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ASN Playoff Preview

Floundering Fire Hope to Hold Off Hot Houston

The first MLS playoff game of the 2012 season features the Houston Dynamo, led by the brilliant Dominic Kinnear, heading to the Windy City for a one-and-done date with the Chicago Fire.
BY Maura Gladys Posted
October 31, 2012
7:39 AM
Editor's note: ASN will preview every MLS playoff match/series. Create your ideal Starting XI for the Chicago Fire or the Houston Dynamo.

INTRO: The first game of the 2012 MLS Playoffs (Wednesday, 9pm ET, ESPN2) features two teams colliding with each other from very different directions. No. 4 seed Chicago Fire have been in a free fall, while the fifth-seeded Houston Dynamo are a rested, focused club with veteran experience and the league’s best playoff coach. Chicago has won just one of its last five games, most recently drawing DC United, 1-1, a trajectory that has sent the Fire to this one-and-done scenario. Houston finished the season strong, going on a three-game unbeaten streak before losing to Colorado in the season finale. Chicago's Toyota Park hosts the match, a huge boost for the Fire, if only because it keeps the club from traveling to BBVA Compass Stadium—where the Dynamo are undefeated this season.

HISTORY: The teams played three matches in 2012, but only two of them went the full 90 minutes. The first meeting came on April 15 in Chicago, but lightning halted the 1-1 draw after a little more than an hour. The squads played to a scoreless tie in Houston on July 3rd, with neither team creating much offense. Chicago finally broke the deadlock in the final tilt, winning 3-1 at home with goals from Patrick Nyarko, Brian Ching, and Alex.

MATCHUPS: Both teams boast strong goalkeepers in Houston's Tally Hall and the Fire's Sean Johnson. The result may come down to whether Chicago’s struggling offense can find a way past Hall, and Houston’s ability to convert set pieces against Johnson.

Chicago's Sherjill Macdonald, Alvaro Fernandez, and Gonzalo Segares all missed sitters against DC United last weekend. If they find their form, Hall will be in for a long day. But Hall also has the opportunity and ability to stymie and frustrate the Fire offense, dealing an already fragile team another psychological blow. At the other end, Houston loves scoring goals off dead ball situation with 6’4” Mac Kandji and  6’2” Will Bruin dominating the airspace. Johnson will have to be especially aggressive Wednesday night.

Another key matchup is Houston’s left side. Macoumba Kandji is an enigma going into every game. If he’s on point, Chicago’s right side—fullback Jalil Anibaba and either Patrick Nyarko or Alvaro Fernandez—will spend most of their energy trying to corral him. But if it’s a bad night for the Houston forward, the Fire can exploit him when counterattacking.

The biggest key for the teams will most likely be rest. Chicago started its best XI against United and failed to pick up three points. They only have a few days to recover and plan.

“I want a week to prepare for sure, it would be a lot better than a quick turnaround like this,” said Fire manager Frank Klopas after the Fire’s draw over the weekend. “The good thing is that we are at home and don’t have to travel. We have to get ready to play a very good team.”

Houston, on the other hand, knew going into the season finale with Colorado that they would finish the year in fifth place. A lineup consisting largely of reserves fell 2-0 to the Colorado Rapids.

"We're just going to need to stay positive,” coach Dominic Kinnear said. “We had a good season so I'm just looking forward to Wednesday.”

In addition to rested bodies, the Dynamo have the genius playoff mind of Kinnear. The manager has two MLS Cups to his name, along with two additional ones from his time as a San Jose Earthquake assistant coach. If there’s anyone that know how to win a one-shot playoff game, it’s Kinnear.

TACTICS: The Fire play a 4-2-3-1 with Arne Friedrich marshaling the backline alongside rookie standout Austin Berry. Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause control the midfield from deep-lying positions while Chris Rolfe runs things up front, setting up target forward Macdonald.

Houston runs a 4-3-3 with Ricardo Clark holding down the fort in the midfield as Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia roam freely. Their passing and fluidity are keys to the Dynamo offense, and Bruin and Kandji often reap the benefits of their creativity.

In previous meetings, both teams played very measured, cautious soccer, so look for that again, especially from Houston, who won’t want to get burned on the counter.

What do you think? Will Houston go for a more conservative approach on the road? Will Chicago put more speed on the wings to counter attack even more? Have your say in ASN’s Starting XI tool.

PREDICTION: Despite Chicago's home-field advantage, expect Houston to come in fast and strong. The Fire will nip a goal off of a counter, but Houston’s playmakers Davis and Garcia will be too much for Chicago, and Hall will preserve the win. Prediction: 2-1 Houston.

READER FEEDBACK: Who will be the hero in this game? Will Chicago use their home-field advantage and stop their skid? Or will Houston come to Chi-town and dominate? Have your say in the comments below.

Maura Gladys works in production for KICKTV. She also runs the goalkeeping blog All You Need Is Glove.

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