Somehow MLS schedulers have seen fit to fail to give Houston and Chicago any matches for the first month of the season. Well, not any…both teams have played three. While apologists for MLS quirks in this realm will cite working out the kinks of the new uneven schedule or the even lamer explanation, traveling distance, there really is no excuse for both of these teams in devoted markets to have this few matches played. Back-to-back bye weeks are utterly ridiculous. No matter the grumblings, there’s nothing to be done about it but look forward to match number four.
Houston come into Chicago on Sunday having won two and lost one, the memory of that loss has probably faded over the last two weeks so there’s little hope that that result will be weighing on the minds of Dynamo players. Their trouncing of the PDL’s Laredo Heat 5-0 in the interim have probably cleansed their palate. As for Chicago, a friendly 1-0 victory against the University of Louisville, the competitive debut of new signing defender Arne Friedrich , and the consolation of ‘keeper Paolo Tornaghi winning the Save of the Week have made the poor performance against Colorado less likely to fester.
The match should be difficult and entertaining. The Fire’s back line will have to neutralize Mac Kandji who seems to be on the upswing form-wise, while attempting to close down the face of the Dynamo, Brian Ching—both doable tasks but ones that can’t be assumed. With Adam Moffat and Colin Clark out due to suspension, there will be hesitancy in the Houston midfield which the Fire attack will have to seize upon. This will be made easier if Brad Davis is held out of the match due to a calf injury.
But the Houston attack can be sinister and unleash itself at unsuspected moments. It would do Chicago well to come out of the gates running to draw first-blood, high tempo with lots of challenging shots. One way might be if the Fire were to keep a high line and not allow Houston to get wide. The counter-attacking football that Chicago has been playing might not be a good fit in Houston.
Chicago has some minor concerns. To begin with, fullback Dan Gargan was out the last match and backed up by team captain Logan Pause. Pause at rightback is functional, but Gargan’s return will sooth the nerves of many a supporter. Finding notable fullbacks in MLS is a lot like picking second-basemen for your fantasy team—there are three or four solid choices and then a slew of mildy serviceable options that you talk yourself into accepting. It could be argued that MLS is a midfielder dominated league to the detriment of the back line. But that’s merely a throwaway comment and an argument for another time.
A second concern is Sebastian Grazzini, in that the match against Colorado was his first full match; Grazzini hasn’t played 90 minutes back-to-back in MLS play since October of last year. In fact, Grazzini has only played five full 90 minute matches since coming to the Fire. Does this matter? No, not really. Chicago has amazing depth at midfield and Grazzini has delivered the goods when he has been on the pitch. It does needle at me though.
Finally, outside of Dominic Oduro, few in the Fire’s attack seem to want to step up. Granted, it is still very early in the season for Chicago (again, thank you MLS schedulers). Marco Pappa needs to show up to play like he did against Philadelphia. There has been too much chatter about Pappa’s quality/consistency of late and he must put to bed skepticism or face confirming it in the minds of many.
However, these three concerns aren’t much more than bar-talk. Concern over the defense which was makeshift against Colorado and burned by Montreal can be mitigated by the fact that Supplemental Draftee Tony Walls looks primed to contribute to the first team along with Austin Berry if called upon and Friedrich is match fit.
Chicago has quietly made a firm defensive roster that just needs to get minutes in order to coalesce. The weight put on the Fire’s creative attacking midfield position is distributed well enough between Grazzini, Rafael Robayo, and Frederico Puppo; one of the three should always be in form.
The story going into the match will be Oduro returning to Houston where there is no love loss. Dynamo fans don’t seem bitter about Oduro’s failure with them and success with Chicago, although they certainly seem to be primed to spout “I told you so…” given any stutter by Oduro. Having said that, I’m fairly certain there will be a good deal of Chicago supporters looking to do the same to Calen Carr. With all the attention placed there, perhaps this will be the match where the league is reminded that Patrick Nyarko and Pappa are themselves goal scoring threats. One hopes.
Houston form: W-W-L, 3rd in Eastern Conference
Last season: Chicago 1-1 Houston (4/23/2011), Houston 1-1 Chicago (10/1/2011)
Prediction: 2-1, Chicago
Written by Daniel Casey. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @winslowbobbins.