It's a scenario that has been played out countless times in leagues all over the world. On one side, you have a team that is flying high near the top of the table. On the other is a side propping up the standings, looking incapable of delivering a victory. It's a game that looks like a complete mismatch on paper, yet the bottom club springs a surprise.
It's a scenario the Chicago Fire will be desperate to replicate when they host the streaking Houston Dynamo on this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Fire are just 1-7-3 since the beginning of May, while a 7-0-1 streak in league play has seen Houston vault into a first-place tie with Dallas in the Western Conference standings.
And Chicago is more than capable of delivering an upset. After all, the Fire defeated Houston 1-0 on April 29, and with new coach Juan Carlos Osorio now in charge, you can bet that Chicago will be plenty motivated to duplicate that feat.
Five story lines to follow
1. Osorio's Fire debut
The reasons for the Fire's struggles this year have been numerous, with injuries and international call-ups among the culprits. Yet Fire president and CEO John Guppy felt those explanations weren't compelling enough to keep Dave Sarachan on as head coach, and now it falls to Osorio to try to salvage Chicago's season, all while rumors of the team's impending sale abound.
Having been introduced as coach just this past Monday, Osorio hasn't had much time to get to know his team prior to the match. But the Colombian has gotten right to work, poring over game tape when he hasn't been running practice. And while he cited the Fire's attack as the primary area for improvement, he feels that hope remains for his side.
"I think we have enough talented players in this team to do well for the rest of the season and compete for a spot in the playoffs," said Osorio.
2. Houston's killer"D"
At the core of the Dynamo's recent unbeaten streak has been a defense that has stifled some of the league's most potent offenses, with Kansas City, New York, and D.C. United all failing to breach Houston's goal in recent weeks. The Dynamo have recorded five shutouts in a row, and the 515 minutes they've gone without conceding a goal is the third longest in MLS history. What's even more encouraging is that nagging injuries to the likes of Eddie Robinson have forced Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear to juggle his lineup during this stretch.
"We won a couple of games without some guys and it gave everyone a boost of confidence," said Kinnear. "But defensively, everyone has been working so hard."
3. Both teams closer to full strength
With the United States' exertions in Copa America now complete, both teams are closer to having their full compliment of players. Chicago's Justin Mapp returned in a substitute's role during the Fire's 1-1 draw with Toronto this past weekend, while Houston's Ricardo Clark provided similar help in the Dynamo's 1-0 defeat of D.C. United.
The latter development leaves Kinnear with a bit of a selection dilemma. Richard Mulrooney has performed well in Clark's absence, but leaving the rangy Clark on the bench seems unthinkable. It's possible that Mulrooney could slide in at right back, leaving the likes of Craig Waibel on the bench instead.
4. A lack of Firepower
One significant absence that remains for the Fire is forward Chris Rolfe, whose troublesome left ankle has caused him to miss Chicago's last nine games. With Mapp's international duties coinciding with Rolfe's injury, the Fire's offense has disappeared, with Chicago tallying just five times in that span. With Rolfe not yet ready to return, the scoring burden remains on the shoulders of players like Mapp and forward Chad Barrett. Barrett has struggled for most of the season, but it was his penalty kick in the Toronto match that ended the Fire's 262-minute goalless streak.
5. Crowded schedules
With the U.S. Open Cup set to commence this week for MLS clubs, both teams find themselves in the middle of a difficult stretch of games. Thursday's match will be the fourth in just 12 days for the Fire, while Thursday's match will be the fourth in just eight days for the Dynamo.
Five players to watch
1. Stuart Holden, M, Houston
When Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis went down with a meniscus tear in his right knee on July 3, it was felt that Houston would badly miss his creativity and delivery on set pieces. But Holden has filled in admirably for his teammate, contributing a goal and two assists in Houston's 4-0 demolition of New York, with both of his helpers coming from dead-ball situations.
"[Holden] is just a good soccer player," said Kinnear. "Against New York, he got stronger as the game went on. He's also deceptively fast and good in tight spaces."
2. Justin Mapp, M, Chicago
The 27 minutes that Mapp was on the field against Toronto showed just how important he is to the Fire's attack, as he energized Chicago's offense. And while determining Mapp's best position on the field remains an open question, Osorio already has some ideas, especially as it relates to Cuauhtemoc Blanco's impending arrival.
"If we have a good playmaker, then I think [Mapp] can do a good job for us on the left side," said Osorio. "If, as it is now, we don't have [Blanco] available, then I think Justin will play in a more central role, and we'll find somebody else to play on the left."
3. Brian Ching, F, Houston
After a barren spell in front of goal, Ching has tallied twice in his last two league games, including the only goal in Houston's win over United. But there has always been more to Ching's game than scoring, with his hold-up play and passing always bringing more players into the attack.
"When Ching holds the ball up, he doesn't really budge from his area," said Kinnear. "Other guys will take the ball back and lay it off to midfield. He holds his ground and you can't get it from him, so it gives guys a chance to either run off him or support him."
4. Diego Gutierrez, D, Chicago
When Sarachan's assistant, Denis Hamlett, took over on an interim basis, one of his first moves was to slide Gutierrez into the center of a four-man defense. While Osorio stated he prefers to play three at the back, he indicated he'll continue with the present alignment, especially considering that defender C.J. Brown is suspended because of yellow-card accumulation. That means Gutierrez will be called upon to do more against Houston's in-form striker tandem of Ching and Joseph Ngwenya.
5. Dwayne De Rosario, M, Houston
Last year's runner-up in the MVP voting appears to be inching back to his best form, and after signing a contract extension earlier this week, the Canadian will now able to focus all of his energies toward continuing that trend. Since he'll be matched up against veteran Chicago midfielder Chris Armas, De Rosario's ability to influence the game should be tested.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.