - he'll always work his ass off and push the starter, and he'll handle any problems he has completely professionally. tl/dr: Love the dude, wish Sean Johnson was still here starting.
We’ll bring you Massive Report’s responses to Hot Time in Old Town when those are posted.