New England’s 2013 regular season — and former manager Jay Heaps’ second as gaffer — ended with a playoff-clinching 1-0 win at Columbus Crew SC on the final weekend. Although the Revolution would subsequently lose a tight conference semifinal series to eventual MLS Cup champion Sporting KC, the groundwork was laid for a successful 2014 campaign and MLS Cup finals appearance.
In true bookend fashion, that 2013 season actually started with a 1-0 road victory, as well. Thanks to a rare goal from once-promising Honduran international Jerry Bengtson, New England prevailed that first weekend of 2013 against the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park, their venue for this weekend’s matchup over five years later.
That victory over Chicago was also New England’s last win in the Windy City, as the Revs haven’t won in seven trips since then. They look to end the skid on the Fire’s home pitch this Saturday and try to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
Record: 5-7-2, 17 pts, -5
Standing: 8th in Eastern Conference (2 points below red line)
Current Form: W-L-W-L-L
The Fire exceeded expectations last season by finishing third in the Eastern Conference under second-year manager Veljko Paunovic. The arrival of Bayern legend Bastian Schweinsteiger surely played a significant role, but the first-year impact of Serbian striker Nemanja Nikolic was arguably the difference. The man who helped Polish first-division power Legia Warsaw qualify for the UEFA Champions League two years ago carried his outstanding form into MLS in a big way, winning the Golden Boot with a league-high 24 goals. So, despite a home playoff loss to the Red Bulls in last season’s knockout round, the new year came with much promise with the Fire’s two most important players together for a second season.
However, the 2018 campaign has gotten off to a rocky start for the one-time MLS champs, mainly due to injuries in key positions. Dutch playmaker Michael de Leeuw, last season’s assists leader with eight, has been out all year following ACL surgery. His incumbent, Jon Bakero, has been injured, as well. To make matters worse, attacking midfielder Elliot Collier recently succumbed to the injury bug following eleven appearances (seven starts) and a goal. It’s been number ten by committee for much of the year, with production in the attack suffering.
On the bright side, Paunovic brought in Serbian international Aleksandar Katai to replace second-leading scorer David Accam, which contributed 14 goals and 8 assists before moving to Philadelphia. Operating as a winger and even a number ten on occasion, Katai has scored four times and assisted on two others. For his part, Nikolic has picked up where he left off last season. He’s already bagged six more goals this year, including two game-winners, to pace the Fire attack. Then on Wednesday, he added two US Open Cup goals and a penalty kick score in the Fire’s fourth-round shootout win over Crew SC.
A major contribution, however, has come from the unlikeliest of places: journeyman forward Alan Gordon. In five starts and seven substitute appearances, Gordo has already put up four goals, often with a dramatic flair. His stoppage-time score at Toronto FC gave the Fire a hard-fought 2-2 draw. Even better was his most recent, an 82nd-minute game-winner at Orlando City. He’s on a roll, having scored in 3 straight matches.
The Fire attack was recently bolstered by the return of winger Luis Solignac, who made his first start following an injury in last weekend’s win over San Jose. He notched his first assist of the season, and he’s expected to become even more integral after last season’s seven-goal and four-assist output.
German World Cup veteran Schweinsteiger has been Mister Versatility this season. Used mostly on the wing, he’s seen time as an attacking midfielder, centerback/sweeper in a 3-man backline, and a box-to-box midfielder. He’s scored only once this season, but his five assists lead the team. He notched a goal against 10-man New England in a game last season.
The Chicago midfield has seen contributions from the likes of Daniel Johnson, Drew Connor, Brandt Bronico, Diego Campos and veteran Tony Tchani, each having made several starts on the year. Campos has a goal and an assist thus far in 2018. Deep-lying midfield has been the domain of former Red Bull Dax McCarty, who’s been battling a hamstring injury. He’s joined by Mo Adams, who’s also seen time on the wing and at attacking midfielder.
The backline has been hampered by the long-term absence following injury of fullback Matt Polster, who significantly aided the attack in 2017. In fact, he was second on the team in assists last season with seven. Nonetheless, starting right back Kevin Ellis has two goals and two assists on the year, while left-back Brandon Vincent has furnished a goal and three assists, tied for second-most on the team. Both have also seen duty at centerback.
Central defense has belonged to Johan Kappelhof, who also has three assists on the year and who occasionally slots in at holding midfielder. The backfield is filled out by Grant Lillard and Jonathan Campbell at centerback and Jorge Corrales at outside back, who can also play wide in the midfield.
The first-choice goalkeeper is Richard Sanchez, who’s posted two shutouts on the year. However, Pat McLain started the last three matches prior to Wednesday’s Open Cup match in which he was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Sanchez came up huge in the Cup game at Columbus, making two penalty-shootout saves and actually scoring the winning penalty in the victory, a 10-9 shootout win that featured a record-setting twenty-two total shots.
Record: 6-4-4, 22 pts, +4
Standing: 5th in Eastern Conference (4 points above red line)
Current Form: W-D-D-L-W
The Revs registered a come-from-behind 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls in their most recent league match, last Saturday at Gillette Stadium, to pull even on points with their long-time rivals. That was followed by a disheartening 3-2 loss at USL champs Louisville City FC in the Revs’ fourth-round US Open Cup match. It’s their first early exit in three years. Coincidentally, and for what it’s worth, that year was also their last MLS playoff appearance.
First-year manager Brad Friedel opted to use a lineup heavy with reserves at Louisville, and their lack of familiarity with each other was apparent. What really miffed Friedel, though, was a perceived lack of energy and effort by the squad, a sharp contrast to what’s been proffered by the first-choice eleven all season. Needless to say, a chance to gain positive attention and possibly win more first-team minutes went by the wayside for many.
Against New York, however, New England overcame an early goal to win their first match of the year when conceding the initial score. Diego Fagundez’s blast just before the break canceled out an early Bradley Wright-Phillips header. Teal Bunbury’s league-leading fifth game-winning goal from a Cristian Penilla cross in front of the goal mouth concluded the scoring late in the second half and sealed the three points for the Revs.
Bunbury also had the game-tying penalty kick in last Wednesday’s draw vs Atlanta United FC, to go along with an assist on Fagundez’s goal against the Red Bulls. First-year goalkeeper Matt Turner allowed just two goals in two matches against the highest-scoring teams in the league, and his 51 saves on the season are fourth-best in the MLS. As a result, both Bunbury and Turner were named to the latest MLS Team of the Week.
Friedel again used a 4-2-3-1, with a backline of Andrew Farrell, Antonio Delamea, Jalil Anibaba and, in a surprising move, captain Claude Dielna over usual left-back Gabriel Somi, who apparently was slightly injured. Kelyn Rowe got a rare start alongside Luis Caicedo in the defensive midfield.
With Juan Agudelo just returning to the matchday roster for the first time in several weeks, Krisztian Nemeth got his first start of the year at right wing. Along with his substitute appearance vs Atlanta United FC, in which he drew a late penalty to set up Bunbury’s equalizing goal from the spot, the Hungarian international assisted on Fagundez’s goal against the Red Bulls. Even though he didn’t take the pitch in the Open Cup loss, Nemeth has made the most of his recent appearances.
Turner started his 14th consecutive match in goal for New England, with Bunbury, Fagundez, and Penilla rounding out the eleven at striker, playmaker, and leftwing, respectively. Agudelo (Nemeth), Wilfried Zahibo (Rowe), and Zach Herivaux (Fagundez) came on as late second-half subs.
Judging by the latest league results, both squads are in a good place coming off of home wins. However, Chicago’s road win in their US Open Cup match at Columbus could be the confidence booster the team needs to begin righting the ship and returning to last year’s form. On the other hand, how will New England’s humiliating midweek loss to a second-division club impact morale and psyche entering a tough match in a difficult venue?
Friedel was able to rest nearly all of his starters, though, so that alone may bode well for the club going forward. Paunovic, on the other hand, used several regulars both as starters and subs in the Cup match on Wednesday. Nikolic played all 120 minutes, as did Campos, Bronico, Campbell, Lilliard, and goalkeeper Sanchez. McCarty, Schweinsteiger, and Katai came on as subs in the second-half, each playing anywhere from 40-55 minutes.
Additionally, Paunovic has tinkered with his formation and lineup throughout the season, using 3-, 4-, and 5-man backlines just in his last three matches. He’s also gone with 1-, 2-, and 3-forward formations. It’ll be interesting to see what type of lineup and formation he rolls out on Saturday.
This is the 59th all-time regular season meeting between these Eastern Conference foes. Chicago leads the series with a 26-21-11 record, holding a 16-5-8 edge at home.
New England has lost four in a row in the series, including all three meetings last season (two in Chicago). The Fire outscored the Revs 9-2 in their three head-to-head matchups last season, with Nikolic scoring three goals.
New England’s last result in The Windy City was a 2-2 draw in 2015.
Chicago is only 3-4-1 at home this season. The Fire defeated San Jose 2-1 in their last match at Toyota Park.
The Revolution are 1-2-2 away from Gillette Stadium, tying Vancouver 3-3 the last time they were on the road.
Both clubs have won just twice in their past five matches.
Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez are the current leading Revolution goalscorers vs Chicago, each with four in their careers.
Both teams are undefeated when scoring first, with Chicago at 5-0 and the Revs at 5-0-2. Conversely, the Fire are winless in matches in which they’ve conceded first with an 0-7-2 record, while the Revolution are just 1-4-2 when initially falling behind.
Chicago is 4-3-1 vs Eastern Conference teams. New England is 3-3-3 against Eastern clubs.
Of Chicago’s 20 goals on the season, 14 have been scored in the second half, with five of those after the 75th minute.
The teams’ second and final regular-season meeting of 2018 occurs at Gillette Stadium in late September.
How to Watch
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, June 9
Venue: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Illinois
TV: NBC Sports Boston (Boston)
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston); Univision Radio WRTO AM 1400 (Chicago)
Streaming: MLS Live (now on ESPN+)