Eugene Rupinski, Brotherly Game) Nemanja Nikolić is currently leading MLS with 21 goals. What’s the secret to stopping him?
Sean Spence, Hot Time In Old Town) Niko's game isn't difficult to understand - he's a poacher with a high work rate. He doesn't create shots for himself, and in terms of raw athleticism the average MLS centerback is more than a match for him one-on-one. His play in combination is improving, but improving on 'non-existent' isn't exactly a plus.
What he does is hasta el gol siempre. Niko grinds and grinds, routinely putting in miles of running for those couple of moments when suddenly he has a chance to try to finish. He thrives on momentary miscommunication or failures of will in the defense and is most dangerous at the end of rapid team moves. He's the kind of guy who builds up a fantasy about himself, then has the audacity to try to live within it - and goals are the key that unlocks the door to that fantasy-land, so he's got a relentlessness about his quest for them that brings to mind serial killers or hoarders.
All of which means there's no real trick to shutting down Niko besides 'play really great team defense consistently.' Don't switch off, communicate about runs, keep pressure on the ball in the final third, and you'll have Nemanja muttering to himself and snatching at chances. Get bored, or (as happened often in the first half of the season) get so thoroughly dominated in midfield that the chances are coming quickly, and he'll find a way to finish what comes.
tBG) While there are still two games left in the season, surely your sights are set on the playoffs. Of the teams in it, who would you most like to see the Fire match up against? Who would you least like them to match up against?
HTIOT) Generally, I don't have a massive sense of dread about any of the teams in the Eastern Conference. I'm going to assume we're not going to overhaul New York City FC for second, which means we'll be playing one of Atlanta, Red Bulls and Columbus in the first round. Of that group, I'd probably want to avoid Atlanta, especially in a one-off playoff scenario. I'd feel pretty confident against either Red Bulls or the Crew (SC) in a single game at home. For the purposes of this question, I'll say I'd prefer Columbus, just because I'm a midwesterner and like to see regional rivalries grow.
tBG) With the success of the Fire recently, what’s the dynamic with the “Hauptman Out” contingent of fans? Do they still want to see the ouster of their owner?
HTIOT) The 'Hauptman Out' contingent are still here, and are still supporting the Fire. I'd characterize their attitude as 'wait and see.' Simply massively expanding the payroll spending for a single season, absent substantial investment in the kind of infrastructure which can make the franchise competitive in MLS long-term, doesn't speak to an organization that's truly committed to excellence. There are also lingering questions about the abrupt clear-out of the entire academy staff last year. Perhaps all of those questions will be answered eventually - but if the executive offices of the Fire are hoping simply to tread water until everyone forgets, they're going to be terribly disappointed.
Injuries, suspensions, etc. :
The mysterious soft-tissue injury that has sidelined Bastian Schweinsteiger for a game ... well, two games ... ok, a month ... I mean, maybe until playoffs ... continues to keep him doing light fitness training on the side during Fire practices. He's usually joined there by Juninho, who's nursed an unacknowledged foot injury most of the season. David Accam has struggled for weeks with some kind of hip ailment; his form and availability are unknown. So, yeah, basically everyone really scary to face on the Fire roster is hurt.
No suspensions mar the teamsheet this week.
Predicted lineup (4-2-3-1): Matt Lampson; Brandon Vincent, João Meira, Johan Kappelhof, Matt Polster; Dax McCarty, Drew Conner; Luis Solignac, Djordje Mihailovic, Arturo Álvarez; Nemanja Nikolić.