By Kyle McCarthy
MLS starts the journey toward MLS Cup next month Wednesday night when Houston visits Chicago in a Knockout Round match. Here are a few points to watch ahead of the one-off game at Toyota Park:
1. Where will Chris Rolfe find his space?: Rolfe loves to get turned and run at opposing defenses on the counter and operate between the lines when the Fire has possession. He will find Ricardo Clark and Adam Moffat in his usual operating spaces. He may have to push into a more advanced role to find the necessary room to roam.
2. Picking up the slack: Chicago has struggled in the past month or so when Rolfe isn’t actively influencing the game. If he isn’t causing trouble Wednesday night, the onus falls on Alvaro Fernandez and Patrick Nyarko to provide plenty of service to Sherjill MacDonald from midfield.
3. Get it down, get it wide, get it in the box: Houston won’t try to the fool the Fire with its approach play, but the Fire must figure out how to properly close down Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia. The two Dynamo wide men can switch flanks and will pose problems for Jalil Anibaba and Gonzalo Segares. The two Fire fullbacks must work with holding midfielders Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo to ensure Davis and Garcia are closed down at all times.
4. Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces: Davis will likely create one or two chances from dead ball situations. The generally stout Fire back four must cope with them to mitigate the threat and refuse to give away cheap fouls in its own third to ensure Davis doesn’t have more chances to hurt them.
5. No room for error: Chicago notched a 3-1 victory when these two teams last met at Toyota Park in September, but the first two affairs – admittedly, one was truncated by dour weather – ended in stalemates. This match will likely follow the pattern from the first two games. In a match this tight, neither side can afford to give anything away.