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09 September 8:43 am

Saturday night didn’t feel good. A strong Fire performance in always difficult atmosphere at Century Link Field certainly left me feeling like the team had done enough to take something away from Seattle. In the end, that wasn’t to be.

With the 2-1 loss, Fire hearts looked at three very big matches Sunday involving Houston, New England and Philadelphia, maybe lit a candle, said a prayer or crossed fingers. That sound you heard round about midnight was a huge sigh of relief as all three teams immediately ahead of the Men in Red in the Eastern Conference playoff race also went down in defeat.

Hence this blog title, as the positioning between the Top 7 in the East remains the same as it was when I wrote the first edition of 2013 Playoff Math two weeks ago, albeit with a bit of a separation between top and bottom.

A breakdown of where things stand heading into this week…

1) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 45 (13-7-6)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home/ 4 away)
Last 5 Games: WDWWL (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-1-3 / 4-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 69
Average Opponents Pts: 35.3
Remaining Schedule:  9/14 vs. CLB, 9/17 at SJ**, 9/21 vs. VAN, 9/24 vs. HER** 9/28 @ CHI, 10/4 @ HOU, 10/12 vs. NE, 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC

Rundown: Chronologically, Montreal’s 4-1 win at New England was the second of three needed Fire results Sunday and though the Impact had only won once away to an Eastern opponent this season, showed up in droves early on as Matt Reis’ fifth minute red card for taking down Marco Di Vaio set the tone for the evening in Montreal’s 4-2 win.

With the win, the Impact stayed on top of the Eastern Conference (with two games in hand) and may have helped the Fire more than just in the standings as Reis will now be suspended for the Revolution’s visit to Chicago this Saturday. 

Given Montreal’s home form, a visit from the Crew Saturday should probably see them atop the East by the time I’m writing this column next week. With games in hand on both New York and Sporting KC, the Impact hold the inside track to the top spot in the East if they can hold serve down the stretch.

2) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 45 (13-9-6)
Games Remaining: 6 (3 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: WWLDL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-2-3 / 5-7-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 36.1
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 vs. TFC, 9/22 vs. FCD, 9/29 @ SEA, 10/5 vs. NE, 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI

Rundown: The fact that Red Bull had never won in Houston during the MLS regular season didn’t exactly bode well form them on Sunday but a smaller than normal crowd at BBVA Compass Stadium saw a few mistakes at the back which New York did well to capitalize on in their 4-1 win.

Red Bull have just six games left to play with the next two at home vs. Toronto FC and FC Dallas. Wins in those and we’re either talking about them officially clinching a playoff spot or being having the opportunity to do it in Seattle on October 5.

3) Sporting KC
Current Points: 45 (13-9-6)
Games Remaining: 6 (2 home / 4 away)
Last 5: WWLLW (9pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-4-3 / 5-5-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 30.5
Remaining Schedule: 9/17 vs. RES**, 9/21 @ TFC, 9/27 vs. PHI, 10/5 @ CLB, 10/9 at HOU, 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/23 vs. OLI**, 10/26 @ PHI

Rundown: Sporting KC go into their bye week coming off a strong 3-0 home win over Columbus Saturday night. Like Montreal, they’ve set themselves up well now to balance their remaining Champions League fixtures (they next play Real Esteli on September 17) and could lock down a playoff spot by the end of September.

4) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 39 (10-9-9)
Games Remaining: 6 (3 home  / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LDLDW (5pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-3-5 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 57
Average Opponents Pts: 34.7
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 vs. HOU, 9/27 @ SKC, 10/5 vs. TFC, 10/12 @ D.C., 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC

Rundown: Despite having a man advantage for the final 33 minutes, Philadelphia was unable to muster a point in a 1-0 defeat at San Jose in the Fire’s last needed result of the night.

Philadelphia still sits fourth but only by two points ahead of Saturday’s game vs. Houston, one of two very big matches with playoff implications this week. 

5) New England Revolution
Current Points: 37 (10-10-7)
Games Remaining: 7 (3 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: LDWWL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-5-3 / 4-5-4
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 33.4
Remaining Schedule: 9/14 @ CHI, 9/21 vs. D.C., 9/28 vs. HOU, 10/5 @ NY, 10/12 @ MTL, 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB

Rundown: Like I said above, New England’s 4-2 loss to Montreal helped contribute to everything staying the same towards the bottom of the race. They’ll be without starting goalkeeper Matt Reis in Saturday’s pivotal visit to Toyota Park but will still likely come in confident knowing they’ve won the previous two encounters between the sides this year.

6) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 37 (10-9-7)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: LDLWL (4pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-3-3 / 3-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 35.7
Remaining Schedule:9/14 @ PHI, 9/21, 9/25 vs. WC**, vs. CHV, 9/28 @ NE, 10/4 vs. MTL, 10/9 vs. SKC, 10/20 vs. NY, 10/24 @ AU**, 10/27 @ D.C.

Rundown:  It wasn’t a good week for Houston who dropped a 2-0 to Columbus at midweek before Sunday’s 4-1 thumping vs. New York. Given Houston’s recent form (4 points from their last five games), Fire fans will lament the two points dropped to the Dynamo at the beginning of the month but should also be thankful for the fact the Dynamo have continued to struggle following that result.

A loss at Philadelphia next Saturday combined with a win from the Fire or New England may be panic button time for the Dynamo.

7) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 35 (10-11-5)
Games Remaining: 8 (3 home / 5 away)
Last 5 Games: LDWLW (7pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 8-4-2 / 2-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 59
Average Opponents Pts: 32.1
Remaining Schedule: 9/11 @ TFC, 9/14 vs. NE, 9/21 @ CLB, 9/28 vs. MTL, 10/4 @ D.C., 10/12 @ FCD, 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY

Rundown:  Dropping three points late in the last two matches doesn’t fill one with confidence but the team’s performance at Seattle was very encouraging and they were perhaps rewarded by Sunday’s trifecta of results. In reality, the weekend was a complete wash in terms of Playoff Math, so the Fire enter a two-game week with a huge opportunity.

The team faces a quick turnaround Wednesday, playing their game in hand on New England and Houston when they visit lowly Toronto FC (who fell 4-0 at Portland Saturday). A win in Ontario followed by one in Saturday’s six-pointer vs. the Revs (and a draw between the Union in Dynamo in Philadelphia) would actually put the Fire into fourth place in the East with six games remaining.

TICKETS: Fire vs. Revolution six-pointer Saturday at Toyota Park

It’s fair to admit no one saw the Fire being in this position following Saturday's game but as they say, that’s why they play the games and there’s all to play for still. 

8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 32 (9-14-5)
Games Remaining: 8 (3 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: LWLLW (6pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 6-5-3 / 3-9-2
Maximum Possible Points: 50
Average Opponents Pts: 38.6
Remaining Schedule:  9/14 @ MTL, 9/21 vs. CHI, 9/29 @ FCD, 10/5 vs. SKC, 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE

Rundown: In Brian Bliss’ first game as interim head coach, Columbus took a huge step defeating Houston 2-0 last Wednesday only to fall 3-0 at KC Saturday night.

By virtue of their point total and remaining schedule, the Crew are certainly still in the playoff race but are at a point where any further slip-ups will probably mean the end to their season. 

06 September 7:58 am

The MLS Team Writers Union continues to grow and so I thought, why not reach out and get my counterpart's takes on relevant questions surrounding their team in the leadup to matches...

In today's Three Questions, I go old school with one of the longest tenured Team Writers in MLS (and doppelganger match for Rob Riggle), Sounders FC's Matt Gaschk...

Jeff Crandall: With Wednesday night's victory over Chivas USA, the Sounders continue to be the hottest team in MLS having won six of their last seven matches.  What has been the main contribution to the recent success?

Matt Gaschk: The greatest difference over the last seven matches has been the commitment on the defensive side of the ball.  With four shutouts in the last seven matches, the defense has jumped to tops in the West, allowing just 1.04 goals per game, but it has been much more than just the back four.  The defensive spark has come from all over the field and the team finally seems to have clicked into place and pulling in the same direction. 

With so many changes to the roster over the off-season, it took a lot of time for people to find their roles.  Now, even though they have yet to play at full strength, they have been able to find different ways to win games because the core of the team has kept them on the right path.

JC: How much do the international absences of Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey and the injury to Brad Evans effect Seattle's chances for three points on Saturday?

MG: Dempsey has been a tremendous boost for the team – both on the field and in the locker room, where he has helped re-energize a group that was already driven to succeed.  However, his addition has been a boost to what was already a solid team, so while losing him means less talent on the field, it doesn’t necessarily mean a loss in the team dynamic. 

Johnson has been on fire of late with three goals and one assist in his last four matches, and he has proven to be highly important to Seattle’s success.  When he is engaged, he is among the more lethal finishers in the league. 

Without him, Seattle turns heavily to Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle.  Martins has been on the shelf over the last month with an ankle injury, but Neagle has stepped up when asked to, scoring six goals – including four game-winners – this season. 

The loss of Evans, if he is unable to play, takes greater effect when Seattle loses its depth. He can play so many different roles for the team, not the least of which is as a coach on the field, that when he is available it is almost as though Sigi Schmid’s roster has additional players on it. 

Servando Carrasco has filled in in the middle of midfield and Marc Burch has provided cover on the left side, so there are players available to fill roles, but it is the depth beyond those spots that has thinned with injuries to Shalrie Joseph and Steve Zakuani.

JC: Obafemi Martins has been out for nearly a month with an ankle injury but seems to be on the comeback trail.  What has the Nigerian DP added for the Sounders this season and is there a chance he returns Saturday?

MG: After the 2012 season, Sounders FC ownership vowed to find their Robbie Keane.  They sought a player with high levels of European success who is still driven to succeed at a high level when presented with the new challenge of playing in MLS.  Martins fit that bill and, while he may not be on the MVP-caliber scoring clip that Keane has seen this season, he has provided a world-class striker that not only scores his own remarkable goals, but also creates space for his teammates to find the scoreboard as well.

Although he has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, his seven goals and three assists in just 15 appearances have been an offensive boost.  He has yet to take the field with Dempsey – and won’t this weekend while Dempsey is away on international duty – but when he does, it will make for one of the strongest attacks in MLS.

06 September 7:10 am

After leaving two points on the field last Sunday, the Fire head to the Pacific Northwest, traditionally not a happy hunting ground of the Men in Red, for a Saturday night matchup with Seattle (9pm CT on NBCSN) . The Sounders are hitting form at the right time, surging to six wins in their last seven matches. Here are some things to keep an eye out for from a tactical perspective.

Taking advantage of speed – hitting Seattle on the counter attack

The Fire’s bread and butter in away matches is the counter attack, lulling teams into a false sense of security and allowing them to push men forward before forcing a turnover and countering with numbers. A number of factors contribute to this.

In midfield, the likes of Jeff Larentowicz, Arevalo Rios, Alex, Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini are very capable of forcing turnovers by applying pressure or reading the game and intercepting passes. With Rios away on international duty, Alex, Pause and Paladini will battle it out for the central midfield berth.

Alex is equally capable playing on the outside, and with him, Nyarko and Dilly Duka, the Fire have ample speed for to push the break. In attack, I expect the Fire to stick with Rolfe and Magee again due to their quickness.

Juan Luis Anangono is also an option but if the Fire go with the counter attack strategy, there is no need to a target striker in the starting eleven.

Taking advantage of set pieces – punishing Seattle on free kicks and corners

WATCH: Anibaba, Segares talk Saturday's match

In Seattle’s last three or so matches the Sounders have been very sloppy defending set pieces. In the second half of last Wednesday’s match against Chivas in particular, the LA team could have easily scored two or even three goals from free kicks, but for some better finishing.

The Fire worked quite a bit on set pieces at training on Thursday, clearly seeing Seattle’s obvious issues in that area. The Men in Red scored their first goal from a corner in last week’s match against Houston, and with Magee and Duka putting balls in and players like Austin Berry and Larentowicz challenging in the box, the Fire certainly have the ability to cause the Sounders more problems in this area.

Keeping an eye on Rosales and Yedlin – set pieces and crosses from wide

Seattle are a similar team to Sporting KC with both teams having a very dangerous creative midfielder, as well as outside defenders that like to get forward and get crosses in the box.

Though he hasn’t started every match for the team Mauro Rosales leads the Sounders with seven assists, two more than American Brad Evans. Rosales’ favorite target to look for from set pieces and crosses has been Eddie Johnson, picking the American out for a number of headed goals in recent matches.  Johnson will also be missing on Saturday but Rosales has a plethora of other players to look for.

Rosales also has the rare ability to put dangerous balls into the box from deep positions, especially on free kicks. Seattle’s Homegrown defender Deandre Yedlin has had an absolutely stellar rookie year, even being named to the MLS All-Star team. He combines well on the right with another missing player for Seattle, Brad Evans.

Without him, Yedlin will be required to pick up the slack. As with the Kansas City match, the Fire players must not pay too much attention to Rosales and neglect Yedlin because if he is given time and space, it could be costly.

Prediction: Mike Magee gets back on track and the Fire win 1-0.

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

 

05 September 3:23 pm

The final installment in our series of #cf97ThirdKit interviews sees me speak to Option 5 designer Jordan Parks.

Check out the previous interviews with Mike Sever (Option 1)Danny Carlino (Option 2)Freddie Christiano (Option 3) and Eric Puente (Option 4) regarding the inspiration behind their designs. One more Q&A coming later Thursday!

What was the inspiration behind your design?

The inspiration for my third kit design came from Chicago’s rich industrial history, the beautiful city skyline, and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. These three elements helped fuel my concept and display the true honor, passion, and tradition of this club and this great city.

The blue to white gradient in my design begins with the rich navy blue of the club, incorporates the light blue of the famous Chicago flag, and fades to a bright white to show the eliteness of this powerful city.

VOTE: #cf97ThirdKit Top 5

The subtle abstract view of the skyline represents the flames that ravaged the city in 1871 and the building blocks which made this city bounce back from devastation to become one of the most economically powerful in America.

What do you feel is unique about your design?

After looking at past kits worn by the Fire and researching other clubs past and present designs, I decided to simplify mine and keep the base color white; paying tribute to past away kits worn by the Fire.

While the Chicago flag is a well known and recognizable symbol of Chicago, I tried to stay away from blatantly using the flag as the base for my design as it has been done before and many Fire supporters want this as a permanent kit option rather than a third kit.

READ: #cf97ThirdKit Rules

I believe my design is unique because of its elegance and simplicity while showing physical and historical attributes of the great city we call home.

What would it mean for your design to be chosen as the club's third kit?

As a young designer, seeing my design being worn by my club would be absolutely exhilarating. I have been a Fire supporter for many years and having this opportunity with the club has already been rewarding in itself.

The reality of having my concept turned into a final solution is what I stand for as a designer. I work to succeed and push to exceed. Seeing the mighty Fire wearing my kit design in victory would be the best reward I could ask for. I believe with a fresh third kit option, the Chicago Fire can bring home another MLS Cup in style. Go Fire!

05 September 8:18 am

The third in our series of #cf97ThirdKit interviews sees me speak to Option 3 designer Freddie Christiano.

On Wednesday I spoke with Mike Sever (Option 1) and Danny Carlino (Option 2) about the inspiration behind their designs. More Q&A's coming later Thursday.

What was the inspiration behind your design?

I was hoping I would get a chance to answer a question like this during the competition. The design looks simple, but there were a lot of different things that inspired the design. It is obvious from all the designs presented that we as fans wanted some representation of the Chicago flag back on the jersey. I did not want the jersey to be a remake of the old Puma design so I thought about how I could place the flag somewhere on the kit where it had meaning. I wanted to have meaning not only to a fan, but anyone who will wear the jersey.

In my full submission to the Chicago Fire I included the words “#WearYourHeartOnYourSleeve”. This became the overall inspiration for the jersey and why I placed the flag on the sleeve. We are really passionate about sports here in Chicago and we aren't afraid to let anyone know how we feel. I think we can convey that passion to the players on the field playing for our team as well. By placing the Chicago flag on the sleeve, it is a reminder to the players their emotion, pride, and heart on the field is matched by that of those in the stands and through out the city.

VOTE: #cf97ThirdKit Top 5

I didn't want to distract from the sleeve element, so I based the rest of the design on something I learned from playing soccer, which was to “keep it simple”. I wanted a color to help make the sleeve stand out, but it also needed to have significance.

I have seen some comments regarding my choice of black and it not being related to Chicago and compared to other cities kits. I actually found that color inspiration from our skyline. Any way you view the Chicago skyline, you are seeing two of the most iconic buildings of our city: The Willis Tower and  John Hancock Building. These two buildings do not stand out only because of their size but also because of their color.  This was also the perfect color to make the sleeve stand out and maintain integrity for the main color of the kit. The vertical strip was a simple way to bring more of flag inspiration into the design and tie it up to the Fire crest, linking the two together. When the stripe wraps to the back of the jersey it fades to the silhouette of the Willis Tower.

The Fire crest needed to be as unique as the overall design. I was inspired when looking at the crest on my 1999 Chicago Fire kit. Although, it is not clear from the image posted the entire crest in my design would be of this metallic threading.

What do you feel is unique about your design?

Besides the choice of color, every design element of this kit has significant meaning. This is more than a kit that I have designed, it is about interconnecting players, fans, and a city. It establishes bonds of tradition, honor, and passion felt by all when carrying the flag on their sleeve.

READ: #cf97ThirdKit Rules

Giving the flag significant placement and a motto, “Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve”, helps establish these bonds and makes everyone aware what it means to be from Chicago and play for our club. The motto will also give supporter groups new chants to create when players take the field in an intimidating black kit!

What would it mean for your design to be chosen as the club's third kit?

If chosen, I would feel happiest knowing the majority of fans feel as passionate about this kit and its meaning as I do. They understood it can be as powerful as connecting players to fans on another level.

The Fire is a team I grew up supporting and would love to be part of the club from an opportunity like this. Having your kit made forever links you to the team and Its history. That would be something special.

04 September 2:26 pm

Over the next few days we'll be rolling out interviews with each of the five #cf97ThirdKit finalists asking for the inspiration and unique qualities of their entries.

Earlier today we spoke to Option 1 Designer Mike Sever. Below are the responses from Option 2 Designer Danny Carlino...

What was the inspiration behind your design?

My design is inspired by the Chicago municipal flag. Ever since the Fire had a flag themed jersey in 2005, fans have clamored for another one. That one was light blue with the four stars across the chest and the flag opposite the team badge. Ever since then I’ve been tinkering with ideas for a new adaptation of such a jersey. I liked the idea of making this one predominantly white with light blue trim so as to give that concept a new look.

What do you feel is unique about your design?

The Chicago municipal flag is beautiful in its simplicity. I tried to make sure that every part of the jersey reflects the Chicago flag and accentuate that beauty and simplicity. I went with a white jersey not only to differentiate from the 2005 iteration of Fire 3rd kit, but to also reflect the white background of the flag itself. The two blue stripes across the chest replicate those on the flag. I placed the Quaker sponsor logo in between the two stripes. I knew some fans might have an issue with the Quaker logo taking the place on the jersey where the four red stars from the flag would typically go. To help remedy that, I used a red Quaker logo to keep the flag’s color scheme. The fact that Quaker is a Chicago-based company, has an over century-long history with the city, and is supporting our club should make that aspect more acceptable.

VOTE: #cf97ThirdKit Top 5

With that, I still had to find a place to put the stars because without them, it can’t be an authentic flag jersey. I placed the four stars along the right collar bone parallel to the adidas stripes and a full Chicago flag on the lower left hem of the jersey. I wanted the flag to be represented as much as possible, so I made the adidas stripes along the shoulder white with the light blue in between to represent the three white areas of the flag with the two light blue stripes in between. The sleeves also reflect the flag with the area where the MLS and American flag patches being white while bordered by the light blue shoulders and cuffs.

The back of the jersey also features two elements that have never appeared on a Fire kit. The number “1871” appears in red in the traditional Fire font just below the collar to represent the year of the Great Chicago Fire for which the club is named. Below that is the seal of the city that features the date of incorporation of March 4, 1837 as well as the Latin motto “Urbs In Horto,” which means “City In A Garden.” 

While not pictured, I’d also like to have the name and number on the jersey printed in red to keep in line with the red accents of the stars, the Quaker logo, and the 1871.

What would it mean for your design to be chosen as the club's third kit?

You want there to be an emotional attachment to the club’s jersey. If you’re designing it yourself as a team supporter before there was even a team, that emotion increases immensely. I’ve been fiddling with logo and jersey ideas before the Fire even officially had that moniker. Let’s just say this process may have been more difficult had the team actually been named the “Rhythm.”

READ: #cf97ThirdKit Rules

After the 2005 flag jersey, I’ve designed several versions even buying adidas jerseys that fit the color scheme and putting patches on it so I could have one of my own. Just having adidas produce my design is a thrill. The thought of the club walking out of the tunnel at Toyota Park on a sun drenched day, seeing them earn three points, celebrating with Section 8, playing a big international club in a friendly, and ultimately raising a cup in that kit truly gives me chills. I appreciate your support in making my dream our reality in this third kit.

04 September 12:55 pm

Over the next few days we'll be rolling out interviews with each of the five #cf97ThirdKit finalists asking for the inspiration and unique qualities of their entries.

First up, Mike Sever and Option #1...

What was the inspiration behind your design?

My inspiration was the history of both the team and the history of the City of Chicago. While the sky blue and white color is obviously a nod to the Fire's popular "Flag Jersey" from 2005, there are other references that longtime fans may recognize. First, the jersey returns the club's traditional white stripe to the front across the chest, but with a subtle twist. The two navy stripes inside the white chest stripe not only allude to the two blue stripes in a white field on the Chicago city flag, but are also a throwback to the navy and white stripes on the Fire's home and away uniforms during their trophy-winning heyday of the club’s early years.

VOTE: #cf97ThirdKit Top 5

I decided to put the Chicago flag on the back after being unable to find a way to put it on the front without the jersey looking too crowded. I added the year 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire, which despite its destructive power, also gave Chicago a unique opportunity to start fresh and rebuild itself into the city it is today.  I decided to use 1871 instead of 1997 (the year of the club's founding) because I've always felt the Chicago Fire Soccer Club was named in remembrance of the historical event of the 1871 Fire (and the subsequent resilience to rebuild Chicago even bigger than before), rather than merely naming the team after the phenomenon of light and heat. Besides, doesn't "The Great Chicago Fire" have a nice ring to it?

What do you feel is unique about your design?

All five final designs have some degree of sky blue and white in them, which is not surprising as Fire supporters have been clamoring for a Chicago-flag-themed jersey since its last appearance in 2005. However, Design #1 is the only one that blends the team's history with its present. No other jersey design uses the Chicago flag, the Fire's traditional white chest stripe, AND a nod to the early teams whose success in adverse conditions at Soldier Field and Cardinal Stadium helped pave the way for the team we see today. 

READ: #cf97ThirdKit Rules

While a third jersey often gives teams an opportunity to mix up their look with different colors and patterns, I still want people to be able to see this jersey on the street or on TV and instantly recognize it as the Chicago Fire. One of the great things about the sport of soccer is how even though teams change their jerseys seemingly every year, the looks remain the same, with very few exceptions. Real Madrid is always going to be all white. Celtic is always going to be green and white hoops. Liverpool will always be red and Chelsea will always be blue. In that vein, no other team in MLS has ever worn a single stripe across the chest, and no other team in MLS plays in the colors of the Chicago flag. This jersey is something new, but it is familiar, and unmistakably Chicago.

What would it mean for your design to be chosen as the club’s new third kit?

I'm not even thinking about that yet. I'm not anything close to a professional designer, so it's already an honor for my design to be included with the four other finalists, and it's beyond my imagination to have the club I've been following since I was a kid wear a shirt I designed. I mean, I remember trying to draw the old "Fire truck" logo in the margins of my 8th grade notebooks after the team was announced in 1997, and I still have the ticket stub from my first-ever Fire game 15 years ago.  I didn't even think my design would make it this far in the contest. It's crazy for me to even think about winning, but I'd like to encourage everyone to vote for Design #1!

03 September 10:32 am

Gut punched again! Maybe not as bad as the Philly gut punch game from May, definitely not as painful as the Open Cup gut punch, but Houston’s smash and grab draw is the kind of result that could shake a team. That said, we’ve been here before this season. The Fire have proven they can rebound from disappointing results and it’s too early for the playoff panic, there are too many games left to play. Games like Sunday’s hurt, but now, a few days after, it doesn’t seem like any sort of total season KO.

What it is: another example of this team’s schizophrenia and oft-infuriating inconsistency. I mean, how delicious was that first half?

READ: Playoff Math - Still only two points out

Dilly Duka was terrorizing, Alex has taken his move to the outside with relish, Arevalo Rios and Jeff Larentowicz are working well together, Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee keep popping up in annoying positions to track, and the Fire broke down a solid Houston defense, creating chance after chance after chance.

But because this game rarely if ever makes sense the way it should, the Fire let their guard down for a crucial period and relinquished a few points at home. It’s not the result of a dominant team, but then, that’s not what this Fire team is. It’s a team still trying to lock down its identity and self-expectations and the good news is that there’s still some time to do it.

One thing the team has to get used to is Frank Klopas’ efficiency approach. “They had possession,” he said after the game, “but we are the ones that created the better chances.” This is a common adage for Klopas this year. He’s proven time and again that he’s comfortable ceding to possession to the other team, letting them play with it and knock it around sideways as much as they want - as long as, when the Fire have the ball, they make use of it to be dangerous.

Before you scoff, remember that it’s the same approach that Jose Mourinho used at Chelsea and Inter Milan to beat Barcelona. It means counter attacks, quick passing, explosive breaks, all of which we saw against Houston. But it also means taking the (potentially few) chances you’re given as well as long periods of focus and discipline to keep your cool and keep your shape as the other team knocks it around.

With the other team passing around, especially on a hot, sun burnt afternoon like Sunday’s, it can be easy to loosen up and sit back at times.

That causes two problems…

First, as the defense falls backward, it creates more space in front of them for the other team to move forward. While it was all good for Houston to pass around the Fire’s half 30-40 yards from goal, as the Fire’s defense moved too far back later in the game, Houston pushed closer and closer, and started finding space around the edge of the area (where the goal eventually came from). But as Gonzalo Segares said in his comments after the game, it’s not always just the defense’s fault for falling backwards, especially when they’re under attack for so many minutes.

READ: Magee, Segares, Klopas lament two dropped points Sunday vs. Dynamo

The second challenge with sitting back is that the attackers have to hold the ball up front to let the lines move up, and they have to take the open counter attacking chances that come when the other team presses to equalize. Juan Luis Anangono was unusually ineffectual when he came on Sunday, but maybe the Fire were just unlucky. If Magee’s second half shot off the post had gone in, it’s hard to see Houston getting their draw.

The Fire have proven to be a tough team to beat when they score first this year, and much of that is down to Klopas’ efficiency approach as well as the focus and discipline of the defense. In that sense, Sunday’s gut punch was an outlier. But if there’s one thing for sure about the Fire this year, it’s that their previous games are not necessarily indicators of their future ones, and no matter how many times they successfully see out the tight ones, it’s the gut punch games that we remember.

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

 

30 August 8:59 am

Following the 1-0 win over Sporting KC last week, the Fire stay at home facing the Houston Dynamo at Toyota Park on Sunday afternoon. Houston not only lost 5-0 last weekend but also had to play a CONCACAF Champions League match on Tuesday before traveling to Chicago. With the race for the playoffs getting tighter by the minute, there is little doubt this is another huge game.

Here are some things to look for from a tactical perspective…

Getting behind the Houston defense – looking for through balls

In last week’s match against Montreal, the Dynamo’s back four were caught too high up the field on numerous occasions, especially in the second half as they looked to get back into the game, leaving plenty of space for the Impact to exploit. The Fire must try and take a page from Montreal’s book on Sunday afternoon. With this being said, a smaller team in attack would suit this tactic well, meaning continuing with the pairing of Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee up front.

BUY: Limited tickets still available for Fire vs. Dynamo Sunday

As I’ve mentioned numerous times in previous previews, Magee and Rolfe both are comfortable playing off the shoulder of the last defender and often make runs behind opposition defenses.

The Fire’s central midfield pairing of Rios and Larentowicz both excel in intercepting opposition passes and starting Fire attacks. Both players will be looking to try and spring Rolfe or Magee if the opportunity presents itself on Sunday.

Possible return of Patrick Nyarko – Alex or Pat on the wing?

PREVIEW: Magee, Nyarko preview Houston

Patrick Nyarko is still returning to full fitness after being out with concussion symptoms. In his place, Alex and Joel Lindpere have shared time on the wing, with Dilly Duka playing on the other side. It is unclear at this time if Patrick is fit enough to go 90 minutes but if he is, I would expect him to start over the Brazilian on Sunday afternoon.

Nyarko’s tactic of harassing the opposing team when they are in possession and trying to force turnovers will be needed against a team like Houston. Nyarko’s pace would also cause the Houston backline problems and we have often seen him make runs behind the outside defenders this season.

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If Nyarko is unable to go, Alex is a more than worthy deputy. His direct style of play can keep Houston on the back foot and he is a player capable of playing a killer pass through to Magee or Rolfe. Regardless of who gets the start, the other could have a very important role to play from the bench, especially if the Fire are in need of a goal.

Tracking Garcia and Barnes – not allowing them to operate in the space between defense and midfield

Houston face a tough task of trying to get through the Fire’s new midfield tandem of Rios and Larentowicz. Both players cover a lot of ground and look like they’ve played together much more than the two games they’ve had.

Aside from taking on the Fire on the wings, the Dynamo will look to try and get the ball to Giles Barnes and others in the area between Rios/Larentowicz and the Fire’s back four. This is a lot easier said than done, but if Houston can get possession in this area, it can cause major problems.

LISTEN: Hunter Jumper talks face planting on first career goal

In Houston’s last home match against Seattle, Barnes received the ball in this space and before a defender was able to step up and challenge him, he smacked it into the top corner from 25 yards out.

Boniek Garcia, while not as creative as Barnes, also likes to get forward and is very dangerous with the ball at his feet around the box, constantly looking to find the Houston strikers with little through balls and reverse passes. The Honduran has four assists this season, to go along with Barnes’s six.

It will be very important for Larentowicz and Rios to keep their shape and not get stretched, allowing Houston to play through them. The Fire center backs, assumed to be Berry and Soumare, must anticipate this danger and step up to challenge the Dynamo player in possession and not all him to dictate the play.

Prediction: 2-1 Fire with goals from Magee and Berry

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

28 August 3:39 pm

With the Eastern Conference playoff race so tight between seven teams, some called me crazy for starting Playoff Math so early this year. I shunned the criticism because I feel strongly that Eastern Conference nerds need their fix the remaining two months of the season.

In an attempt to keep this piece at readable length, I chose not to use a points per game basis as fellow stat nerd Tweed Thornton at Hot Time in Old Town uses. His analysis is equally interesting and I suggest you check it out.

So, with that, I breakdown the playoff outlook for the eight teams that still have a reasonable shot at an Eastern Conference playoff spot…

Montreal Impact
Current Points: 41 (12-7-5)
Games Remaining: 10 (4 home/ 6 away)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-1-3 / 3-6-2
Maximum Possible Pts: 71
Average Opponents Pts: 34.4
Remaining Schedule:  8/31 @ PHI, 9/8 @ NE, 9/14 vs. CLB, 9/21 vs. VAN, 9/28 @ CHI, 10/4 @ HOU, 10/12 vs. NE, 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC

Rundown: Though they had a small dip in form, Montreal is back at the top of the Eastern Conference after Saturday’s 5-0 shellacking of Houston. Much of Montreal’s success can be chalked up to their dominant home record (they’ve lost just one game at Stade Saputo this season) but the team also has the toughest remaining schedule and has away matches against playoff contenders, Philadelphia, New England, the Fire and Houston before season’s end. Add to that the fact that Montreal is also competing in CONCACAF Champions League play on September 17 at San Jose and September 24 at Heredia and the top spot is far from secure.

New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 39 (11-9-6)
Games Remaining:  8 (5 home / 3 away)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-2-3 / 4-7-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 31.3
Remaining Schedule: 8/31 vs. D.C., 9/8 @ HOU, 9/14 vs. TFC, 9/22 vs. FCD, 9/29 @ SEA, 10/5 vs. NE, 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI

Rundown: Despite a 3-2 defeat to Chivas USA at the weekend, Red Bull still sits in pretty good shape, two points back of the lead. New York holds a strong home record and of their eight remaining matches, five will be played at Red Bull Arena. Also unlike fellow playoff contenders Montreal, Sporting KC and Houston, New York only needs to focus on MLS Regular Season play the rest of the way.

Sporting KC
Current Points: 39 (11-9-6)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home / 4 away)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-4-3 / 5-5-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 30.5
Remaining Schedule: 8/31 vs. COL, 9/7 vs. CLB, 9/21 @ TFC, 9/27 vs. PHI, 10/5 @ CLB, 10/9 at HOU, 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/26 @ PHI

Rundown: Sporting KC holds an identical record to New York and has to juggle two more Champions League games but has one of the easiest remaining schedules among the eight playoff contenders. Though their home record isn’t as stellar as you’d think, with the strong atmosphere Sporting Park provides, its unlikely KC is the team currently inside the bubble that falls down the stretch.

Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 38 (10-8-8)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home  / 4 away)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-3-4 / 4-5-4
Maximum Possible Points: 62
Average Opponents Pts: 33.1
Remaining Schedule: 8/31 vs. MTL, 9/8 @ SJ, 9/14 vs. HOU, 9/27 @ SKC, 10/5 vs. TFC, 10/12 @ D.C., 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC

Rundown: With eight games left, the Union sit just three points out of first place thanks to the 4-5-4 record on the road (second best in the East) while holding serve at home (6-3-4). Things just got pretty interesting for Philly after New England’s 5-1 weekend thrashing of the Union pulled the playoff race much tighter. From a Fire perspective, their grounded out, back-to-back wins over the Men in Red in May could easily be pointed to as the difference between being in and outside the playoff bubble. If the Fire take three points in either of the 1-0 losses, the two teams are swapped in the Eastern Conference table…

New England Revolution
Current Points: 36 (10-9-6)
Games Remaining: 9 (4 home / 5 away)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-4-3 / 4-5-3
Maximum Possible Points: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 31.5
Remaining Schedule: 8/30 @ TFC, 9/8 vs. MTL, 9/14 @ CHI, 9/21 vs. D.C., 9/28 vs. HOU, 10/5 @ NY, 10/12 @ MTL, 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB

Rundown: New England has been the surprise entrant into the race this season. The Revs have certainly found ways to punch way above their weight. Even after a six-game winless run in July and August, New England still find themselves inside the bubble with seven of their nine remaining games all against relevant Eastern Conference playoff contenders.

Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 36 (10-8-6)
Games Remaining: 10 (5 home / 5 away)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-2-3 / 3-6-3
Maximum Possible Points: 66
Average Opponents Pts: 33
Remaining Schedule: 9/1 @ CHI, 9/4 @ CLB, 9/8 vs. NY, 9/14 @ PHI, 9/21 vs. CHV, 9/28 @ NE, 10/4 vs. MTL, 10/9 vs. SKC, 10/20 vs. NY, 10/27 @ D.C.

Rundown: Though not quite as great as 2012, Houston has kept up pretty good form at BBVA Compass Stadium so far in 2013. The Dynamo sit sixth only by the Goals For tiebreaker and currently hold at least a game in hand on everyone in front of them except for Montreal. At the same time, a loss to the Fire on Sunday at Toyota Park would see the Men in Red leapfrog the Dynamo into sixth place with nine matches remaining.

Chicago Fire
Current Points: 34 (10-10-4)
Games Remaining: 10 (4 home / 6 away)
2013 Home / Away Record: 8-4-1 / 2-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 64
Average Opponents Pts: 31.1
Remaining Schedule: 9/1 vs. HOU, 9/7 @ SEA, 9/11 @ TFC, 9/14 vs. NE, 9/21 @ CLB, 9/28 vs. MTL, 10/4 @ D.C., 10/12 @ FCD, 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY

Rundown: After failing to win a game in the month of March, the Fire’s 8-3-3 record since the arrivals of Bakary Soumare and Mike Magee in late May is nothing short of fantastic. Having said that, the team still finds itself two points outside of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Much of the team’s success is due to holding the second best home record in the Eastern Conference (8-4-1) though the side’s away record is also the second worst (2-6-3). Perhaps worse though is that after Sunday’s game vs. Houston, the team will play just three more home matches in 2013 vs. six away games.

The key to any team making the playoffs is doing the business at home and the Fire should still aim for the maximum 12 points available there. However, in order to make the postseason again in 2013, the team needs to find ways to pick up more points on the road. Luckily they have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the Eastern Conference and visit both Toronto FC and D.C. in two of their remaining six away games.

Columbus Crew
Current Points: 29 (8-12-5)
Games Remaining: 9 (5 home / 4 away)
2013 Home / Away Record: 5-4-3 / 3-8-2
Maximum Possible Points: 56
Average Opponents Pts: 33.5
Remaining Schedule: 8/31 vs. SEA, 9/4 vs. HOU, 9/7 @ SKC, 9/14 @ MTL, 9/21 vs. CHI, 9/29 @ FCD, 10/5 vs. SKC, 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE

Rundown: The Crew are here because though it doesn’t seem likely, they’re still in the playoff race. In my opinion, the key for Columbus is how they do in their next two matches, both of which are at home. A win over Western Conference foes Seattle won’t be considered a “six pointer” but it will keep the Crew alive for another important midweek home date vs. Houston.