Chicago's leadership and firepower will be tested by battle-hardened Red Bulls
Major League Soccer's postseason kicks off on Wednesday night as the third seeds in the Eastern Conference the Chicago Fire host the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls. Jason Davis breaks down the opening act of the knockout round, and assesses how each club can reach the conference semifinals.
The Fire have the league's best finisher in 2017 in Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, a stout and heady central midfield and a pair of attacking full-backs who flood opposing defenses by playing high up the field. All of those things make them dangerous when the form is good and all of their considerable assets are healthy. The Fire are particularly potent on the left side with David Accam and Brandon Vincent -- the former is a goal and assist threat and the latter is among the best providers in the league from the full-back position. The Fire use a team approach for goal creation.
If Dax McCarty isn't responsible with the ball and/or Bastian Schweinsteiger is unavailable to help in the midfield, the Fire are exceedingly vulnerable to the counterattack. Playing their full-backs high has obvious consequences; if and when the ball is turned over, Chicago's center-backs will find themselves overwhelmed. Set pieces are a problem. On the attacking end, a cold day from Nikolic can spell trouble without another trustworthy goalscorer on the field. Accam is dangerous, but he hasn't put the ball in the net since August.
Why they'll win
Home-field advantage and the high pressure Chicago will apply to the Red Bulls' undermanned back line stand out as the reasons it'll take care of business in the first knockout game of the MLS Cup playoffs. It's been a long time coming, and the energy around the Fire should help provide the type of atmosphere Toyota Park hasn't seen in years. Veteran leadership from McCarty and (perhaps) Schweinsteiger stands Chicago in good stead ahead of a visit by a perennial playoff team. The Fire won't be overwhelmed by the moment or the stakes.
New York Red Bulls
Playmaker and goalscorer, specifically. The Red Bulls have the best No. 10 in the league in Sacha Kljestan and an elite goalscorer in Bradley Wright-Phillips leading the way on the attacking end of the field. When things are clicking, the Red Bulls are extremely difficult to stop, throwing numbers forward out of a three-back system. What chances Wright-Phillips is unable to finish, a host of Red Bulls are usually on hand to convert. The numbers on the season aren't spectacular, but things have improved since a shift in formation midway through the year.
Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces. The Red Bulls aren't just below average when it comes to stopping their opponents from restarts, they're spectacularly bad. Over the course of the season, that's a weakness they've been able to overcome, but with the margins down to nothing in a single-elimination playoff game, giving up a set-piece goal could be a back-breaker. The longer they're forced to chase the game, the better the chances are that the Fire will find a chance to break out and create counterattacking chances. In other words, New York needs to avoid giving up free kicks and corners.
Why they'll win
The Red Bulls are rested after Jesse Marsch rotated his team in their final regular-season match on Sunday. The Fire will have the energy of the crowd behind them, but New York is a confident and battle-tested team that should be able to weather the storm. Kljestan's performance will have a big say in the ultimate outcome, and it's incumbent upon his teammates to find the midfield maestro in pockets of space between the Chicago lines. If Kljestan's central-midfield partner Felipe can do the heavy lifting, the Red Bulls will have enough of the ball and enough composure to spring an upset.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.