Blog

stephen piggott

26 April 9:25 am

The Fire head to Canada on Saturday to face the Montreal Impact (3:00pm CT LIVE on NBC Sports Network and La Ley 107.9 FM) on the back of their best performance of the season last weekend against Columbus.

The Impact rested quite a few players in the 2-0 Canadian Cup loss to Toronto at midweek but can jump back to the top of the Eastern Conference standings with a win. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective…

More changes a right back – Pause or Videira to get the start?

Johnson, Anibaba Preview Montreal

With the retrospective ban handed down to Wells Thompson, the Fire will need to make yet another change at right-back for Saturday.

Arne Friedrich’s continued absence means Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry will continue at center back, so the battle for the open spot is between Logan Pause and Mike Videira.

The latter played very well in that position away to Kansas City where the Fire got men behind the ball and held out for a 0-0 draw.

It could be argued that Videira could have held on to the right-back spot based on that KC performance if he didn’t get sidelined with a concussion late in the match.

READ: Thompson "disappointed" but accepts suspension vs. Montreal

Logan is certainly the more experienced of the pair but if he is moved to right back it would break up the three-game run the captain has had in central midfield with Jeff Larentowicz which has paid dividends of late.

Many fans were upset at Frank Klopas’ decision to drop Daniel Paladini last week (which turned out to be a stroke of genius) but shifting Logan to right back would make room for Paladini to move back into the starting eleven.

Playing away against a team with excellent wingers will require whoever Klopas chooses on the right to be very disciplined and with players like Pause and Videira, we are spoilt for choice.

Pressuring the Montreal backline – don’t let them play out of the back

Under new coach Marco Schällibaum, Montreal like to play the ball out of the back whenever possible. This can be problematic, especially when the opposing teams pressure the defenders and goalkeeper when they have the ball.

On a number of occasions this season, Montreal has been too casual when playing the ball out of the back which resulted in great opportunities for the other team. In some matches, even goalkeeper Troy Perkins was caught out trying to pass the ball to one of his defenders instead of just clearing it out of danger.

Because the Fire are playing away, they will almost certainly play on the counter attack, but if the attacking players like Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald can hound the Impact defense, it could result in a chance from a turnover.

Stifling Di Vaio – cutting of the supply to the frontman

Athletico Coaching Corner with Mike Matkovich

Montreal play with one striker, namely 36-year-old striker Marco Di Vaio. The Italian is not as mobile as he was in his younger days and he relies on his wide and attacking midfielders to get him the ball.

Montreal’s wealth of attacking midfielders like ex-Fire winger Justin Mapp, MLS veteran Davy Arnaud and the extremely influential Brazilian Filipe are very difficult to control and when you add Di Vaio playing off the shoulder of the last defender to that mix, it makes it even harder to contain.

Though he lacks pace, the Italian gets himself into great positions and makes very smart runs off the ball. Against the Fire, Montreal will try and get the ball wide to players like Arnaud and Mapp because the Klopas’ side will pack the midfield when they are not in possession.

This means the Fire must be wary of Di Vaio’s movement in the box and also the late runs by other midfielders who will also be looking to get on the end of a cross.

Prediction: 2-1 Fire with a counter attack goal from Sherjill MacDonald and a goal from a corner by Austin Berry.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.

19 April 9:30 am

The Fire return to Toyota Park to take on the Columbus Crew Saturday (LIVE 7:30pm CT on MLSsoccer.com) with no points to show after an encouraging performance last weekend against the Dynamo. But for a few mistakes, the result could have been a lot better for the Fire, but the team is certainly improving. 

Columbus come to Chicago on a four-game unbeaten streak and have picked up two wins on their travels this season. Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Getting the ball wide – creating 1v1 situations with the Columbus outside backs

Looking at the Columbus defense, Chad Marshall has been a rock for 10 years in the middle and the addition of the Brazilian Glauber means the Crew has one of the strongest center back pairings in the league.

On the outside however, there are some weaknesses, particularly on the left. Against Montreal last week, the Crew stuffed the middle of the field when the Impact had the ball in an attempt to prevent Felipe from creating. This meant there was a lot of space on the wings and when the Impact actually got the ball to the outside, they created chances.

WATCH: CHIvCLB Match Preview

If the Fire are going to try and single out Tyson Wahl and try and get in 1v1 situations with him, Patrick Nyarko might be the best player for the Fire to deploy on the right hand side. Bringing in Nyarko would mean either dropping or shifting Daniel Paladini, the Fire’s standout player so far this season.

Another issue to deal with on the left hand side for the Crew is the presence of Eddie Gaven. Though Gaven has left his left back Wahl exposed on more than a few occasions this season, his attacking play makes up for it.

In any case, I expect to see a lot of activity on that side of the field and those battles should be fascinating to watch.

Dominic Oduro – not letting the former Fire player get in behind

The Fire traded Dominic Oduro to the Crew in the offseason for Dilly Duka and the Ghanaian has notched three goals for his new club this season. The Fire defenders will know all about the pace of their old teammate and the runs he tends to make, but they still need to be very cautious and the back line must work as a unit.

The danger of playing a high line against Oduro is that he can make runs in behind, whereas if the defense drops too deep, it allows the Crew to pile on the pressure and keep the Fire pinned back in their own half. Another, less reported danger from Oduro’s runs in behind is the second ball opportunities they create.

When balls are being played through to Dom, oftentimes defenders are stretching to cut them out, or just turning and blindly kicking the ball away, resulting in second ball opportunities. Columbus are very good at getting men forward to pick up on these second balls, with players like Higuain and Viana looking to do so whenever possible.

This tactic worked well for Columbus against the Impact last week. The emphasis will be on the Fire midfielders to track their runners and not allow Columbus to create chances from the second balls on Saturday night.

Defending set pieces – beating a dead horse but a noteworthy point

Watching the Crew’s last few matches reminded me again of how good Federico Higuain’s deliveries from dead balls are. His corners and free kicks, from any distance, cause havoc in the box.

Against Houston last week, the winning goal came off a badly defended set piece all around for the Fire. Brad Davis was allowed to put the ball in under no pressure after playing the free kick short and then the Fire’s back line and goalkeeper all froze, allowing the ball to bounce straight into the net.

It’s difficult to blame one person for the goal, but it was a very soft one to give up. That being said, I would like to see goalkeeper Sean Johnson start to come and claim more corners and crosses, especially with his size, but doing that brings about the risk of not getting to the ball and allowing easy goals to be scored.

In any case, allowing free headers against Columbus is unacceptable and picking up a clean sheet for only the second time this season would be welcomed by fans and technical staff alike.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Chris Rolfe and Joel Lindpere.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.

12 April 8:51 am

After picking up their first win of the season last week, the Fire travel to Houston for Sunday’s match (4pm CT on UniMas/La Ley 107.9FM) brimming with confidence. The Dynamo lost again on the road last week against Portland but are returning to BBBV Compass Stadium, a place where they have never lost. Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical perspective:

Giles Barnes – excelling in the role of second striker and deceptively good in the air

Giles Barnes has had an excellent start to 2013, playing in an almost free role just behind the target striker. Barnes is dangerous in a number of areas: he can drop deep or wide with the ball, taking on defenders, he can also win flicks on to his strike partner and he has come up with two headed goals already this season.

AthletiCo Coaching Corner

Against Portland last week and San Jose the week before, Barnes linked up well with central midfielders Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark, taking the ball from them before turning and running at defenders from deep or around the box.

In the air, Barnes won many dangerous flick-ons against San Jose in Houston’s last home match. Barnes’ ability to win balls in the air seemed to baffle San Jose, who were clearly anticipating him to be running onto the flicks by Will Bruin.

In the matches against San Jose and the week before against Vancouver, Barnes chipped in with two headed goals. When teams play Houston, it is easy to get distracted by players such as Brad Davis or Boniek Garcia but Barnes has been their most dangerous player this season.

The Fire cannot give him space on the ground and players like Austin Berry need to match Barnes in the air.

 The possible return of Arne – if he returns, who moves to the bench?

Much of the talk this week in the Fire camp is the potential return of Arne Friedrich to a Fire back line that has been decimated by injuries at the beginning of the season.

Though everyone is looking forward to Arne’s return, it brings up a very tough tactical decision for head coach Frank Klopas, namely who plays at right back.

Wells Thompson has done a very solid job over the past two matches in that position, improving from a shaky first half against Chivas to having a standout game in last week’s win against NYRB.

Wells stated this week that he would like to “lock the down the spot and become a regular starter" and he certainly has put forth a good case to the coaches.

Thompson’s distribution out of the back is excellent and as the away team this week, the Fire will be looking to hold onto the ball for as long as possible and not be wasteful in possession.

Paladini, Thompson Preview Houston

The other realistic candidate for the starting right back spot should Friedrich return is Jalil Anibaba, last season’s starter. Against a physical and big team like Houston, Jalil’s strength could be needed.

Anibaba is also excellent in the air and with players like Barnes and Bruin to contend with, Klopas may turn to the third-year defender.

Houston’s knack for scoring goals from set pieces is also well-known and Anibaba’s presence in the box could be all-important on Sunday afternoon.

The Dynamo's frequency of scoring from corners is such that the home fans get to their feet for every corner, expecting a goal or good chance to be created from each one.

Though there was a lot of talk about Logan Pause moving to right-back at the beginning of this season, I don’t see the Fire changing too much the in the midfield after last week’s performance.

A start for Jalil at right back would be tough on Wells Thompson after two great performances, but tactically, starting Anibaba would make the most sense.  

Prediction: 1-1 with the Fire goal coming from Sherjill MacDonald

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.

05 April 8:54 am

After another tough loss two weeks ago against Chivas USA, the Fire look to pick up their first win of the season against the Red Bulls on Sunday afternoon (4pm CT on ESPN2/La Ley 107.9FM). New York relied on a bit of Henry magic to pick up three points against Philly last week. Here are some things to look for from a tactical perspective:

Targeting Holgersson – get him in 1v1 situations

Anyone who has watched MLS over the past few seasons knows that Jamison Olave is one of the league’s great defenders. One of Olave’s great strengths is his recovery speed, something his partner Markus Holgersson doesn’t possess. While Holgersson is very adept in the air, if the Fire can get him separated from Olave, it may open the Red Bulls up. The more times the Fire can get players like Chris Rolfe in 1v1 situations with the Swede, the better.

TICKETS: Fire vs. Red Bulls Sunday at 4pm CT

Pause, Lindpere Preview Red Bull

Holgersson also has a tendency to switch off at times, as was seen in the goals Red Bull gave up against Philly last week and against Montreal in a 1-0 loss earlier in the season. As is the case with Arne Friedrich for the Fire, Jamison Olave makes everyone around him better, but if the Fire manage to separate him from Holgersson, they must take advantage.

Stopping Juninho – stifling the deep lying playmaker  

The 38-year-old Brazilian Juninho has excelled in the deep lying playmaker role for the Red Bulls so far this season. Juninho plays ahead of the back four and receives the ball from the defenders before starting the attacks from a very deep position.  

His exceptional passing range means he can easily look to play the ball up to Dax McCarty through the middle, play it out to the wing, or look for a long ball up to Tim Cahill who is excellent in the air.

The Fire must try and make it difficult for Juninho to start the attacks, and the prime candidate for this role is the second striker, namely Rolfe or Alex (if he’s available). In the second leg of the recent Champions League match between Manchester United and Real Madrid, United forward Danny Welbeck did a great job of stifling Madrid’s deep lying playmaker Xabi Alonso and I look for Rolfe or Alex to try and emulate that on Sunday.

When the Fire lose the ball in the attacking third, someone must immediately look to pick up Juninho and try and make it difficult for the Red Bulls to play through him.

Athletico Coaching Corner with Matko

Helping out on the right – don’t isolate the right back

Last game, Wells Thompson did a solid job filling in a right back, a position with little player consistency for the Fire due to injuries this season. Chivas USA did look dangerous however when the managed to get Wells in 1v1 situations, especially in the first half.

READ: Stopping Thierry Henry

With Logan Pause nearing fitness it may be the case that Pause slots in on the right with Wells moving ahead of him but in either case, the right midfielder must track back and help. The Red Bulls love to have Henry drift wide and the Fire must try and prevent him from getting in 1v1 situations at all costs.

Though many would argue the Red Bulls’ weakest players are the wingers, outside defenders like Heath Pearce are not afraid to get forward and support in the attack. Red Bull’s movement off the ball from players like McCarty and Henry make them a hard team to defend against.

Though the Fire are the home team, head coach Frank Klopas said that the number one goal for Sunday’s match is keeping a clean sheet. With that in mind, a solid defensive effort from front to back is essential.

Prediction: 1-0 Fire with a goal from Sherjill MacDonald who looked to be almost back to his old self last weekend.   

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.

22 March 8:57 am

The Fire head back home Sunday afternoon after picking up a hard fought point in Kansas last weekend. Though the team didn't score for the third game in a row, the solid performance despite missing key players was encouraging. Sunday’s opposition Chivas USA come to Bridgeview full of confidence after picking up four points in their last two games. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective on Sunday (Coverage at 3:30pm CT on My50)

High pressure - Chivas players will not stop running

El Chelís, the new Chivas coach, has his team playing a 3-4-3 system with an emphasis on pressuring the opposing team very high up the field. Anyone who has watched Barcelona under Pep Guardiola/Tito Vilanova or Athletic Club under Marcelo Bielsa knows that the high pressure tactic can be very effective, especially against an opponent who is not prepared for it.

Get Tickets for Sunday's game vs. Chivas USA

Chivas’ three attacking players hound their opponents' defense and try to not allow them to play out of the back. This tactic will put a lot of pressure on suspected midfield starters Daniel Paladini and Jeff Larentowicz to drop deep and collect the ball from the defenders. The goal of the 3-4-3 with the high pressure is to try and win the ball back from your opponent as high up the pitch as possible.

A recent example of this tactic working to perfection was in Chivas' only win to date in week two against FC Dallas. The winning goal came from forcing the Dallas defensive midfielder into playing a suicide ball back to center back George John whose lax first touch allowed Oswaldo Minda to waltz in and score. With this tactic in mind, concentration and communication between the defense and the central midfielders will be very important Sunday.

Balls over the top/in behind - how to beat the 3-4-3

Previewing Chivas USA

 

The downside of Chivas 3-4-3 tactic is that it leaves a lot of space on the outside for the Fire to exploit. In Chivas’ last two games against LA and Dallas, the wingers got caught too far up the field on multiple occasions, especially when the opposition was able to force a turnover and transition quickly into attack.

In recent games for the Fire, wingers Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko have been required to help out the defense but against Chivas they will find that space will be a lot easier to come by and should be looking to make forward runs into space whenever possible. The Fire must look for the long ball into space constantly because getting a ball in behind can really open Chivas up.

UPDATE: Duka listed as 'Questionable' for Sunday

When the Fire inevitably get a ball in behind, they must get more players into the box, especially against a three man back line. In Chivas' opening games, often times it was a defender who had to drift wide to pick up the runner, leaving less numbers and more space in the middle for the opposing team to exploit.

Fouls fouls and more fouls - Fire must stay calm and focused

In Chivas' last two games, they have committed a whopping 40 fouls, something that clearly frustrated their opponents. Part of the reason for that many fouls is the high pressure tactic, trying so frantically to win the ball back, leading oftentimes to a foul.

That being said, another key aspect of Chelís' tactics is to try and stop the other team from getting in any sort of rhythm. How do you do that? By fouling your opponent and slowing the game down, of course.

READ: Can Pause go at right back Sunday?

When a Chivas player is beaten by his man, the natural response is to foul the player. The LA/Dallas players and coaching staff were constantly yelling at the officials for the amount of fouls Chivas committed, but this frustration played right into Chivas' hands.

On the other side of the ball, when Chivas attack, they often look to pick up set pieces in their opponents half. Their players hit the deck when they feel the slightest bit of contact, another aspect of their game plan that can really get under the skin of the opponent. The Fire players and coaching staff must keep their cool, especially if the score line isn't to their liking, because despite their coaches claims to the contrary, Chivas would gladly leave Bridgeview with a point.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Chris Rolfe and Dilly Duka.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve

15 March 9:17 am

The Fire head to Kansas City Saturday afternoon (2:00pm CT on NBC Sports Network) on the back of two losses to start the season. The team has yet to score a goal or secure point but face a KC team smarting after a loss in Toronto last week. Both will be looking to kick start their season with a big win. Here are some tactical things to look out for.

Right back – three games, three different starters?

With injuries to both Logan Pause and Steven Kinney, it is likely the Fire will have to start a third different right back already this season. Jalil Anibaba started on the right against LA and had a difficult time of things but looked much more comfortable in his natural position at center back last week against New England.

With Kinney out, its almost assured that Anibaba will partner with Austin Berry in the middle which means we will likely see Mike Videra or Wells Thompson on the right. Both played there for a bit of preseason and Videra played at right back for the Men in Red during the 2011 season.

READ: Videira or Thompson at right back?

Previewing Sporting KC

Wells is the more experienced player and like Pause, has played in numerous positions during his MLS career. In a hostile atmosphere away from home, communication between the defenders will be key.

KC are particularly dangerous down the wings and Patrick Nyarko will need to be on hand to help out either Thompson or Videra who will face constant overlapping by the KC wing-backs.

Pressuring KC – copy the Toronto model

Sporting KC lost 2-1 in Toronto last week falling behind 2-0 after only twenty minutes. TFC pressured Sporting from the first whistle and it worked extremely well, with SKC constantly giving the ball away.

TFC’s first goal of the game came from pressuring and ganging up on the Sporting KC players. Folks will remember the goal stemming from a bad pass between Matt Besler and Aurelian Collin, but the reason the center backs had the ball at all was because TFC forced Sporting all the way back to their defenders.

TFC clearly flustered Sporting and the pressure prevented SKC from being able to get the ball to their danger men Claudio Bieler and Graham Zusi. Toronto was unable to keep up the pressure for more than the first half and in the second, KC was able to impose their game.

If the Fire can start in a similar fashion to TFC last week and sustain the pressure throughout the game (a tough ask, I know) it would go a long way towards allowing SKC to dictate the tempo, something they will look to do as the home team.

Testing Jimmy Neilson – difference between chances and half chances

A lot of the talk after the first two games of the season was that the Fire created many chances, but were unable to finish them. If we examine the amount of genuine saves Carlo Cudicini and Matt Reis actually had to make though, the numbers are very small, both have to overexert themselves on only one occasion, with the rest of the shots being hit right at them.

Both times the Fire forced the opposition ‘keeper into making a fine save was from shots outside the box. When the Fire do get the ball in the box, the team as a whole needs to start showing a bit of composure instead of rushing shots.

Muzzling Zusi – double teaming and picking him up when he comes inside

For the past few seasons, Graham Zusi has been Sporting’s best player by some margin. Zusi is dangerous because he can hurt you in so many different ways.

He’s comfortable playing outside on the wing and is just as effective when he switches wings as he did against TFC in the second half last week. Zusi also links very well with SKC’s outside backs, especially Chance Meyers who overlaps Zusi on a regular basis and picked up a lot of assists doing so last season.

Coach's Take: Sporting KC

 

READ: A look back on the 2012 win at Sporting

 Zusi also likes to cut inside, opening up more space on the outside for the wing-backs to move into. For the most part, TFC did a good job stifling Zusi last week and they did so mainly by double teaming him when he had the ball.

As I said in my Week One preview, a lot of emphasis will be on the Fire wingers, Dilly Duka and Nyarko to track back and help out Gonzalo Segares and whoever the team starts on the right.

 Zusi’s crossing is arguably his most dangerous weapon and with targets such as Bieler and Sapong lurking in the box, the less crosses the Fire allow, the better.

Prediction:  The games in KC have been tight affairs recently, and I don’t see this one being any different. 1-1 Fire with a goal from Chris Rolfe.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.

08 March 9:50 am

The Fire suffered a heavy defeat last weekend in Los Angles and are looking to rebound in the best possible way in the team’s home opener against New England on Saturday evening. The Revs have yet to play a game and will hope to shake off the rust and try and spoil the Fire’s first game at home in 2013. Here are some tactical things to look out for:

Handling Bengtson – how will the Fire’s defense contain the target striker?

In last weekend’s loss to LA, the Fire’s defense couldn’t contain Robbie Keane whose movement led to all sorts of problems for the team. Against New England, the defense will face a much different type of striker in Jerry Bengtson, a giant target forward who will likely play up front on his own.

New England have a host of attacking midfielders/wingers that will be looking for layoffs and knockdowns from Bengtson and the Fire’s defense will need to try and stop the Honduran from linking with his teammates.

LA were able to stop Maicon Santos and Shejill MacDonald from holding the ball up at the Home Depot Center last week and if the Fire’s defense can mimic LA’s, the Rev’s could be in a for a long night.

Who plays behind Bengtson? A wealth of attacking options for the Revs

Because New England did not play last week, the Fire will have less of an idea about who will be playing in the attacking positions behind Bengtson on Saturday night.

Though the Rev’s have lost Benny Feilhaber, they still have many options for the second striker/wide midfield roles.  Any combination of Chad Barrett, Andy Dorman, Juan Toja, Ryan Guy and Lee Nguyen could play against the Fire and all five offer something different.

The defense as a unit will be looking for a much improved performance and with Logan Pause and Arne Friedrich’s return unlikely, Saturday gives the back four a chance to redeem themselves against New England.

On the outside, Gonzalo Segares and Jalil Anibaba were caught out a few times with balls in behind them last Sunday and must be aware of players like Nguyen and Toja who look to do that on a regular basis.

Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko did a good job tracking back and helping the outside defenders but the emphasis will be on Sega and Anibaba to get forward and put in crosses as every opportunity.

Creating more chances – possession and set pieces

The Fire showed some rust last Sunday, giving the ball away on numerous occasions and completing over 100 less passes than LA with the Men in Red’s pass accuracy at only 74%. Large improvements in that department are certainly needed but the team will also be looking to get more set pieces in the attacking third.

The Fire’s first (of only two) corner kicks didn’t occur until the 60th minute in LA and it almost resulted in a goal for Anibaba after a brilliant cross by Lindpere.

As I mentioned last week, Lindpere’s excellent deliveries from corners and free kicks will create many changes for the team this season. Last week LA started a new goalkeeper and this week, New England may start a new acquisition in the defense Jose Goncalves. The Portuguese newcomer is an experienced defender but as we saw last week, putting balls into a place where it forces the goalkeeper and defender to communicate and make a decision can lead to a mistake and a Fire opportunity.  

The Fire only had one shot on target last week but also had some other excellent chances to score, most notably Rolfe’s scuffed shot after the Cudicini mistake and Maicon’s header just wide of the post. Klopas and co. will be looking for the Fire attackers to test Matt Reis as much as possible.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from MacDonald and Lindpere

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.

01 March 9:29 am

The Fire start the 2013 MLS season at the Home Depot Center on Sunday against the two-time defending champions LA Galaxy (LIVE 4pm CT on UniMas). Both teams made some major changes over the off-season and will be looking to start 2013 off on the right step. Here are a few tactical things to keep an eye on...

New central midfield pairing – how will the JL’s play together?

Last season, the Fire paired Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo in central midfield. This season, two new midfielders take their places: MLS veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere. Both have played together in preseason but the regular season, against the defending champions at the Home Depot Center is a different animal.

Lindpere is noted for his attacking ability but he will be required to help Larentowicz defensively, especially when the Fire turn the ball over.  It will be important for both players to hold their positions and not get caught too far apart.

In an away match, it is vital to hold on to possession when you get it and it will be important for both of the JL’s to link well with each other through the match.

Set pieces – how will LA deal with service from Lindpere?

One thing that really stood out during the preseason was Lindpere’s ability to deliver a good ball into the box, especially from dead ball situations. Time after time, Lindpere put balls into the danger area – the space between the penalty spot and the six yard box. The Fire got some goals from set pieces last year and players like Austin Berry are a major threat from them.

Larentowicz is also good in the air, scoring a header in the Carolina Challenge Cup from a Lindpere corner. The Galaxy will be looking to avoid giving up silly free kicks around the area and will try to limit the number of corners the Fire but with Lindpere’s quality, the Fire can be very dangerous in this department.

LA will be debuting the vastly experienced ‘keeper Carlo Cudincini and the Fire’s set pieces will question whether he and his defense are on the same page.

Dilly Duka vs Sean Franklin – youthful exuberance vs experience

Dilly Duka looks set to make his debut for the Fire on Sunday, starting on the left wing. Duka’s opponent will likely be Sean Franklin, one of the best right backs in the league and a player with well over 100 MLS games under his belt.

This matchup is fascinating because just as Duka loves to get forward and take on his man, Franklin regularly pushes up to support in the attack, contributing with his fair share of assists. Duka will need to find a good balance between trying to keep Franklin pinned back by pushing forward, and helping out Gonzalo Segares when Franklin does advance to support the attack.

Duka is a very creative player and could end up giving Franklin a tough time but on the other side of the coin, if Segares and Duka are not in tandem, Franklin could hurt the Fire.

Robbie Keane – it’s not just all about goals

Robbie Keane’s goals dragged the Gals to their second MLS Cup victory in a row last season but his play is not all about goals. He likes to drop into the hole and link up with the Galaxy’s midfielders. Keane is very good and holding onto the ball in tight spaces and playing through balls to advancing players.

At Euro 2012, Keane played a similar role for the Republic of Ireland but was often crowed out, something the Fire should look to do if and when Keane drops deeper into the hole. Keane will certainly miss Landon Donovan and Mike Magee on Sunday but even without them, he is a major threat and should prove a handful for Berry, Friedrich and co.

Prediction: 2-1 Fire with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Arne Friedrich. 

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.

31 October 10:01 am

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. 

26 October 10:56 am

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.