Vancouver Whitecaps host Chicago Fire with both teams looking for consistency
Chicago Fire defender Michael Harrington (left) heads the ball away from Vancouver Whitecaps forward Octavio Rivero (white, center) in the Fire's 3-2 preseason victory over the Whitecaps on February 21, 2016. Photo credit: Troy Wayrynen/USA Today Spo

The Vancouver Whitecaps look to make it two wins in a row when they host the Chicago Fire on Wednesday, May 11 at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. The game will kickoff at 10 P.M. ET and can be seen on TSN and Major League Soccer Live. This will be the sixth all-time meeting between the two clubs, with the Whitecaps holding a (win-loss-draw) 3-1-2 all-time series lead.  

How did both teams fare last weekend? 

The Whitecaps beat the visiting 2015 MLS Cup Champion Portland Timbers 2-1 at BC Place last Saturday. Portland took the lead after a great team move ended with midfielder Darlington Nagbe slipping an incisive pass to center back Nat Borchers, who slid the ball into an empty net. Vancouver responded in the second half, with Japanese striker Masato Kudo scoring his first goal in MLS after beating goalkeeper Jake Gleeson with a near post strike in the 60th minute.

Vancouver would score their second (and eventual game-winning) goal in the 66th minute. Kudo was again involved, slipping a pass to right midfielder Cristian Bolanos at the top of the Timbers' eighteen-yard-box. The Costa Rican clipped the ball into the penalty area, intending to find the head of big Panamanian striker Blas Perez, but the ball instead went over Perez’s head and dropped in between Gleeson’s legs before rolling across the goal line. It was an unfortunate goalkeeping error from Gleeson, and Vancouver’s bend-but-don’t-break defense was able to keep Portland’s attack at bay and preserve a well-deserved three points for manager Carl Robinson’s side.

The Fire were on a bye last weekend and haven’t played since April 30 when they tied 1-1 with visiting DC United. The Fire took the lead after central defender Jonathan Campbell flicked in an Arturo Alvarez cross in the 41st minute, but for the second straight week, they couldn't hold on to the lead. Ex-Chicago Fire winger Patrick Nyarko scored against his former club in the 64th minute after a short corner and chose not to celebrate against the club who he spent seven years with. Fire fans were also not celebrating when the final whistle sounded, as the Fire fell to 1-2-4 on the season and dropped to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Keys to the match

Is Vancouver's new starting lineup here to stay?

When Designated Player midfielder Pedro Morales returned to full training after an injury layoff last week, many ‘Caps fans assumed that Morales would return to the Starting XI against the Timbers, with Uruguayan attacking midfielder Nicolas Mezquida, who had played well in his stead, returning to the bench. Instead, ‘Caps manager Robinson placed Morales in one of the two defensive midfielder roles, partnering him with Argentine destroyer Matias Laba, and also kept Mezquida as the starting attacking midfielder against the Timbers. The 4-2-3-1 formation/starting lineup that Vancouver used against the Timbers was the one that many Whitecaps fans had been hoping to see over the course of the season.

Nicolas Mezquida has to be on his game for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Nicolas Mezquida has to be on his game for the Vancouver Whitecaps. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It seemed to be quite effective against their Cascadia Cup rivals, as the Whitecaps outshot the Timbers 26-9, and controlled 57% of the possession. Robinson could not use both Mezquida and Morales in his starting lineup for much of the season because of injuries to both players, but now that both are healthy, will both return to the ‘Caps starting eleven against the Fire?

Manager Robinson may decide to rest both and save them for the ‘Caps second game of the week, Saturday’s visit to newly-renovated BMO Field to face Toronto FC. But if he decides to use both against the Fire, don’t be surprised if Vancouver lines up with Morales as one of the two defensive midfielders and Mezquida in front of Morales as the central attacking mid. If last weekend’s formation worked against the defending champion, there’s a good shot it could bring success for the ‘Caps against the Fire.

Can the Fire end their goal scoring woes?

The Whitecaps' struggles on offense have been well-documented, but they pale in comparison to the Fire's offensive struggles. The Fire have scored a measly seven goals in seven games, an average of a goal per game, and almost half of those goals were scored in their wild 4-3 loss to New York City FC on the first day of the 2016 MLS season. The injury to lightning-fast midfielder David Accam has deprived the Fire of its best scoring threat, but with Dutch midfielder John Goossens, Nigerian Kennedy Igboananike, and Brazilian Gilberto on their roster, they certainly have the personnel and the experience needed to score goals on a consistent basis. The fact that they aren’t scoring can be attributed to a new coach and system, Goossens’ knee injury, and a greater emphasis on defense, which is why the Fire have only conceded eight goals this season, tied for the second-best defensive record in the Eastern Conference. Accam and new signing Khaly Thiam will both miss Wednesday’s trip to Vancouver, but both should be back in the starting lineup in the near future.

Kennedy Igboananike, Chicago Fire, in action during the New York City FC Vs Chicago Fire MLS regular season match at Yankee Stadium on April 10, 2016 in New York City | Tim Clayton - Corbis via Getty Images
Kennedy Igboananike (in red) in action during the New York City FC - Chicago Fire MLS regular season match at Yankee Stadium. | Tim Clayton - Corbis via Getty Images​

On the bright side, the Fire are going up against a porous ‘Caps back line that has given up 16 goals this year, tied for second-most in the Western Conference. If the Fire and their talented offensive players (Igboananike, Gilberto) can’t create some good scoring opportunities against the ‘Caps defense, then reinforcements in the form of trades with other MLS teams (see: Columbus Crew forward Kei Kamara) or players from abroad may be needed in order to rejuvenate this anemic Fire offense.

Projected formations

Vancouver Whitecaps projected starting lineup/formation (4-2-3-1)

David Ousted; Jordan Smith, Pa Modou Kah, Tim Parker, Sam Adekugbe; Russell Teibert, Andrew Jacobson; Kekuta Manneh, Nicolás Mezquida, Cristian Bolanos; Masato Kudo.

Notable Subs: DF Kendall Waston,  MF Pedro Morales, MF Matias Laba, FWD Octavio Rivero.

Chicago Fire projected starting lineup/formation (4-4-2)

Matt Lampson; Rodrigo Ramos, Jonathan Campbell, Johan Kappelhof, Michael Harrington; Collin FernandezMichael Stephens, Razvan Cocis, Kennedy Igboananike; Arturo Alvarez, Gilberto.

Notable Subs: DF Brandon Vincent, DF Joao Meira, MF Nick LaBrocca, MF Joey Calistri.

Projected scoreline

Both teams have endured disappointing campaigns thus far, but there are silver linings for both teams to consider going forward. For the Fire, even though they sit at the bottom of the East, they have played fewer games than any other team and have suffered only one loss in their last six games. They also have a very strong defense, and the impending return of Accam and the signing of Thiam should make their attack more dynamic.

As for the Whitecaps, they’ve yet to put together a dominating 90-minute performance and have struggled for consistency all year. And yet, they sit in seventh place, just one spot outside the final playoff place, and they just came back to beat the defending MLS champions. The ‘Caps haven’t lost at home since their home opener against the Montreal Impact, and they should treat Wednesday’s match against the Fire as a winnable game. Even with the many changes to their lineup, the Whitecaps have a deep bench and one of the best goalkeepers in the league in David Ousted and are going up against a Fire offense running low on confidence. The Fire defense should keep manager Veljko Paunovic’s team in the game, but in the end, the ‘Caps will prevail in front of their home fans, and will provisionally move back into the playoff picture.

Projected final score: Vancouver Whitecaps 1 Chicago Fire 0