Cincinnati has had a dream season. After three horrific years in MLS, many assumed they'd be the league’s banter franchise once again. However, under new coach Pat Noonan, they’ve shocked everyone by putting together a very good campaign. The Blue and Orange currently sit in 5th place in the Eastern Conference, and there’s a chance they’ll officially be in the playoffs by the end of this weekend.
For Chicago, this season has been yet another disappointment. Despite an offseason window that filled the fanbase with excitement, things just haven’t come together on the field. Any highs were followed up by even more lows, and that all led to them being eliminated from postseason contention following their last game, a 3-2 loss at home after they were up 2-0 going into the half. The Fire might not have much to play for, but a bit of pride is still on the line, and they’ll like to play the role of spoilers on this occasion.
Things aren’t too bad for Cincinnati on the injury front, as they’ll only be without Beckham Sunderland and Kenneth Vermeer for the contest.
Chicago is not as fortunate. Their list of absentees is a bit lengthy, as the likes of Gastón Giménez, Fabian Herbers, Wyatt Omsberg, Andre Reynolds II, Gabriel Slonina, and Jairo Torres are all out, while Kacper Przybyłko and Miguel Navarro are currently listed as questionable.
FC Cincinnati: Celentano, Hagglund, Cameron, Miazga, Powell, Nwobodo, Moreno, Acosta, Barreal, Vazquez, Brenner
Chicago Fire: Richey, Sekulić, Terán, Czichos, Bornstein, Pineda, F. Navarro, Mueller, Shaqiri, Gutiérrez, Durán
Ones to watch
Maybe it's a good thing that Brandon Vazquez didn’t get called into the United States Men’s National Team’s September camp.
Obviously it’s a shame for his sake that he’ll probably miss the World Cup, but his absence only made him look better. None of the strikers that got minutes during the USMNT’s two friendlies did much of anything, and the Cincy forward certainly can’t be blamed for the country's struggles going forward.
Not getting called up also meant that he didn’t have to travel around. Vazquez got to stay home and rest up while training and playing with Cincinnati. That extra time with the team could prove to be crucial at this point of the season, as every remaining game will be huge in terms of the playoff race and seeding.
Things have already gone well as the Blue and Orange secured a potentially huge point away to the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday night. That put them one step closer to their first ever postseason berth, and they’ll be looking to seal the deal on this occasion.
If their number 19 can keep playing the way he has this campaign, there’s a good chance that’ll happen. He’s grabbed 16 goals in 31 appearances, which is a stellar return, especially from a non-DP player. A jack-of-all-trades sort of striker, he offers a little bit of everything in the final third. He can run in behind, he can post up on a defender, or he can float around the penalty area. He can hold the ball, lay it off to a teammate, or go for goal himself. He’s just so well-rounded at the moment, and his 6’2” frame certainly helps.
Chicago’s defense hasn’t been great as of late, and if they’re not at their best this weekend, Vazquez will likely add to his goalscoring tally.
This game might matter a lot for the Fire in terms of this season, but that doesn’t mean the contest is a complete waste of time. Some players will be fighting for a spot on next year’s roster, and one such player could be goalkeeper Spencer Richey.
Due to the aforementioned injury to Gabriel Slonina, Chicago will have to turn to their backup, who has yet to feature in MLS play this season. Richey was good in the one Open Cup game played by the team this campaign, and he was even better in a recent friendly against Club León. This will be a completely different test, though.
His team may not be playing for anything, but the opposition certainly will be. Cincinnati will be desperate to win at home to seal a playoff spot, and it’ll be up to Richey and company to stop them. There’s going to be a little extra on the line for the keeper as well since he used to play for Cincy, so the stage could be set for an interesting afternoon.
Then there’s the future. Chicago knows they’ll have to find a new starter since Slonina is leaving for Chelsea in the offseason, but they probably already have that thanks to fellow goalkeeping phenom Chris Brady. He should be the number one next year, but that leaves a reserve spot to be filled.
That’s why there will be some pressure on Richey to prove that he’s the right guy for the role. A bad showing here could lead to the club looking elsewhere, and even though he’s under contract for another year, there’s a chance they could still ship him away. A solid performance here, though, would all but guarantee the keeper a roster spot next campaign.
Who knows, maybe he’ll do enough to show that he’s ready to fight for that starting spot after all.
Last time out
The other meeting between these two sides this season was quite a wild one, and it ended up serving as a microcosm of both teams’ campaigns.
After an eventful opening half hour, Chicago found the back of the net. However, they found the back of their own net. Centerback Rafael Czichos tried to head an aerial ball back to his goalkeeper, but he put too much on it, and it ended up going over the keeper and in to put Cincinnati in front.
The up-and-down nature of the contest continued throughout, and the Fire eventually tied things up without about 10 minutes to go. A corner from Xherdan Shaqiri was hit into a very dangerous area, and Jhon Durán managed to beat his marker to make contact on the ball, redirecting it past the goalkeeper from close range.
Instead of Chicago riding that momentum to a winning goal, they instead shot themselves in the foot. Building out from the back, Gabriel Slonina took a bad touch, and then he tried to save the situation by attempting a sliding pass. That only made things worse, as the ball fell to Luciano Acosta, who took a few touches before burying a low shot into the bottom corner.
That proved to be all she wrote, and Cincinnati held on to secure another big win on the year.
How to watch
The match kicks off at 7:30 p.m. EDT, and it will air live on WSTR Star 64 and fccincinnati.com for fans in Cincinnati and on WGN TV and chicagofirefc.com for fans in Chicago. Anyone else in the United States will be able to watch the action unfold on ESPN+.