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Revolution vs. Fire: Storylines to follow in week 16

Can the Revs stop Nemanja Nikolic? That, and three other headlines to track.

MLS: New England Revolution at Chicago Fire
Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic reacts after scoring one of his two goals against the Revolution on April 15.
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks removed from a 3-0 win over east-leading Toronto FC, the Revolution welcome the Fire to Gillette Stadium for a Saturday evening contest. Here are four storylines to follow ahead of the match:

1. Can the Revs avenge an embarrassing April loss in Chicago?

The last time the Revs met the Fire, things didn’t exactly go well for the visitors. In the 27th minute, Je-Vaughn Watson picked up a second yellow card, an incident that shaped the remaining 63 minutes of play. Nemanja Nikolic scored twice, Bastian Schweinsteiger scored once and the Revs claimed just 24 percent of the possession (and mustered just one shot on goal) in a 3-0 blowout loss.

Since then, the Fire have continued to trend upward (after a small rough patch in late April), earning results in seven of nine matches. But to keep pace, the Fire will have to earn a result in Foxboro, where the Revs have gone 5-0-2 this season.

Can the Revolution overcome its early-season loss and stay undefeated at home?

2. How will the Fire respond to a loaded June schedule?

Despite playing a U.S. Open Cup match on Wednesday, the Revolution have hit the field just twice in the month of June. The Fire, on the other hand, have played three times since June 4: twice in league play, and once in the Open Cup.

But while the Revs may enter Saturday’s match with fresher legs, Chicago will bring the momentum of a recent 2-0 league victory over Atlanta United. In the win, Nikolic scored a second-half goal from the penalty spot, which helped the Fire move within a point of first-place Toronto FC.

Even a tired Chicago team will give the Revs all it can handle. Can Jay Heaps’ side defend its home turf?

3. Who will win the midfield battle?

This storyline proved important during the first meeting between the Revs and Fire, when Schweinsteiger and Luis Solignac (three key passes each) and David Accam (two key passes off the bench) shredded the Revolution midfield. Add in Dax McCarty, who had his way defensively, and the Fire put forth a dominant midfield performance.

This time around, the Revs will head into the battle without physical midfielder Xavier Kouassi, who remains sidelined with a quad injury. That means Gershon Koffie will have to hold down the fort defensively, as he’s done well in Kouassi’s absence.

Offensively, the Revs will ride the creativity of Diego Fagundez (15 key passes this season) and Kelyn Rowe (24 key passes). Both players have enjoyed breakout seasons, though both have—at times—disappeared from matches. They’ll need to find a rhythm early into Saturday’s match to overshadow Chicago’s talented midfield unit.

4. Can the Revs (or anyone else) shut down Nemanja Nikolic?

The Fire forward has punished opposing defenses during his first season in MLS. He’s creative, quick on the dribble and as dangerous as any forward in front of goal. It’s no surprise, then, that he leads the league with 12 goals (he’s currently scoring once every 108 minutes).

Against the Revs in mid-April, Nikolic found the net twice, a performance that jumpstarted an eight-goal, six-match stretch through mid-May. So, can the Revs bunker down and prevent another multi-goal outing from the Hungarian forward?

To do so, the Revolution center backs must do a better job of trailing Nikolic, who loves to peel off the shoulder of ball-watching defenders and make free runs at goal. And, of course, the Revs will look to finish the match with all 11 men on the field.

All stats courtesy of WhoScored.com.