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Published on February 24th, 2017 | by Jeff Engelhardt

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Tough Toronto test awaits Fire in preseason finale

The Chicago Fire will look to finish off a perfect regular season Saturday when they travel from Bradenton to a slightly northern Florida city to take on a team from Canada.

Funky geographical circumstances aside, the 2 p.m. match against Toronto FC figures to be the stiffest test to date for the Men in Red. If both teams treat the game like a dress rehearsal for their respective openers, Chicago will likely find itself under pressure defensively and challenged to maintain possession and create chances offensively.

It is a challenge I would like to see, at least for the first 45 minutes, but it is not guaranteed. Both coaches, or either one, could choose play it safe Saturday and make sure no harm comes to any of their stars or starters in an ultimately meaningless game. I could not blame them if they went that route, but selfishly, I want to get a glimpse of what the Fire can do against a loaded opponent.

Reasons to Watch

Toronto FC

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Toronto FC is the best team in the East by a good margin and boasts the best player in MLS. When the Reds are clicking, they are one of the most fun teams to watch. Sebastian Giovinco is an absolute magician with the ball and is capable of big moments at any time. Oh sure, you say, but can he do it on a rainy night in Stoke? Well, I can tell you he can do it on a rainy day in Orlando, which I’d have to imagine is very similar.

That man, along with Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and now former Barcelona product Victor Vazquez combine to create a devastating attack. I hope to see the Fire’s own dynamic duo of Dax McCarty and Juninho take a shot at slowing down those world-class players.

Chicago’s Defense

While McCarty and Juninho go a long way in setting the tone for the entire defense, it will take a team effort to stop a full-strength Toronto side. Johan Kappelhof, Jonathan Campbell and even Joao Meira have proven to be solid contributors at center back, but the question remains whether the Fire can play with a strong enough shape and team discipline to overcome individual questions at the full back positions.

Right back remains wide open with former Newcastle man Ryan Taylor not expected to join the team until next week. The Fire will likely go into Columbus with either Michael Harrington or former Crew player Chad Barson starting at right back. If Toronto comes strong Saturday, both men will have a chance to either ease concerns or increase panic heading into the season opener.

While the left back has not been discussed as much, Patrick Doody has put together solid outings to push Brandon Vincent. Neither man has played “shut down” defense though, and Toronto is capable of exposing them. Both flanks need to rise to the occasion Saturday to support a solid central defense that will have its hands full with Giovinco and company.

One More Niko Goal

I’m not worried about Nemanja Nikolic. He has scored and looked dangerous throughout the preseason. But he is about to embark on his first MLS campaign and every bit of confidence helps. A goal against the defending Eastern Conference champions, even in preseason, would be a nice boost for the new Designated Player as he gets thrown into the fire on the road against Chicago’s biggest rival.

While David Accam and Michael de Leeuw are capable of great performances, it became clear last year that on its own that combination is often not enough. This season is going to rise and fall with the performances of Nikolic. He is ultimately the key to enhancing the danger of both Accam and de Leeuw. I’ve talked about the 15-goal benchmark for Nikolic before and the road to that goal could start Saturday.

A goal against Toronto FC might just serve as a springboard to a hot start to the season.

Prediction: Fire win 2-1

These are always tough to call, especially when it is unclear how either team’s manager is going to approach the preseason finale. But I’m not foolish enough to pick against the Fire in preseason. The Fire has become specialists at this time of year and I think they’ll leave Florida feeling good and ready for Columbus.

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