After a frustrating draw at home on the last day of the season against D.C., the Fire now have a quick turn around in Wednesday night’s Knockout Match at Toyota Park against a very experienced Houston Dynamo side (LIVE 8pm CT on ESPN2/ESPN Deportes). Anything can happen in a one-off game but, with the home crowd behind them, the Fire will be looking to build on the good performance against DC and advance to play Sporting KC this weekend. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Counter attack: the Fire's best friend
Against D.C. last week, especially in the first half, the Fire used the counter attack to perfection, creating an enormous amount of chances but failing capitalize. The Fire allowed DC to be lulled into a false sense of security by sitting back, letting them control the possession and move men forward before breaking at lightning speed if and when the Men in Red were able to turn the ball over.
WATCH: Coach's Take on Houston
Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime. As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.
If the Men in Red can counter as well as they did against D.C., Houston are going to be in trouble.
Finishing: improvement needed for the Playoffs
As I previously mentioned, the Fire had a host of chances last week against United but only managed to put one in the back of the net. In the playoffs, not taking your chances is a recipe for disaster and the Fire will need to make the most of the ones they get tonight.
MacDonald was the main culprit against D.C. and he will certainly be looking to get on the score sheet in his first playoff game. MacDonald is his own biggest critic and I am sure he's been working doubly hard in training since Saturday. He is the kind of player who could go on a scoring run and getting a goal against Houston could start it.
Assistant coach Mike Makovich put it well in his pre-match interview, stating that he "would be worried" if the Fire weren't creating chances. In the Playoffs, a certain amount of luck is needed, but if the Fire create as many openings as they did against D.C., they should be fine.
Limiting defensive mistakes: no needless fouls around the box
Houston are the masters of the dead ball and the less chances the Fire give Brad Davis and co. to put the ball in the box, the better. The Dynamo are extremely good in the air and are also a very intelligent team, constantly looking for fouls in the final third.
Houston coach Dom Kinnear is also famous for his attempts to influence referees, something that he will surely be trying to do on Wednesday night. The Fire must try and not give referee Baldomero Toledo anything to think about, because the more needless fouls the team gives up, the more likely he will start hearing it from the Houston bench.
Houston's size, with giants like Macoumba Kandji and Will Bruin are tough to handle. Aside from the massively experienced Arne Friedrich and playoff experienced Segares, the Fire's other three likely defensive starters, Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba and Sean Johnson all will be making their MLS Playoff debuts so putting as little pressure on them as possible will be helpful.
WATCH: Players Preview Houston
Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime.
As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.
Kofi Sarkodie: Potential weak link for the Dynamo
For all the talk of Houston's playoff experience, one player who will be taking his postseason bow for the Dynamo is right-back Kofi Sarkodie.
Sarkodie only started seven games this season for the Dynamo and though he is not a rookie, he did not see any action during the teams run to the 2011 MLS Cup. I expect the Fire to try and test out Sarkodie as often as possible Wednesday night.
Flaco Fernandez had an improved performance against D.C. last weekend and if he can continue to get forward and combine with the attackers and left back Segares on Sarkodie's side of the field, it may cause the youngster problems.
In Houston's last meaningful game against the Philadelphia Union on October 20, the only Philly goal came on a cross from Sarkodie's side. He stood off the ball and allowed the cross to be played into the box for Jack McInerney to score. Another mistake like that could cost the Dynamo on Wednesday night.
Prediction: In a very tight and tense match, the Fire come out 2-1 winners with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Rookie of the Year Award runaway, Austin Berry.
With one game left and all to play for, there's no doubt that Saturday's game against D.C. United (LIVE 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network) is the the Fire's biggest game of the season to date. A win and the team finishes in second place in the Eastern conference and enjoys home field advantage for the Conference Semis. A loss or tie against DC and the Fire's destiny is out of their own hands, with a place between third and fifth in the cards. That being said, lets look at some tactical points for the big match.
Andy Najar - don't fool me twice
Andy Najar's coming out party as a right back was against the Fire in August when he put in a Man of the Match performance in a 4-2 win at RFK Stadium. Najar should start at right back again Saturday afternoon and the Fire will need to a much better job of containing him this time out. Against the Columbus Crew last week, Najar pushed forward constantly and provided an outlet for DC on the right. Columbus allowed Najar far too much room and he duly obliged by looking to cross the ball whenever possible.
WATCH: Fire vs. United Preview
D.C.'s midfielders look to switch the field of play to the advanced Najar whenever possible, something the Fire must look out for. For all his attacking prowess however, Najar can get caught too far up the field, something the left side tandem of Gonzalo Segares and Patrick Nyarko will be looking to exploit if the opportunity arises.
Stopping United from playing our game - target striker
D.C. sets up in a similar way to the Fire, namely with a target striker with an attacking mid/second striker playing just behind him. Against Columbus last week, Maicon Santos played just behind target man Lionard Pajoy. The partnership is still in its infancy, but should continue from the start on Saturday afternoon.
Against Columbus, Pajoy and Cesar did not combine well, often drifting too far from one another to effectively link up. DC's wide men, Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon, did their best to move central and support Pajoy whenever possible. Both of the wide players tendency to move inside caught Columbus short handed on a few occasions, especially when one of the wide men failed to drop back.
D.C. are not a team blessed with many creative players who look to take on their opponents, especially without Dwayne De Rosario. If the Fire can cut the supply line to Pajoy and force United to resort to trying to take them on it will work to the Men in Red’s advantage.
D.C.'s midfield - attacking through the middle
Similar to the Fire, United set up with two holding midfielders, Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa. In last week’s game against Columbus, both players were exposed by some neat interplay between the Columbus midfielders who quite simply passed the ball around Kitchen and Saragosa at times, especially in the first half.
Part of the reason for the exposure was because D.C.'s more advanced midfield trio failed to drop back quickly enough to support the holding midfielders when United lost possession. In the second half, this happened a lot less frequently, but it certainly is an area in which the Fire can try to take advantage. If the Fire can get midfielders forward in numbers, something they haven't been able to do as often in the last few games, then they could put some real pressure on the D.C. holding midfield core.
The return of Pardo - an experienced head for a big game
Since losing Pavel Pardo, the Fire have gone 3-3-0 in his six game absence. In the six games prior, the team won five and lost one. That stat alone gives you an indication as to how important Pavel is to the team.
His partnership with Logan Pause in the Fire engine room is one big reason for the Fire being a lot harder to break down this year. Pardo also reads the game as well as anyone in MLS, constantly positioning himself well to intercept a pass or pick up an advancing midfielder.
Having Pardo, a man with almost 150 caps for Mexico, will also be extremely important for the playoffs, especially because three of the five behind him have no postseason experience. Pardo's return gives the team an added boost ahead of the biggest game of the season to date.
Prediction: This game is going to be just as intense and nerve wracking as a playoff game but a sold out crowd at Toyota Park should give the Fire the advantage. 1-0 Fire with the goal coming from Chris Rolfe.
The Fire stopped a two-game skid in convincing fashion last time out, beating New York 2-0 at Red Bull Arena. The team travels to New England Saturday night (LIVE 6pm CT on NBC 5.2) to play a Revolution team riddled with injuries and eliminated from the playoff race. As we saw two weeks ago against the Philadelphia Union, a team playing for pride can be extremely dangerous so there is no room for complacency. Here are some things to look for from a tactical standpoint.
Jerry Bengtson - stopping the target man
New England's designated player, Jerry Bengtson, has settled very well in MLS since his arrival halfway through 2012. The Honduran plays the same role as Sherjill MacDonald does for the Fire, holding up the ball and looking to combine with the advancing midfielders. Bengtson also likes to roam into wide positions, encouraging his support players to move into the space he vacates.
Bengtson also comes into the game on a high after scoring a hat-trick in an 8-1 rout of Canada in San Pedro Sula Tuesday night. It is commonplace for an international returning his club team after representing his country twice in four days to start the game from the bench but given New England's injury crisis, it is a near certainty that he will be leading the line come Saturday night.
WATCH: Matko's Take on New England
Cutting off the supply to Bengtson is very important.
Juan Toja - a creative spark from the bench
Since joining the Revs over a month ago, Toja has made four appearances, all from the bench. The former Dallas player showed what he is capable of in New England's last game against Philadelphia, coming on for the last twenty minutes and making a big impact.
Toja is a player who wants the ball at all times, often dropping deep to collect it and start an attack. Against the Union, he looked to get the ball wide as much as possible but also looked to take on players whenever the opportunity arose.
It is obvious that Toja is not 100% match fit and unlikely he will start on Saturday night, but he will almost certainly be the first man off the bench, especially if the Revs need a goal. The Union did not adjust to Toja coming on and allowed the midfielder far too much room to create, something the Fire will need to prevent if he makes an appearance.
Fire attack - no need to force it
In the Fire's last game in New York, the team for the most part played as any good away team should, absorbing pressure and counter attacking whenever possible. The team also did well to retain possession but at times were guilty of trying to force the ball forward, sometimes resulting in a careless giveaway, especially in the final third of the field.
The aim was to get the ball to advanced forward Sherjill MacDonald, either directly to his feet so he could hold the ball up or to play a ball into the channels for MacDonald to run onto. At times this was very successful, but the midfield seemed desperate to get the ball up the pitch, instead of playing the simple pass and retaining possession.
The main culprit of this of late is Uruguayan Flaco Fernandez who has had a slight dip in form since being recalled to the Uruguayan National Team. Fernandez is vital to the Fire's attack and the New England game provides him with an opportunity to rediscover the blistering form he was in a few weeks ago.
Double teaming in defense - leads to counter attacks
Against New York, the Fire did a much better job of pressuring their opponents instead of sitting back and allowing them to come and attack them. Often the Fire would double team an opponent in order to win the ball back which was very successful.
Both goals the Fire scored against the Red Bulls came from forcing a turnover by double or sometimes triple teaming the opposition. To do it successfully, the outside midfielders much at times tuck in to support the center mids or drop deep to support the outside defenders.
The other key element of the double teaming tactic is to quickly counter when you do win the ball. The Fire did not give New York enough time to adjust after losing possession and thanks to the runs and finishes of Sherjill MacDonald, the Men in Red were able to leave New York with all three points. Look for the Fire to continue this trend against New England this weekend, especially when a player like Toja gets the ball.
Prediction: The Fire avenge a loss at Gillette Stadium earlier in the season by winning 2-0. Goals from Chris Rolfe and Rookie of the Year candidate, Austin Berry.
Prediction Record since August 4: 6-3
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
After dropping their last two games, the Fire travel to New York Saturday afternoon to face a Red Bulls team that has only lost at home once this season (LIVE at 2:30pm CT on NBC 5 Chicago). The Fire had their worst performance of the season on Wednesday night against Philadelphia while New York demolished Toronto FC last time out. That being said, both teams are level in the standings with 53 points and will be looking for a win in an effort to catch Sporting KC at the summit of the Eastern Conference. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical standpoint.
When you have it, keep it: ball retention
In the Fire's last two games, the team failed to keep hold of the ball for long stretches, often gifting it back to their opponents. Against the better teams, this can be a nightmare because it means that you have to defend wave after wave of attacks. Against Philly on Wednesday night, players were making misplaced passes all over the field and it prevented the team from getting into any sort of offensive rhythm.
Maintaining possession is important in any game but especially in matches away from home. The Fire could deploy a similar tactic to the one used in Kansas City last week, namely, getting the ball to Sherjill MacDonald and relying on him to hold the ball up and wait for support. Against KC though, the team were unable to get MacDonald the ball enough and on many occasions gave it away in the process.
If the Fire play the same way against New York, they must get the ball in to MacDonald's feet because not doing so will only hand the possession to Red Bull.
Center backs: beware of getting stretched
Fire color commentator and former defender Evan Whitfield made an excellent point in Wednesday night's game after the Union's first goal. He noted that center backs Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry were not close enough together, leaving a gap between them which Jack McInerney exploited to perfection on the first goal. The same thing happened against the Montreal Impact a few weeks back when Marco Di Vaio got in between the center backs to score.
Unfortunately, these are not the only two instances of this happening this season and its something the team needs to address. There is no one explanation as to why this is happening but there are some ways of limiting its negative effects.
We all know that Arne Friedrich likes to roam forward from time to time in an effort to help the attack. When this happens, the Fire need to be wary and drop one of the defensive midfielders into the back line if they lose possession. Also, when a ball is played in behind the outside defenders, it forces Berry or Friedrich to go wide to pick up the runner, leaving a space in the middle. When this happens, the outside back or someone else has to drop into the space left vacated.
Thierry Henry: picking him up when he drops deep
It may sound cliche, but the Red Bulls are a much, much better team when Thierry Henry is in the starting eleven. He single handidly tore Toronto FC apart last weekend, tallying a goal and three assists in a 4-1 victory.
Henry is a converted winger and still loves to move out wide, pick the ball up, and run at defenders. He did this on countless occasions against Toronto and was not dealt with. When he goes wide, the Fire must not drop back and allow him to run at defenders.
Henry also likes to play the "false 9" role, dropping into the middle of the field, to pick up the ball and then either take players on or look for a killer pass into the space he just vacated. This is a role that Chris Rolfe often plays for the Fire.
The other problem that Henry gives teams is that he draws so much attention away from his teammates, often leaving them with acres of space. Its a very tough balancing act, but the Fire must find a way to limit Frenchman's effectiveness while at the same time not allowing players like Tim Cahill and Kenny Cooper to go undetected.
Set pieces - the fewer the better
One of the things not mentioned in the last paragraph about Henry is that he takes almost all of New York's set pieces and is especially good at corners, often putting the ball into very dangerous areas.
Though the Red Bulls have many smaller players in their starting eleven such as Dax McCarty and Connor Lade, they also possess some who are genuinely dangerous in the air in Wilman Conde, Kenny Cooper and Markus Holgersson. Another player famous for his aerial ability Tim Cahill. The Aussie scored countless headed goals for Everton before signing for the Red Bulls earlier this season.
Though he hasn't made as big of an impact as most were predicting, the Fire coaching staff will be very disappointed if the teams allows the Red Bulls' biggest threat to hurt them on Saturday afternoon.
Limiting New York to only a handful of set pieces will be crucial for a positive Fire result
Prediction: Fire improve tenfold from Wednesday night to earn a deserved point with a goal from Sherjill MacDonald.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
After a tough loss on Friday night in Kansas City, the Fire are looking to get back into the race for first place in the Eastern Conference when they face the Philadelphia Union at Toyota Park on Wednesday night. Philly are also coming into the game on the back of a loss, going down 3-2 in Columbus last weekend. Though the Union are out of the Playoff race, they will be looking to play spoiler and stop the Fire from moving into second in the standings.
Here are some things to look out for from a tactical standpoint.
Combination plays: Stopping Philly from playing their game
After John Hackworth took over head coach halfway through this season, he has tried to get the Union away from the long ball game if possible and move towards keeping the ball on the ground and moving forward through short, quick, pass combinations.
In the first 60 minutes against the Columbus Crew last weekend, Philly worked this to perfection, gliding through the Columbus midfield on many occasions by moving well off the ball and limiting the amount of touches taken. Even though they were the away team, they enjoyed a lot of possession but for all of their pretty play, they created only a few chances. It was only when they got the wide men in behind did they cause any real damage.
WATCH: Matko's Take on Philadelphia
Against the Chicago Wednesday night I can see coach Hackworth deploying the same tactic but it will be up to the Fire to disrupt this as much as possible by trying to impose their game of high pressure, something that was missing against Kansas City Friday. The more the Fire can force Philly into kicking it long, the more it will take them away from their possession-based game plan.
Stopping the super sub: Antoine Hoppenot
Rookie Antoine Hoppenot has been the Union's go-to-guy when the team is looking for a spark in the attack this season. He is clearly more comfortable coming off the bench and single handily turned last week's game against Columbus in the Union's favor after coming off the bench by allowing Philadelphia to play more direct.
Hoppenot is a defender’s nightmare -- a player who is always on the shoulder of the last man and never stops pressuring the back line when he enters the game. He took full advantage against a tired Columbus defense last week, earning a penalty kick and making some brilliant runs in behind the defense. He especially likes to make runs behind the outside defenders, something the Fire were guilty of allowing Kansas City to do too often last week.
When the French striker inventively makes his appearance from the subs bench Wednesday, the Fire cannot allow him to influence the game as he did last weekend.
Fire attack: getting Fernandez more involved
Though the Fire sat back for the most part on Friday and looked for balls to be played up to Sherjill MacDonald, the team did find some success when “Flaco” Fernandez was able to get forward and support the more advanced players.
Due to Pavel Pardo's injury, Alex has been playing in a much deeper role and must put his defensive duties ahead of his desire to support the attack. Alex's new role has also put more emphasis on Flaco Fernandez to help out in the attack as much as possible. When he did go forward against Kansas City, it resulted in some of the Fire's best chances.
Playing back at home, I expect the Fire to be much more adventurous in attack and this will mean that Fernandez will be given more license to get forward than he was against KC where he was forced to track back for a lot of the game. Fernandez has found himself in some brilliant positions this season, and if not for some lackluster finishing, he would easily have double the amount of goals he already has for the Fire. His forays forward could be the difference against the Union on Wednesday night.
Left back: A familiar face returns
Friday night’s red card to Gonzalo Segares means we will almost certainly see fan favorite Dan Gargan back in the starting lineup for the first time in 11 matches. Gargan is the first sub off the bench if anyone on the back line is injured and the team has relied heavily on his versatility, especially with the many injuries to Fire defenders this season.
That being said, the Fire have been quite lucky to avoid injuries to the back line in recent months and the team's discipline has been excellent this season with minimal suspensions. All of this means that Gargan has started in 17 games this season but none since late July at San Jose. Getting him minutes is very important, especially heading towards the playoffs where the format is longer, meaning a greater chance of someone picking up an injury or suspension.
We all know about Gargan's defensive abilities but against the Union at home, he will be encouraged to push forward and contribute to the attack. How well he combines with the Fire's left winger (assumed to be Patrick Nyarko) will be important. A good performance by Gargan Wednesday would also make a statement to coach Frank Klopas of Gargan's intent to win back a starting place as we enter the most important stretch of the season.
Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Nyarko and Fernandez.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
The Fire travel to LiveStrong Sporting Park on Friday night to face Sporting KC (LIVE 7:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network) in a game which could go a long way toward determining who wins the Eastern Conference crown. Both teams are playing well and it has all the makings of a classic. Here are a few things to watch out for from a tactical perspective...
Balls over the top: Fire defenders beware
Sporting KC have a tendency to look for balls into space behind the opposing teams outside defenders and the Fire will need to be wary of this tactic Friday night. KC attackers such as Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong all like to make these runs which often drag a central defender out of position to cover, leaving space in the middle for the other attackers to move into.
PREVIEW: Fire vs. Sporting KC
The difficult part about defending these through balls is the fact that they can come from anywhere. In KC's last home match against Houston, it wasn't just midfielders like Roger Espinoza playing the balls into space but the defenders were getting in on the act, too.
Though he has played extremely well over the past month or so, Jalil Anibaba can sometimes stray too far forward which leaves space in behind him for players to run into and exploit. On the other side of the field, left back Gonzalo Segares also needs to be cautious.
High pressure: harass KC
In the Fire's past few matches, the team's policy of applying pressure to the opposition high up the field has been very effective. Not only does the pressure offer up the opportunity for a turnover, but it also disrupts the other team’s attacking rhythm.
In KC's last game away to Montreal, the Impact used the high pressure tactic and caused all sorts of problems for the away side. I look for the likes of Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko to be pressuring the KC players all night when they are in possession.
In the absence of Pavel Pardo, Alex has excelled in his new holding midfield position and his energy in the center of the park will be needed against Sporting KC. If he can also use his pace to pressure the KC midfield without straying too far out of position, it will be crucial to the Fire's chances of coming away with points.
Playoff atmosphere: keeping a cool head
There is so much riding on Friday night’s match and both teams know what is a stake, which is all the more reason for the Fire players to keep cool heads throughout the game. Kansas City has a tendency to get riled up very easily, starting with their coach, Peter Vermes. Players such as Kai Kamara and Michael Harrington also can get very emotional on the pitch, especially if they feel calls are not going their way.
With this in mind, I'm sure Frank Klopas has reiterated to his players not to let their emotions get the better of them in this high pressure game. For the most part, the Fire haven't had any problems with this aspect of their game this season but in a match of such importance where there isn't much between the teams, keeping your head can mean the difference between a positive and negative result.
Scoring first: stopping the bad habit
Though not necessarily a tactical point, a worrying trait that many would like to see addressed is reversing the trend of giving up the first goal.
This season, the Fire have gone a goal behind in games much too often for the coaches, fans and players liking. Though the team has often come back to tie the game and gone on to win it in many cases, sooner or later giving up the first goal is going to come back to haunt the Men in Red.
Clearly there is no one reason for going behind in so many games this season but if the team can reverse that trend it will make everyone happy. In the regular season to date, the Fire have only kept five clean sheets, the last of which came 11 games ago (1-0 July 14 vs. Vancouver). A clean sheet away from home Friday against Sporting KC would be a fantastic achievement.
Prediction: 1-0. Nyarko scores and Fire keep first clean sheet in 11 games to move into first place in the East.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
Another game, another win for the Fire last weekend against Eastern Conference rivals Montreal Impact. The task gets a little harder this week when Columbus Crew come to Toyota Park on Saturday night looking for the points they need to stay in playoff contention. Columbus will be buoyed by their last gasp winner against Chivas USA on Wednesday night at Crew Stadium but they come up against a Fire team that has only lost one of its last eight games. Here are a few things to look out for on Saturday night.
Balls over the top: a Crew potential weakness
The Crew center back pairing of Chad Marshall and Julius James have had some trouble this season with balls played over the top into the path of an on-running striker. This was especially evident in the Crew's match against New York last weekend.
In one case, Rafa Marquez played a brilliant ball over Marshall’s head for Henry to score. Dax McCarty also played Henry in over the top from a more advanced position than Marquez which almost led to a goal.
Even though it’s not really the Fire’s game, the midfielders, especially players like Fernandez, Pause and Pardo should be on the lookout for chances to play Rolfe and potentially Nyarko in over the top, if the opportunity arises.
HIGHLIGHTS: CLB 1, CHV 0 (9/19/2012)
Federico Higuain - don't allow him room to cross
Federico Higuain has boosted the Crew attack dramatically since arriving a few months ago. His crossing ability as well as his excellent free kicks make him a threat against any team.
Against a similar sort of danger man in Felipe last week, the Fire dropped Logan Pause deeper to prevent the Brazilian from operating in the space between the midfield and back line. Higuain does that but also likes to move out wide where he can put in teasing crosses.
Against Philadelphia in August the Fire allowed Freddy Adu too much space to cross and it resulted in a goal. The team should look to prevent something similar from happening on Saturday night.
Playing 90 minutes plus: no switching off
This Crew have had a love/hate relationship with the last 15 minutes of games this season. They have conceded quite a few goals late in games but in recent weeks, they are reversing that trend. The last gasp winner last week against Chivas USA is one example. Earlier this month, the Crew came from behind to beat Montreal in the 93rd minute.
Though not necessarily a tactical point, you can be sure that head coach Frank Klopas told his team this week that they cannot shut off against the Crew and that giving up a late goal could be very harmful in the push for first place in the East.
On the other side of the coin, Columbus have proven that they are guilty to shutting off late in games and this could come back to haunt them against a Fire team who have capitalized on their opponents mistakes time and time again this season.
Prediction: 2-1 Fire with goals from MacDonald and Oduro.
Stephen Piggott is a Contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
After beating Toronto 2-1 on Wednesday night, the Fire face Canadian opposition again on Saturday, hosting for the first time Montreal at Toyota Park (LIVE 7:30pm CT on CSN Chicago). Winning games that you don't play well in is the sign of a good team and the Fire certainly showed that against TFC.
Montreal is still fighting to sneak into the MLS Cup Playoffs but the Fire haven't lost to an Eastern Conference foe at home for over two years. Here are some things to look out for in Saturday night’s game:
WATCH: CLB 2, MTL 1 (9/1/2012)
Montreal's formation: back 3 or back 4?
Montreal manager Jesse Marsch has experimented with both a back three and back four this season. When fit, Nelson Rivas, Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari serve as the first choice defenders and you would be hard pressed to find a more experienced trio in all of MLS. The trio has hundreds of Serie A matches under their belt.
In Montreal's last game they played a back four system away against Columbus and I think we will see the same on Saturday night as the Fire's attacking ability and willingness to push the outside defenders up in support of the wingers would cause big problems for a three back setup.
Experienced defenders = lack of pace
Whenever an opposing team is asked about the Fire, the first aspect of the team's game that every coach and player talks about is "pace." Montreal's defenders may have all the experience in the world but with the Fire they come up against a team that has the ability to beat them with speed.
In his last two games, Patrick Nyarko has used his pace to devastating effect, blowing by the Houston defense to score after less than a minute and forcing the Toronto back line into making mistakes by applying pressure high up the field. Nyarko was also very dangerous on the break, especially after Toronto set pieces.
Patrick played very high up the field against TFC on Wednesday, almost as a third striker, and I think that will continue against the Impact.
Felipe - the often overlooked danger man
In attack, Montreal have two excellent wingers in Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp. For the past decade, both players have consistently helped their teams by scoring goals but more importantly netting assists.
WATCH: CHI 2, TOR 1 (9/12/2012)
For the Impact, both play in the wide positions and distract from Felipe who is more central. He can fade in and out of games but he is very capable of providing a killer assist. Philadelphia were so concerned about his attacking threat that they man marked him for the entire match. I don't think the Fire will follow suit, but they cannot solely focus on the wide men and neglect Filipe.
Fire offense: finish your chances
In the game against TFC on Wednesday night, the Men in Red were once again guilty of missing too many excellent goal scoring opportunities. Those misses made the game a lot closer than it should have been, especially after TFC pulled it back to 2-1 in the second half.
Pavel Pardo and Sherjill MacDonald were both guilty of missing after going 1v1 against TFC 'keeper, Milos Kocic. Obviously not every chance will result in a goal but I would expect that coach Frank Klopas was stressing the importance of taking your chances to the players this week.
With the playoff race in the Eastern Conference so tight, a goal or two here and there could be the difference between coming 1st and 3rd in the final standings.
Prediction: 2-0 Fire. Frank Klopas' side take their sixth win in seven matches with goals from MacDonald and Nyarko.
After a massive home win against Houston and a morale boosting come-from-behind draw against Santos Laguna in an exhibition match, the Fire travel to Toronto full of confidence for Wednesday night's game at BMO Field. In contrast, Toronto are missing some key players through a combination of injury, suspension and international call-ups. Here are a few things to look out for in Wednesday night's match:
Terry Dunfield - how to replace a missing captain
The Fire lost captain fantastic Logan Pause due to lung and rib injuries against Philadelphia on August 12. Fortunately, the Fire had strength in depth with Alvaro Fernandez and Daniel Paladini filling the central role in Logan’s absence. Toronto do not have the luxury of a Paladini or Fernandez to replace their missing captain Terry Dunfield who, like Pause, is the heart and soul of the team.
Dunfield, like Pavel Pardo covers a lot of ground in the center of midfield and is essential to breaking up opponents attacks but also starting them for TFC. He has also scored some big goals this season including one in a recent away draw with Houston. Dunfield's absence is good news for Chris Rolfe who will look to exploit the more inexperienced potential replacements for Dunfield, namely Aaron Maund and Matt Stinson.
Long balls - TFC's bread and butter
Toronto have found some success in the long ball tactic, often bypassing the midfield altogether and looking for a flick on or knock down from Ryan Johnson and co. Johnson will be missing on Wednesday night but this will not stop TFC looking to kick it long at every possible opportunity.
The Fire back line will need to keep a close eye on TFC striker Eric Hassli who is always on the shoulder of the last defender looking for a ball over the top or a flick on. The long ball tactic also put a heavy emphasis on winning second balls. Stopping TFC from getting scoring chances from second balls is essential.
Possession - looking for more of the ball vs. TFC
In the Fire’s last game against Houston, their opponents had more than double the amount of possession. Though the Fire set up to play that way, I think we will see a much different game plan Wednesday night. The Fire will look to possess the ball for long stretches, looking do draw out TFC and create space for the attacking players to move into.
Kansas City held over 70% of the possession against TFC on September 1 and eventually broke them down, coming behind to win 2-1. The Fire will need to be patient, but their constant pressure should lead to goals.
When broken into 15 minute intervals, TFC have allowed the most goals this season from the 75th to 90th minute - another reason for the Fire to stay patient on Wednesday night.
Darren O'Dea - potential weak link in the back
In an interview on Monday night, TFC center back Darren O'Dea looked exhausted, and who could blame him? O'Dea had just returned from Kazakhstan where he played the full 90 minutes for the Republic of Ireland in their 2-1 victory on Friday. O'Dea also admitted that he was battling a cold but said he would be ready for Wednesday night.
Though very good in the air, O'Dea lacks pace and his partnership with Richard Eckersley is in its infancy. The Fire should be looking to get in 1v1 situations with O'Dea as often as possible bearing in mind his transatlantic excursions and illness. The Fire have managed to do this in the recent past, most notably when Sherjill MacDonald was able to turn Bakary Soumare and set up Chris Rolfe for an easy finish against Philadelphia.
The TFC coaching staff have been singing the praises of O'Dea since he joined the team but Wednesday's match is a potential banana skin for the Irishman .
Prediction: If the Fire stay patient, the goals will inevitably come. 2-0 Fire with goals from Chris Rolfe and Austin Berry.
Stopping Dynamo midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia is one key to three points Sunday vs. Houston
Having had over ten days to ponder the loss to DC, the Fire take to the field Sunday night at Toyota Park against the Houston Dynamo. (NBC 5.2/Galavision 6:00pm CT) Houston have had their own slips of late but will be looking to take away some points in a massive Eastern Conference match up. Here are a few things to look out for tactically.
Right back starter: Jalil Anibaba or Dan Gargan?
In the past few games, Jalil Anibaba has started over Dan Gargan at right back. Though not playing in his natural position, Jalil has used his athleticism and speed to make the transition to the outside. After a tough game against DC, some fans were calling for the return of Gargan but, against Houston, Anibaba’s aerial abilities will be needed.
Everyone knows that Dominic Kinnear’s team makes its living on scoring from set pieces. The Dynamo are a big side and Anibaba's height will be needed to deal with the likes of Will Bruin and Macoumba Kandji
WATCH: Fire vs. Dynamo Preview
Double team in the left: Neutralize Kandji
In Houston's last two league matches, Kandji had two completely different performances. Against Toronto, especially in the first half, he was excellent, running at the defenders, latching on to long balls over the top and also bringing the ball inside to link up with his strike partners and advancing play makers.
The week before against Columbus, Kandji was effectively shut out of the game by being double teamed. Columbus also didn't allow him any room to operate out wide which made him a non-factor in the game. If the Fire continue their favored formation, either Patrick Nyarko or Alvaro Fernandez will need to drop to support Anibaba and prevent Kandji from getting in 1v1 situations.
Stop Davis and Garcia: plugging the middle
Against DC last week, Chris Rolfe was unable to operate because United packed the midfield. I can see the Fire deploying the same technique against Houston and their two deep lying play makers: Brad Davis (if healthy) and Boniek Garcia. Both are given license to roam, and do so eagerly knowing that recently returned midfielder Ricardo Clark is staying behind to protect the back four.
The movement and passing ability of Davis and Garcia is Houston's biggest threat and if the Fire can stop both players from creating, it will cut off the supply line to the attacking three. The outside midfielders, especially Fernandez who has experience playing in the middle, will need to tuck in as much as possible to help out Pavel Pardo and Daniel Paladini.
This, of course, leaves a lot of space out wide for the outside backs to move into but it is a worthwhile risk if it prevents Davis and Garcia from linking with the attacking three.
Biggest strength and biggest weakness: midfield
For all the talk of Houston's attacking talents from midfield, the weakness of the 4-3-3 system is that it only contains one defensive midfielder. Ricardo Clark may be one of the best holding midfielders in the league but he can easily be exploited if the Fire can transition quickly from defensive to attack.
Columbus did this to perfection against the Dynamo in their recent 2-2 draw. Houston's center backs like to come forward to help Clark out in an attempt to cut off balls into the target forward (in the Fire’s case, Sherjill MacDonald) and this creates gaps that someone like Chris Rolfe can move into.
In this formation, Rolfe should have more room to create and we all saw how effective that was against New England. Because Houston is playing away from home, they won't be as inclined to attack as the would be at home but on the occasions that they do get men forward, the Fire must be ready to pounce.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 1, Houston Dynamo 1 with Sherjill MacDonald bagging his second goal for the Fire.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.