There have not been many big games for the Chicago Fire in the past few years.
The team’s struggles prevented many truly important games in Major League Soccer. This year, though, things have changed.
The Fire have won four in a row and have the second best record in the league. None of the opponents during the Fire's run have been teams in playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but that changes on Sunday.
The Fire (7-3-3, 24 points) head to Orlando (7-5-2, 23 points) in a meeting between two of the top four teams in the conference. The Lions are 6-1-1 at home this season, although they have won just one of the last three in Orlando City Stadium after winning the first five in their new home.
“They’re obviously really good at home so I think we’re expecting them to come out hard the first 10-15 minutes and try and put a lot of pressure on us,” Fire defender Matt Polster said. “I think the goal is to kind of weather the storm a little bit and then after the 15 minutes start to control the pace of the game to what we like and try and take over possession.”
The Fire will be without midfielder Dax McCarty, who is with the national team. Orlando could also be without Brazilian playmaker Kaka. He has been out the past two games due to a calf injury and his status is still unknown, although he did return to training this week.
Whether or not Kaka plays, Cyle Larin will be a key figure for the Fire to watch. Larin has eight goals this season and already 39 in his three-year career.
“He has good hold up play and he can finish,” Polster said. “We just have to limit the chances. They’re good on set pieces so we need to limit those and when he gets near the ball we just need to be a little more tuned in and stop his rhythm a little bit.”
Orlando is coming off a 2-0 win against D.C. United on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Fire had the weekend off after beating FC Dallas on May 25.
Orlando’s win snapped a six-game winless run (two draws, four losses). In that run, Orlando got shut out three times, including a 3-0 loss in Florida to New York City FC.
“They have great support, a great crowd, a new stadium, great atmosphere, but overall they have very good and quality players,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “On our end we believe we have everything what we need to be the good rival and get a win.”
It’s still the first half of the season, but both teams appear to be favorites to make the playoffs at this point. Beating a playoff contender on the road, especially one that has such a strong home record, would be another notch on the Fire’s belt.
“I think this is the first time I can see everyone on the same page,” Paunovic said. “I think the guys are very committed, everyone sees the opportunity to make one of the best seasons for our club in the last many years. We have that great opportunity and we are working towards improving our style overall during the next months.”