Two of the Eastern Conference’s more inconsistent sides, the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls, meet up in the first matchup of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The Fire are the third seed in the competitive East, slipping from a top spot they held after an 11-game unbeaten run in the middle of the summer. The offensive output of newcomer Nemanja Nikolic dried up from late summer to early fall, and so did the fortunes of the Fire, though he was able to rediscover his form in order to earn the Golden Boot. However, the team has not found consistency since their summer stretch.
The Red Bulls are mostly the beneficiaries of the teams around them not overtaking them during the regular season, underperforming largely compared to their two straight finishes at the top of the Eastern Conference under Jesse Marsch. With offense and defense hardly clicking at the same time, the last few games has seen the Red Bulls reclaim a bit of the form they have been known for.
Here is a closer look at the first match of the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs:
The Red Bulls took the first match, which happened to be Dax McCarty’s return to Red Bull Arena, in a 2-1 victory on April 29. The second matchup was even, as the game ended, 1-1, in Toyota Park on September 9.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
FIRE: The home side boast the talents of this year’s Golden Boot winner, Nemanja Nikolic, who scored 24 goals in his first MLS season. Bastian Schweinsteiger was an important cog in the Fire midfield in their strong summer run, and could make his return from injury against the Red Bulls.
RED BULLS: Sacha Kljestan has topped the assist chart yet again in MLS, this year recording 17. Another one of the Red Bulls’ consistent attackers, Bradley Wright-Phillips has been near the top of the scoring charts again this year, scoring 17 goals.
MATCHUP TO WATCH:
Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger vs. Felipe: Controlling the midfield will be key in this match, with both teams possessing strong, tempo-setting midfielders. Should Schweinsteiger start, he would most likely partner McCarty, the former Red Bulls captain, as they attempt to weed out the potent opposing attack and kickstart their own threatening attack, feeding the likes of Nikolic and David Acccam. Same goes for Felipe, who will be tasked with stopping the home side while aiding Kljestan, Wright-Phillips, and Daniel Royer, among others, in the attack.
FIRE: Nikolic and Schweinsteiger steal headlines in Chicago, but David Accam has had an impactful season in the team’s front three. He’s barely missed a game for the Fire this season, and in his 30 regular season games, scored 14 times and recorded eight assists, adding to the team’s impressive scoring output this year.
RED BULLS: Daniel Royer has been one of New York’s more important players this year, scoring 12 goals in 2017. He was crucial in their winning summer ways, as he had scored six in four matches, and when he spent nine games out from August to September, the team won once in his absence. He’s been back since the end of September, tallying twice in the two games he’s played in a quick return to form.
Form favors the visiting Red Bulls, perhaps giving them the slight edge heading into the tie. Their offense is scoring, and their defense has not been as leaky as it used to be.
All of their players seem to have settled into their roles since Marsch switched to playing three center backs and wingbacks. Tyler Adams has been earning praise in the right wingback position, while Sean Davis, after spending a spell on the bench, has fought his way back into the lineup in a midfield role. The center backs are starting to gel as well, and the attack is scoring at its normal rate.
That being said, their chances depend on which Fire side show up. While the Red Bulls could beat a full-strength Fire team, as they did in April when their fortunes were worse, should the undefeated Fire side of the summer show up, things could be much more difficult for the Red Bulls.
Nikolic’s return to form can only be good news for the home side, while Accam can pick up some offensive responsibility and threaten a Red Bulls defense that has provided easy to challenge at times. Schweinsteiger returning could be a large boost, as he was important in their summer stretch. Michael De Leeuw’s season ending injury at the beginning of the month has been no help to the Fire, with a narrow 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union and a hard 3-0 loss against the Houston Dynamo to end the season showing they have struggled without him.
Though the Red Bulls may be stronger, it only takes a little bit of pressure and an off moment to mess up their plan, as was the case from late summer to early fall, when they dominated matches and found it difficult to win. That could be where the Fire capitalize in what is sure to be a tight and entertaining kickoff to this year’s playoffs.