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Revolution vs. Fire: Storylines to follow in week seven

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Where will Jay Heaps deploy Kelyn Rowe? That, and three other headlines to track.

MLS: New England Revolution at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s Revolution-Fire showdown feels like a future playoff matchup.

The Fire have surpassed expectations in the early part of 2017, riding a revamped midfield to a 2-1-2 start. The Revs, after shaking off some early-season rust, have picked up a result in three consecutive matches. A convincing win over the Houston Dynamo last weekend pushed Jay Heaps’ side above the red line for the first time this season.

Ahead of the weekend matchup, here are four storylines to follow:

1. Will thumb surgery sideline Josh Smith?

It didn’t take long for Smith to evolve from a roster long shot to a regular contributor. The young center back unseated Benjamin Angoua in the Starting XI two weeks ago and hasn’t looked back, impressing in his second consecutive start last week vs. Houston.

But for Smith, an injury may be the only thing in the way of a third consecutive start. The San Francisco product underwent surgery on Monday to repair his right thumb, which he fractured in his MLS debut two weeks ago. Early reports indicated that Smith wasn’t likely to miss time, though Jay Heaps seemed less confident during his midweek media availability, saying, “We’re going to see what the next day or two looks like ... The swelling has come down and now he’s had the surgery, so we’ll see as the week progresses.”

Will Smith earn the start while his thumb heals? If not, look for Angoua to re-ignite the center back competition when he re-gains his spot in the Starting XI.

2. Can the Revolution win the midfield battle?

Now with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho occupying three of its four midfield spots, the Fire have gotten off to a quick start, picking up four results in five matches. All three midfielders boast the ability to derail the Revolution attack and will surely make life difficult for Lee Nguyen as he tries to link up with Juan Agudelo and Kei Kamara.

Persistence will prove key for the Revolution midfielders, who will need to employ a patient approach when trying to push past McCarty & Co. Can the Revs break through on the road?

3. Will Kelyn Rowe continue to earn minutes at left back?

Athletic and intelligent, Rowe has turned into Mr. Versatility for Jay Heaps over the past several seasons. During Saturday’s win against the Dynamo, Rowe played 65 minutes at left back and an additional 25 minutes (plus stoppage time) at right midfield. He showed class in both spots.

While Heaps will likely use Rowe in different roles depending on the matchup, the gaffer praised his performance at left back last week, saying, “For me, he was one of the key players in the match, because he knows how to play, he’s athletic enough to defend, but he’s also very tactically aware and that’s huge for us.”

Will Heaps employ Rowe at left back again vs. Chicago? If he does, Rowe will need to put forth a strong two-way performance, supporting the Revolution attack while also holding down the fort defensively.

4. Can the Revolution pick up its first road win of 2017?

The Revolution have navigated a brutal road schedule to open the 2017 season, playing in Commerce City (Colorado), Frisco (Texas) and Portland. At the onset of the season, the trip to Chicago seemed like the first “break” in the road schedule.

But the Fire, who currently occupy the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, have yet to lose at home and look like a sure playoff threat. That’s an accomplishment for a club that finished 2016 with a -16 goal differential and just seven wins.

Can the Revs pick up its fourth straight result—and first road win—at Toyota Park? Or will the Fire continue its resurgence by taking down the visitors?