It’s safe to say it’s been a while.
This Saturday, Vancouver Whitecaps FC welcome Eastern Conference side Chicago Fire FC to BC Place for the first time since July 2018.
Oddly enough, Saturday’s match will also mark exactly two years since the pair met at the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, Florida, when the ‘Caps claimed a 2-0 victory to progress to the knockout round of the competition.
Much has changed since that day, with both teams featuring new head coaches and personnel.
In this edition of ‘Know thy enemy’, we look at the players to watch on the Fire, their playing style and much more.
ONES TO WATCH
Chicago head coach Ezra Hendrickson has led his young squad to a 6W-10L-5D record in his first season with the club, putting them in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with 23 points.
Their record may not be the most impressive, but what has raised attention from Hendrickson’s side is their defensive stability.
The side has tallied the second-most clean sheets in the league with nine and given up the third-least amount of shots on target from opponents this season.
German centre-back Rafael Czichos, who was acquired from FC Köln over the offseason, has been instrumental in organizing the Fire backline and has also proved to be an offensive threat off set pieces, having scored a goal in each of his team’s last two matches.
Goalkeeper Gabriel ‘Gaga’ Slonina is another piece that’s been essential to the Fire’s defensive success, making several key saves to rack up points for his side.
The 18-year-old has been heavily linked with a move to Chelsea so expect Chicago to call on their youngster in goal to make key saves when tested on Saturday.
On the offensive side of the game, the Fire have scored a mere 21 goals this season but do possess one of the league’s highest profile attackers in former Liverpool man Xherdan Shaqiri.
Although he’s yet to produce a moment of magic like he’s capable of, the Swiss international has quietly enjoyed a fine first six months in MLS, recording three goals and seven assists through 17 starts this season.
Shaqiri has mostly been deployed as a number 10 in Hendrickson’s system, so expect him to have a free roam role on the pitch to allow him to cause chaos wherever he chooses.
The ‘Caps will need to be wary of Shaqiri’s world-class ability to create a moment of magic out of nowhere as well as be clinical with their chances once they get past Czichos to test Slonina in goal.
Saturday’s contest could allow the ‘Caps to control plenty of possession against the Fire.
Through their last four matches, Chicago have lost the possession battle in each of them, with their playing style mainly relying on being direct in the attack and looking to spring their forwards in behind opposing backlines.
Once in possession, the ‘Caps will need to be efficient and clinical with it in order to break Chicago’s backline down.
One of the key ways the Blue and White could look to create chances is through being strong in wide areas.
In fact, it’s an area that’s provided the ‘Caps plenty of success of late, with their last four goals all being created from wide areas, including Brian White’s diving header last weekend in Portland.
The Fire have also been susceptible to giving up goals from wide areas of late, with their 3-2 home loss against Columbus Crew showing their struggles.
Given the ‘Caps system utilizes plenty of space in wide areas, it could be an area to take advantage of as they look to grab the three points on Saturday.
Through the first 21 matches of the season, the ‘Caps have won plenty of set pieces and created chances with dangerous balls into the box.
According to fbref.com, the team has completed 35 dead-ball passes that have directly led to a shot attempt, so it could be an area for the ‘Caps to take advantage of on Saturday.
Be sure to catch the ‘Caps ninth annual Pride Match this Saturday, July 23 at BC Place, with kickoff set for 7 p.m. PT. Tickets are still available at whitecapsfc.com/tickets. You can catch the match live on TSN1/4/5 (TV) and AM730 (Radio), with the radio pre-game show starting at 6 p.m PT.