For the 29th and final time in the regular season, United host the Chicago Fire this Saturday, May 20, at RFK Stadium (4 PM, UniMás). The final match of a three-game homestand for Ben Olsen’s side represents another opportunity to grab three points at home, but involves a dangerous Chicago side that defeated the MLS Cup-defending Seattle Sounders 4-1 at Toyota Park last weekend and blanked the Colorado Rapids 3-0 on Wednesday night.
Last season, the Black-and-Red took points in all three games against Chicago, drawing twice (once on the road and once at home) and winning 6-2 in a thrilling goal fest at RFK. Forward Patrick Mullins, who made his first start since March 18 last weekend against the Philadelphia Union, recorded his first professional hat trick against Veljko Paunovic’s side last year in the impressive victory.
The Fire return to the nation’s capital with a very different lineup, though, most noticeably in the center of the field. After trading for former New York Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty and acquiring former LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho, the Fire made headlines by signing German International and World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 32-year-old has settled in quickly in the Windy City—after scoring during his debut on April 1, he has added another goal and two assists on the season.
While veterans have changed the center of the field for Chicago, a mix of youth and experience can be found in the Black-and-Red midfield. Homegrown Player and rookie Ian Harkes has steadily developed throughout the early part of this season, starting every match but the first and going 90 minutes in all but one. “He continues to grow and he continues to prove that he belongs, not only in the starting lineup, but in the league,” Olsen said. “Ian is growing before our eyes, and that’s a lot of fun for a coach to watch.”
Harkes has been joined by several teammates in the center, whether it is Luciano Acosta, who misses Saturday's match due to a red card last weekend, Jared Jeffrey, who has earned six consecutive starts, or MLS Cup-winner Marcelo Sarvas. Whatever the pairing in the middle, United will need to control Schweinsteiger and company and not allow the Chicago midfield trio too much space.
In the back, captain Steve Birnbaum has returned to the field after recovering from concussion symptoms and will anchor the defense alongside veteran Bobby Boswell. Birnbaum and Boswell will need to be wary of the pace of Ghanaian David Accam and Serbian forward Nemanja Nikolic, who has proven to be a valuable signing, with 10 goals on the season thus far.
United will face Chicago once more during the regular season when they travel to Toyota Park on Saturday, September 16. After three exciting battles last year, this season’s series should be full of action once again.