Blog

stephen piggott

10 April 8:38 am

After a heartbreaking draw against the Union last weekend, the Fire travel north to Montreal to face another side looking for a first win of the season Saturday (2:30pm CT on My50/TWCSC). The game has added spice with former coach Frank Klopas facing the Men in Red for the first time as opposition coach.

Here are a few tactical observations to keep in mind on Saturday.

Continued focus on the wing play - taking advantage of Shipp's positioning

In last Saturday’s match, Patrick Nyarko returned to the starting lineup and impressed. On the other side of the field, Harry Shipp looks much more comfortable when he cuts inside, as opposed to hugging the touchline and taking on players.

Shipp's set piece play alone is worth a place in the starting eleven, but his ability to pick a pass is also a dangerous weapon. Shipp's tendency to drift inside also benefits the Fire for other reasons.

First, in the absence of a creative central midfielder, it’s not felt as much when the rookie comes central and occupies those positions. Against a team like Montreal that boasts an impressive attack, the use of two defensive-minded midfielders can be necessary (as I will explain in more detail later) but with Shipp filling the gap, the Fire don't lose much in an attacking sense.

Shipp's positioning also opens the door for Greg Cochrane to show his attacking talents from the left back position. Cochrane has fit seamlessly into the Fire back line and his excellent crossing ability has been on show in recent matches.

With the Impact's wide players like Mapp reluctant to track back on a consistent basis, the Fire could again benefit from attacking in the wide areas.

Continuing to win the ball high up the field - catching Montreal in transition

In the first half last week against New York, the Impact sliced through the Red Bull midfield as if they had three extra players on the pitch. Klopas emphasized transitioning the ball from defense to attack as quickly as possible and for most of the first half, that worked to devastating effect.

Montreal should've been well ahead at halftime but actually went into the break behind 2-1. The reason for this was because the Canadian team was caught trying to force the ball forward too quickly, resulting in turnovers, which the Red Bulls capitalized on twice in three minutes. I expect the Impact to try this tactic again on Saturday.

Players like Mike Magee and Quincy Amarikwa both like to hound the opposing team when they are in possession in their defensive third. The Fire's first goal last week was a perfect example of this, with Amarikwa nicking the ball from a defender before setting up Magee for an easy tap in.

If the Fire can force the Impact into turnovers high up the pitch, it could prove costly for the Canadian team.

Attempting to contain Montreal's fearsome attack - staying compact and limiting mental mistakes

Just when we thought an attack featuring Marco Di Vaio, an in-form Justin Mapp and Felipe was going to be a challenge, the Impact went out and acquired promising American youngster Jack McInerney.

This move could see the Impact change formation to a two striker statute with Di Vaio and Jack Mac up front or see McInerney play in one of the wide attacking roles behind the target striker. In any case, the fluidity of the Impact's attack will be a major challenge for the Fire to contend with on Saturday.

None of the Montreal attacking players stay static for long, with Felipe essentially having a free role in the hole, Di Vaio often pushing wide, and Mapp cutting inside with the ball at his feet on a regular basis. With this in mind, the Fire defense needs to stay organized and compact and not allow Montreal to drag players out of position.

This has not been a problem for the Fire this season, with most of the team’s nine goals against coming from lapses from set pieces. A clean sheet Saturday afternoon would be a massive achievement.

Prediction: The Fire score early and finish the game off late 2-0 with goals from Magee and Hurtado.

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

03 April 9:04 am

After picking up a point on the road in D.C. last week, the Fire are back at Toyota Park on Saturday afternoon to face the Philadelphia Union (3:30pm CT My50/TWCSC) looking for the club’s first win of the season and to extend their unbeaten streak to four games. 

Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical perspective…

A change on the wing? Going with a veteran over youth

In last week’s match in D.C., youngster Benji Joya again started on the wing for the Fire but again failed to last the full 90 minutes in his third start in a row. Defensively, Joya left his outside back Greg Cochrane exposed on more than one occasion in the first half before Frank Yallop switched Joya to the right wing.

In the attack, Joya also found it difficult to get into the game before he was substituted in place of Patrick Nyarko. The Ghanaian had an immediate impact; setting up Qunicy Amarikwa for the equalizer after a brilliant nutmeg.

Saturday seems like a perfect game for Nyarko to get his second start in 2014 for a number of reasons. First, his speed in the attack will cause Union left back Fabinho trouble. In the Union’s last two matches, the Brazilian’s lack of pace has been a weak spot.

Nyarko also provides ample cover defensively, something the Fire will need against a Philly team who's tactics emphasize getting as many players forward as possible when they attack.

Bringing the strikers closer together - pushing Magee closer to the goal

In D.C., Mike Magee cut a frustrated figure, trying his best to get into the game but with not a lot of chances to influence it. Magee started in a deeper role behind Quincy Amarikwa and both players were unable to link up on many occasions throughout the match, but not for lack of trying.

Against Philly, I expect Magee to be a lot closer to his striker partner with the Fire playing more of a 4-1-3-2 role instead of a 4-1-4-1. Moving Magee further forward allows Alex to further influence the game from midfield, something he wasn't able to do in D.C.

At this point in the season, coach Yallop favors the Magee/Amarikwa partnership in the attack and in a home game, I expect a formation that fosters as much interplay between the pair as possible.

Stifling the Union attack - limiting opportunities for Jack Mac

In last week’s match away to Montreal, striker Jack McInerney caused major problems when he was able to get on the end of through balls from the Philly midfield.

In the attack, players like Le Toux and creative mid Vincent  Nogueira are always looking to play McInerney in behind while U.S. international Maurice Edu can also do the same from his deeper midfield role. 

While much of the focus will be on McInerney, Brazilian Leonardo Fernandez has impressed coming off the bench in Philly's last two matches, scoring in one, and it would be no surprise to see him on the pitch from the start on Saturday.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jack McInerney was traded to the Montreal Impact in exchange for Andrew Wenger Friday morning, hence his name being struck through. It is not known at time of edit if Wenger will join the Union in Chicago for Saturday's match.

Prediction: The Fire will finally get a first win of the season - 2-1 with goals from Quincy Amarikwa and Harry Shipp.

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

27 March 4:12 pm

After picking up a point in the home opener against Supporter’s Shield winners New York last week, the Fire head to D.C. looking to steal all three points for the first time this season (LIVE 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network).
 
D.C. are in transition and are also in search of their first win. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective:
 
Continuing to attack with pace - utilizing Alex
 
Against New York last week, the Fire looked very dangerous on the counter attack when Alex was given space to run at the Red Bulls defense. Not only was the Brazilian able to beat players 1v1 but he drew defenders out of position, opening up space for players like Mike Magee and Quincy Amarikwa to move into.
 
In D.C.'s last match away in Toronto, Ben Olsen's team was also incapable of defending against the quick counter attack. Michael Bradley and Co. found it much too easy to bypass the lone United defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen who received little help from his fellow midfielders.

I expect D.C. to deploy another central midfielder to help out Kitchen against the Fire, but if the Men in Red can continue to break with that much pace and the interplay between Alex, Magee and Amarikwa continues to improve, the Fire should fare well on Saturday.
 
More attacking play from wide - taking advantage of D.C. team not fully settled
 
Against New York last weekend the Fire were forced into making changes at both outside back positions due to injury and suspension respectively.
 
Matt Watson and Greg Cochrane have had barely any time to work with their new teammates since their recent moves and it showed at times in last week’s game. Against D.C., where there is a good chance both will start again, I look for an improvement in the attacking play from both players.
 
It will also be interesting to see how Watson/Shipp and Cochrane/Joya combine down each flank after another week’s worth of training together. While there is certainly a weakness in the D.C. midfield, a balance between attacking down the middle and from the wings is necessary.
 
With so many new players on the field for D.C., positioning, especially defensive positioning, is a major problem. This was quite obvious in the Toronto match, with D.C. players often gesturing to one another in an attempt to determine who to mark.
 
If the Fire can get Watson and Cochrane forward to support the attack, it will pin D.C. back and could benefit the away team.
 
Keeping Eddie Johnson isolated and limiting set pieces - making it harder for D.C. to find the net

 
D.C.'s most notable offseason acquisition was striker Eddie Johnson, who on his day is one of the league’s best strikers. In his first two games however, Johnson was an isolated figure up front, managing only 1.5 shots according to the website Who Scored.
 
The Fire’s defense did a fine job shutting down Thierry Henry last week and will be looking to do the same against Johnson and perhaps register a first shutout of the season. D.C. have yet to score this year but are a major threat from set pieces with players like Jeff Parke, Bobby Boswell and Fabian Espindola looking to get on the end of quality deliveries from Luis Silva.

D.C. got men in the box at any opportunity against both Toronto and Columbus and I expect it to be no different on Saturday. After giving up yet another goal from a set piece last week, the Fire coaching staff will no doubt be encouraging the players to keep their concentration, especially against a team desperate to pick up its first points and goal of the season.
 
Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Alex and Quincy Amarikwa.

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

WATCH: Sean Johnson, Matt Watson preview D.C. United

20 March 8:43 am

After picking up a fantastic point in Portland, the Fire head back to Chicago to face the New York Red Bulls in the team’s home opener Sunday afternoon (1:30pm CT on My50/TWCSWI).

The Men in Red will be looking to avenge the 5-2 season-ending defeat at Red Bull Arena last season - a result that kept the Fire out of the Playoffs. Here are a few things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.

Possible changes on outside - will Sega be fit to play?

After picking up a knock against Portland, Fire stalwart Gonzalo Segares is currently listed as questionable on the Athletico Injury Report with an ankle sprain for Sunday’s game. In his possible absence, the Fire coaching staff have a big decision to make.

On the one hand, the team could slot Hunter Jumper into a position he played in sparingly last year, famously scoring the winning goal against Kansas City in August and serving up an assist against the Red Bulls early last year. Reading into Frank Yallop’s lineup selections for the first two matches, a more likely scenario would be bringing newly acquired left back Greg Cochrane into the back line.

Cochrane was on the bench for the season opener and brings more experience than Jumper, playing in 12 games for the Galaxy last season. Whoever the starter is on Sunday will have to keep pace with the tricky Lloyd Sam on the Red Bulls right side. New York’s strikers also have a tendency to drift wide, opening up space for midfielders, which can result in 2v1 situations for the outside back to deal with.

As a unit, the Fire defenders had a much more composed match against Portland last week in comparison to the season opener and against a high powered attack like New York's, the coaching staff will be focusing on making this possible change to the back line as smooth a transition as possible.

Continuing the no target striker formation - with a focus on retaining possession in the attack

Last week, the Fire's no target striker formation worked quite well, with the team not letting one player get isolated in the attack. That being said, the team did play many long balls and empathized picking up second balls.

Against New York, a similar target-less striker formation is an attractive option, but the focus must shift from long balls to more possession in the attack. The Fire were able to do this at times against Portland, with Quincy Amarikwa linking well and getting behind the Timbers defense on numerous occasions.

New York relies too much on Dax McCarty to break up opposing team’s attacks and if the Fire can get players in between him and the defense, it can be very beneficial. In the Red Bulls last game, the Rapids were able to play through McCarty a number of times but didn't have enough players in support to take advantage. If the Fire can continue to keep the attacking players narrow and close to each other like they did against Portland, they will certainly create chances.

Being wary of forwards peeling off - not allowing the Red Bulls strikers easy tap-ins

Ball watching can be one of the most frustrating things for coaches and fans to witness on the field. Though exclaiming that a defender should be watching his man and not the ball is easier in theory than practice, too many soft goals are given up each season because of it.

In the games involving both the Fire and the Red Bulls last weekend, cases of ball watching occurred, with much different results for each club. In Portland, Timbers attacker Gaston Fernandez was able to slip into the box unnoticed by a number of Fire defenders who only saw him when it was too late: after Sean Johnson parried the ball into the striker’s path resulting in an easy finish (see below).

In New York, Thierry Henry, the master of slipping away from defenders, did it again against the Rapids and headed home the lone Red Bulls goal (see below).

The Fire must continue to focus on not letting players like Henry peel away on the back post and lurk unmarked.

Prediction: The Fire's good home form from last season continues over to 2014. 1-0 Fire with a goal from Mike Magee. (Steve’s record in 2014: 1-1)

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

WATCH: Shipp, Joya preview Sunday's match vs. Red Bull

14 March 8:32 am

After a lackluster performance last weekend out in LA, the Fire are in Portland for what should be a much sterner test against a Timbers team unbeaten in home regular season play for over a year (1:30pm CT on My50 / TWCWI). The Timbers will also be looking to avenge the 2-2 draw in the team's only meeting last season where a brilliant Fire comeback left Caleb Porter seething. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

A tweak in formation option A: Packing the midfield

Against a Portland team playing their usual 4-3-3 formation, a safer option for the Fire, especially away from home, is to play another holding midfielder alongside Jeff Larentowicz in an attempt to pack the midfield. Portland rely on late runs from players like Will Johnson and another holding midfielder would ensure the Fire would be able to track these runs more effectively.

Logan Pause would be the prime candidate to partner Larentowicz in the engine room. Portland always look to get playmaker Diego Valeri on the ball and rely on his through balls to create many of the team's chances. Pause and Larentowicz read the game extremely well and are masters at intercepting the kind of balls Valeri will be looking to play.

This option requires that the Fire drop one of its attacking players, which in this case could be Chris Rolfe who is battling an injury. The approach could be seen as a negative one, but playing against a team unbeaten at home for over a year and one that scored the third highest amount of goals in the league last season, the Men in Red also need be realistic.  

A tweak in formation option B: Eliminating the target striker 

A more progressive option for the Fire this weekend would be eliminating the target striker completely in favor of a smaller and quicker attack. This move would see Juan Luis Anangono, a player isolated during large stretches of last weekend's match, drop to the bench in favor of a quicker, more dynamic player such as Quincy Amarikwa, a player on the cusp of a starting eleven place.

In last weekend's match against the Union, Portland were undone on more than a few occasions by some neat and quick interplay by the Philly midfielders and strikers.  With this smaller formation, the Fire will have more opportunities to play this type of game.

The interplay between players such as Duka, Rolfe, Joya, Amarikwa, Alex and Nyarko could certainly cause the Timbers problems with Benji Joya's goal last week serving as a classic example of this: Amarikwa playing a brilliant through ball to Alex who in turn found Joya at the back post for a tap in finish.

While this formation would certainly make the Fire quicker, it should also provide the Men in Red with an opportunity to have more possession and even slow the game down at times, especially if the away team manages to take the lead. With possession below 45% in last week's loss, an emphasis on keeping more of the ball is also necessary.  

Set pieces: a weakness for both teams

Both the Fire and Timbers have had problems defending set pieces in the past and that was apparent again during the first match of the season for both teams. Fire defender Bakary Soumare admitted fault after his mark was able to head home the winner for Chivas while Portland also gave up a goal from a corner against the Union.

The Fire's defensive play from crosses and set pieces was certainly suspect last weekend and coach Frank Yallop made no secret of his disappointment at how his team gave up goals in this manner.

Though Portland are not a very big team, players like Diego Valeri and Gaston Fernandez are some of the best set piece takers in the league and a more cohesive performance by the Fire back four is needed on Sunday afternoon.  On the other side of the ball, with the Timbers also looking frail on set pieces, I expect the Fire to load the box when the dead ball opportunities arise. 

Prediction: 1-1 with the Fire goal coming from Alex

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

WATCH: Clint Mathis on what it will take to earn a result in Portland

07 March 9:05 am

Chicago Fire take on Chivas USA and Erick Torres Sunday, March 9 at 2pm CT on UniMas

The Fire are in Los Angeles for the first game of the season looking to start off on a good note unlike this time last year when the team fell to the other team in LA, 4-0. As per usual, Chivas USA’s offseason was filled with turmoil, but there is a new air of optimism around the club after it was bought by MLS. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Fire’s new look back line – how will teams offseason acquisitions work as a unit?

New Fire head coach Frank Yallop was very upfront about his desire for the team to improve defensively this season after the team gave up a whopping 52 goals last year. It is likely that two new additions to the defense will start on Sunday afternoon, with former RSL utility player Lovel Palmer slotting in a right back and former Sounder Jhon Kennedy Hurtado set to start in the middle.

Hurtado’s partnership with Bakary Soumare at the heart of the Fire’s defense is crucial to the team’s success and both players will be looking to continue their good preseason form. In the air, both players are clearly dominant but it will be important that they do not get stretched by the Chivas USA attack especially with a player like Mauro Rosales looking to play balls behind the defense for Erick Torres and co.

Frank Yallop likes to have his fullbacks get forward and support the attack and Palmer certainly fits that style of play. The Fire’s distribution out of the back last season was not a strong point and Palmer’s good technical ability will mean the team will not be giving the ball needlessly back to the opposition as much this season.

It will certainly take time for the new look defense to gel, but a good start and perhaps a clean sheet would build confidence before the tougher tests ahead in the form of Portland and New York.

A new back line for Chivas USA – opportunities for the Fire to take?

Chivas USA overhauled the squad again this offseason but the team that gave up the most goals in the league last year don’t look like they’ve improved in that department, at least not on paper.

The team went undefeated in preseason but it remains to be seen whether this unit can be effective during league play. It is unclear who Fire legend Carlos Bocanegra will be paired with -- Bobby Burling or newcomer Andrew Jean-Baptiste but in either case, if the Fire creative players like Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko and Alex can get in 1v1 situations, I like this team’s chances.

The Fire could have more luck on the outsides, especially down the right where Eric Avila has a habit of straying too far forward from his full back position. The combination of little help defensively from Mauro Rosales and the attacking threats of Dilly Duka and Gonzalo Segares could pay dividends for the Men in Red.

A switch in philosophy – high pressure replaces the counter attack

For much of last season, the Fire tended to sit deep and try to hit teams on the counter attack but with the change in head coach comes a change in philosophy. Instead of the counter attack game, Yallop has emphasized a high pressure philosophy, with the Fire’s attackers putting pressure on the opponents’ defense when they are in possession.

This tactic was apparent in the team’s final match of the Diamond Desert Cup in Tucson last week where Juan Luis Anangono, Chris Rolfe and Dilly Duka all put the Chivas Guadalajara youth team defense under constant pressure and forced a number of mistakes from the Mexican squad.

If the team can push the issue against the new look Chivas USA back four and force the team into giving up possession, it will only help the Fire’s chances.  Though possession is not always an important factor, especially in an away match, the team will certainly be looking to control the tempo and increase the possession statistics this season and this change in philosophy should help that.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Mike Magee and Dilly Duka.

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

WATCH: C.J. Brown says, "The first game we get to focus on ourselves"

25 November 3:04 pm

One of my favorite days of the year is the day the MLS schedule is released.

For many fans, this announcement means compiling a list of blackout days where the Fire are playing at Toyota Park. For Fire fans not residing in the Chicagoland area, it means finding out when the Men in Red will be visiting your nearest MLS team. But for someone like me who has been on quite a few road trips (over 50 but not as many as this guy), the schedule release day means not only looking at the home fixtures but also the away ones.

Questions I asked myself earlier today: Does Toronto away fall on weekend instead of a Wednesday night? How much does it cost to fly to Portland in March? These important questions get answered on this special day.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five exciting dates in the 2014 Fire calendar:

Week 2 – Portland away – Saturday, March 15 

Ever since Portland came into the league in 2011, the Fire supporters umbrella, Section 8 Chicago, has had a very good relationship with the Timbers Army, Portland’s main supporters group. The relationship is based on mutual respect and a shared “dislike” of all things Seattle.

Fire fans are always treated well in Portland and it’s not uncommon for Fire and Timbers fans to hang out before and after the games, something you would never see Fire fans doing in Columbus or Kansas City.

The atmosphere at JELD-Wen Field is also second to none. Though is certainly isn’t going to be the easiest away trip on the field or the lightest on the wallet, I think we will see quite a few Fire fans making the trip to Portland in Week 2 instead of traveling to LA to watch the Fire face Chivas in the season opener.

Week 6 & 22 – Montreal away – Saturday, April 12 and Sunday, August 16

The Fire were the Montreal Impact’s opponents in the Canadian club’s first home MLS back in 2012 and I was lucky enough to be at the game and had a great time.

That game was played indoors at the Olympic Stadium with a less than favorable playing surface – something many of the Fire fans observed firsthand the day before the game when we were invited to watch the team train (see photo above).

Now the Impact have Saputo Stadium refurbished, which provides another incentive for traveling Fire fans who may not have gotten there earlier this year.

Montreal is also a unique MLS city for a number of reasons. I can’t think of another MLS city where fans can brush up on their French by talking to the locals or take in the spectacular Notre-Dame basilica while eating some amazing poutine!

Montreal can be quite cold in April, but luckily for Fire fans, the April date is only the first time the Men in Red visit The City of Saints. I hear the weather is a lot nicer in mid-August, when the Fire visit for the second time.

Week 11 – Columbus away – Saturday, May 24

Columbus or Fire House East as many Fire fans call it is the closest away trip of the season distance wise. Due to this fact, the number of Fire fans attending this match is exponentially bigger than most other away games.

In 2001, Fire fans went to Crew Stadium in their hundreds, even when the Fire was not playing! The Fire had been knocked out in the Conference Semifinals by the Los Angeles Galaxy and many fans turned up to cheer against LA (and for the then Frank Yallop-led San Jose Earthquakes) at MLS Cup.

There have been many highs experienced in Columbus, such as Paulo Wanchope’s winning goal in a 2007 match after the game was delayed due to a torrential downpour. Fire fans were also 45 minutes away from MLS Cup in 2008 but for a Crew comeback in the second half which left Fire fans, including myself, devastated. There’s also the 2012 invasion which saw 600 Fire supporters make the trek.

The Fire only play once at Fire House East this season and I expect to see a lot of red behind the goal on May 24.

Week 16 & 32 Kansas City away –Sunday, July 6 &  Friday, October 10

Kansas City is another road trip that fans have attended in large numbers throughout the years. My first trip to Kansas City was a disappointing one, with the Fire losing to the Kansas City Wizards in the final of the U.S. Open Cup in 2004.

Since then, the Kansas franchise has a new name and a soccer specific stadium. You can no longer play the count the crowd game that we often did when the Wizards played at Arrowhead Stadium.

Most fans travel to this game by bus thus skipping the “delights” of downtown Kansas City and the bus ride does offer one cool treat – a visit to the world’s largest truck stop in Iowa.

Though SKC are not really a Fire rival (despite efforts made by the KC front office to make it into something bigger) there is certainly a dislike between the players and fans on both sides.

With the October 11 game coming so late in the season, it may be a pivotal one in terms of Playoff positioning.

Week 23 – Toronto away – Saturday, August 23

By far my favorite MLS city to travel to is Toronto. It's roughly the same distance from Chicago as Kansas City and again many fans travel to Canada on supporter’s buses.

Each visit, Fire fans shack up at a great hostel where we run into soccer fans from all over the world. Toronto itself is a great city aside from the prohibitive drinking laws on weekends (who doesn’t want to have a pint at 10am while watching the Premier League the next morning?).

BMO Field is located right on the shores of Lake Ontario and is thus left exposed and is often windy and chilly but the warm pies served at some of the concessions stands are an excellent halftime treat.

On the field, the Fire have had some good success against a TFC team that has languished near the bottom of the MLS table since starting in 2007. Thankfully, this match is on a Saturday in August so I expect a much larger contingent of Fire fans to attend.

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

25 October 9:09 am

With three wins on the bounce, the Fire are on the brink of a playoff spot with only one game to go. The Men in Red could be in before the start of play on Sunday but the earliest they’ll know is a little over an hour from kickoff of their match vs. New York Red Bulls (LIVE 3:30pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports WI; 4pm on UniMas).

Still, there is plenty to play for, including a possible third place finish thus avoiding the play-in game. For New York no incentive is bigger than knowing a win against the Fire will guarantee the team’s first ever trophy. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Patrick Nyarko and Jalil Anibaba vs New York’s left back – taking advantage of a Red Bulls weak spot

Left back has been a problem position for the Red Bulls this season and with the two natural left backs nursing injuries, the Red Bulls may have to resort to playing right-back Brandon Barklage out of position as cover. Red Bulls coach Mike Petke admitted that he is wary of Patrick Nyarko and hinted that it could be Barklage that gets the start due to his strong 1v1 defending.

WATCH: Segares, Nyarko preview NYRB

 

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

With that in mind, I feel the Fire coaching staff will be encouraging Nyarko to get the ball and take the left back on as much as possible. Left midfielder Johnny Steele is not the best at tracking back and helping in the defensive third and this could also allow Jalil Anibaba to get forward and support Nyarko on the Fire’s right.

Anibaba’s crossing ability has improved dramatically this year and regardless of who New York starts on the left, I expect the majority of the Fire’s attacks to come down that side.

Logan Pause vs Alex – who will partner Rios in the middle?

The toughest decision for the Fire’s coaching staff this week is who will replace the suspended Jeff Larentowicz in the center of the midfield alongside Arevalo Rios. One of Logan Pause, Alex or Daniel Paladini will be half of the tandem that will have to compete against one of the strongest midfield pairings in MLS: Dax McCarty and Tim Cahill.

On the one hand, the Fire know that the Red Bulls will be playing for the win and the Supporters Shield crown that comes with the points. On the other, the Fire will also be going for the win, knowing what they will have to do to finish in either fifth, fourth or even third.

With this in mind, Alex would be a more logical pick to start alongside Rios due to his attacking creativity and willingness to get forward and support the strikers. To those who argue that starting Alex over Logan would mean the team loses some defensive clout, coach Frank Klopas would argue that Alex’s defensive play has been excellent this season.

Tactically, I think starting Logan Pause would be the wiser choice, especially when you take into account the fluidity of the New York attack. The center midfielders and strikers for the Red Bulls are never static, with players like Henry often drifting wide and Cahill moving forward to play as the target striker.

With Pause alongside Rios, the Fire would form a very solid block of four, similar to the formation that the Republic of Ireland played under Giovanni Trapattoni. This formation would make the Fire very difficult to break down but would put a lot more emphasis on the wide players to create. This coaching decision has the potential to have huge impact on the match.

Shutting down Fabian Espindola – a player easily lost in the shadows of Henry and Cahill

In the Red Bulls last home match against New England, Mike Petke started with Henry and Fabian Espindola up front and in the first half in particular, Espindola was unstoppable. The New England defense could not keep up with the Argentine striker, who dropped deep and wide in search of the ball, dragging defenders out of position along the way.

Espindola is a player that any coach would love to have due to his tireless work rate. He also hounds opposition defenders when they are in possession, always looking to force a turnover or mistake and does not give up possession easily.

His low center of gravity can be very difficult for defenders to contain and he will certainly pose a challenge for the Fire’s backline on Sunday afternoon. The Fire defenders must not allow Espindola to get behind the backline.

Individually the defenders must not allow him to drag them out of position and create space for players like Cahill and McCarty to move into.

Prediction: With both teams knowing a win would be massively rewarding, I expect an end to end thriller, especially if there is an early goal. 2-2 with goals from Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko.

18 October 8:38 am

With two massive road victories under their belt, the Fire play the final regular season game of 2013 at Toyota Park against Toronto FC on Saturday night (LIVE 7pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports Wisconsin).

With six goals scored in the last two matches, the Men in Red are hitting form at the right time and know if results go their way, they could be guaranteed an MLS Cup Playoff spot by the final whistle. Toronto have nothing to play for but will be looking to play spoiler. Here are some tactical things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Keeping up the high pressure tactic – play a high line and get players into the TFC box

As I mentioned before, the Fire have scored six goals in the last two games. The closest to that tally in a previous two-game MLS span has been four goals. With that in mind, the Men in Red must try and get people into the box whenever possible against Toronto.

In many games this season, Toronto have not been undone by individual brilliance, but rather defensive errors. TFC coach Ryan Nelson, a former defender, must be disgusted by the amount of tap in goals his team has allowed with Sporting KC, Montreal and New York all scoring simple goals against Toronto and all stemming from defenders ball watching and not following their marks.

The Fire need to try and take advantage of this by getting more players from the midfield into the box to support assumed strikers Mike Magee and Juan Luis Anangono. The high pressure tactic can be very beneficial to this, with players like Alex not allowing the defenders to have time and space on the ball. With the team playing a high line and not dropping deep, it will give players an opportunity to get forward and into the box faster.

The Rios conundrum – who to start in the center of midfield?

Arevalo Rios played two grueling matches for Uruguay over the past week, helping La Celeste qualify for the World Cup intercontinental playoff against Jordan.  

After playing 180 minutes for his country and only returning to Chicago on Thursday, it might be difficult for him to start in the middle for the Fire on Saturday night.

WATCH:  Magee, Berry talk Toronto FC

One reason that the coaching staff might decide to start Rios however is that Jeff Larentowicz is currently sitting on four yellow cards and one more against TFC would rule him out of the season finale at New York next Sunday.

Another option for the Men in Red could be to start Larentowicz and bring on Rios for the former New England man if the Fire are in a comfortable position.

That being said, as we have seen from the past two games, the high pressure tactic is effective regardless of who starts in the middle. 

Muzzling Bobby Convey – a danger on both wings

Bobby Convey is one of the few players to have a strong year for TFC and the Fire must not allow him to create chances for target striker Bright Dike. Convey is equally comfortable playing on either wing and it wouldn’t surprise me if he started on the right where he would link up with improving right back Mark Bloom.

While Bakary Soumare has found form again in the last few matches after having a few horror moments previously, Gonzalo Segares is a player that will be looking to have a better performance against TFC.

In 1v1 situations, Sega is very difficult to beat but the problems start when players make runs in behind him. The Costa Rican can sometimes be caught too high up the field while other times he is forced to move inside to cover for one of the center backs. Both of these were highlighted in last weekend’s match against Dallas.

Against Toronto, I would also like to see the Fire’s outside midfielder track back and help out Segares more, especially if Bloom gets forward. A composed and compact performance by the Fire’s back four as a unit will give the team a very good chance of coming out of the game with three points and maybe even a guaranteed playoff spot.

Prediction: After having to endure a nervy end to last week’s match, the Fire make it easier on fans by winning 2-0 with goals from Alex and Mike Magee.

11 October 8:43 am

After getting the job done in DC last Friday night, the Fire head south to take on a FC Dallas side needing a miracle to make the MLS Cup playoffs Saturday night (7pm CT My50/TWC Wisconsin). Dallas are in free fall and despite the Fire’s record in Texas, the Men in Red should be settling for nothing less than three points. Here are some things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.

Perez away on Panama duty

Blas Perez has all the characteristics of an elite CONCACAF striker: finishing ability, gamesmanship and non-stop focus; similar to Carlos Ruiz. So perhaps it’s a good thing that the Dallas’s leading goal scorer is away for Panama’s crucial World Cup qualifying match with Mexico this weekend.

Perez has 11 goals on the year, with his closest teammate being Kenny Cooper at four. In Perez’s absence, it’s hard to see Dallas switching way from their lone striker formation and Cooper would seem the likely candidate to slot in after ending his nearly five-month goal scoring drought last weekend vs. RSL.

Cooper is a powerful forward that has historically done well against the Fire, tallying six goals in 12 career matches. With a goal last weekend under his belt and Dallas fighting for their playoff lives, he won’t be one to take lightly.

Focusing on Jackson – the Brazilian is instrumental in the Hoops’ attack

Jackson has impressed me in Dallas’s most recent matches against Columbus and RSL. He normally operates on the right wing, trying to get the ball inside to Perez or a midfield runner. In the last match against RSL, Jackson drifted inside more often.

This was in part due to the fact that RSL had a man sent off early after a disgraceful tackle on the Brazilian. He also showed that he can be a threat in the box, forcing Nick Rimando into a brilliant 1v1 save after an attempted flick over the keeper with the outside of his foot.

In last week’s match against DC, the Fire played a very open style of play in the first half, attacking in numbers. If you only looked at the score line, you would think that this tactic was a success but it could’ve been a lot different if it wasn’t for Sean Johnson. He bailed his team out with some brilliant saves after DC caught the Fire out with too many players forward.

It is understandable that the Fire will play in a similar fashion against Dallas due to the need for three points but allowing a player like Jackson time and space on a counter attack can be very dangerous.

Singling out Kellyn Acosta – targeting the Homegrown wingback

In their most recent home loss to Columbus, FC Dallas were exposed on the wings, most notably on the left where Dominic Oduro torched Zach Loyd. On the right, FC Dallas Homegrown player Kellyn Acosta also looked vulnerable. His distribution out of the back was poor; with the 18-year-old trying to play one-touch passes too often.

Columbus clearly targeted Acosta, with players such as Federico Higuain running at the defender whenever possible. A tactic that I would like to see on Saturday night is a constant switching of the Fire wide players so that Acosta is never comfortable.

If Fire wingers Nyarko, Duka, Alex and Co. can get into 1v1 or 2v1 situations with Acosta, it could pay dividends for the Men in Red.

Prediction: The Fire won’t play as open as last weekend but score early and late. 2-0 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex