Facing defending MLS champ Seattle is 'a great motivation' for the Fire

After going through a three-game road trip with one point, the Chicago Fire return to Toyota Park with the reigning MLS Cup champions awaiting them.

The Fire (3-3-3, 12 points) host the Seattle Sounders (2-3-4, 10 points) on Saturday at 8 p.m. It is an opportunity for the Fire to pick up a statement win against the defending champs, albeit the somewhat struggling defending champs, in front of a national TV audience.

“It will be nice to be back home,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We’ve won a couple games at home. Obviously if you want to be a playoff team you have to win your home games.”

The Fire are undefeated at home (3-0-1) and the Sounders have just one win in five road matches (1-2-2). Seattle is coming off a pair of disappointing games at home. First was a 3-3 draw against New England in which the Sounders trailed 3-0 after 70 minutes. Next was a 1-0 loss against a Toronto team which sat a few key starters, including former MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco.

Seattle actually has a worse record through nine matches than last year when the Sounders made a miraculous closing run to the regular season to get into the playoffs and then stayed hot in the postseason. The Sounders were 4-4-1 a year ago and then won just two of the next 12 matches.

Despite the Sounders’ inconsistency to begin 2017, the Fire are still looking at this match as a way to prove a point.

“The current champion, it’s always a great motivation,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “They are a fantastic team, a lot of good players, great coaching staff, culture. They have it all. We also believe that motivates a lot. We also believe that we are ready. We are very close to be the team that we want to be and we will work hard towards that goal.”

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“Seattle is a good team,” Bastian Schweinsteiger said. “They won last year. We know that. They have also very good players. They try to play so much as they can. They have a very good player with Clint Dempsey. We are looking forward to competing with them, but we are more focused on our game.”

Dempsey has three goals and an assist, showing that he is still a dangerous player after sitting out the latter half of 2016 due to an irregular heartbeat. Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro is still keying the attack with three goals and four assists. Former Fire left back Joevin Jones has emerged as one of the top attacking fullbacks in the league with five assists.

The match also marks a second return to Toyota Park for former Fire homegrown player Harry Shipp, who was traded by Montreal to Seattle in Shipp’s second trade is as many offseasons.

“Really talented from top to bottom,” McCarty said. “A lot of different ways they can hurt you. A lot of good attacking players and when their attacking players are clicking they’re one of the toughest to defend in the league.”

On the downside, Jordan Morris has just two goals after netting 12 in his rookie year. Seattle may miss both of its regular centerback pairing. Roman Torres (out with a hamstring injury) and Chad Marshall (questionable with a back injury) are both hurt.

For the Fire, midfielder Juninho is listed as questionable with a right ankle sprain. If he is unable to start that could move the Fire to a different formation. Potentially the Fire could lineup in a 4-4-2 with Michael de Leeuw pairing with Nemanja Nikolic at forward or Paunovic could elect to return to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Schweinsteiger sitting deeper and next to McCarty in midfield with de Leeuw playing underneath Nikolic.

Either way, the Fire are hoping to snap a three-game winless streak.

“We haven’t won in three games now and that’s unacceptable so we need to get back in the win column,” McCarty said.