Select shots from the Fire's 1-1 draw with Houston.
CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out some photos of the helping hands below:
If there was ever a game for our schizophrenic 2013 Fire to overcome on what in any other week might have been a highly appealing Friday night home game - this was it.
Squad issues: Hunter Jumper had to replace suspended Bakary Soumare and his calming presence, while new arrivals Arevalo Rios and Juan Luis Anangono are still working to fit neatly into the side.
Opponent: KC, the only team to beat the Fire at Toyota Park in the Mike Magee era, coming to town with Graham Zusi and Teal Bunbury back fit, the team with the most headed goals in MLS against the Fire’s makeshift center back pairing.
Off the field: Coach Frank Klopas was suspended, national headlines off the field, time running out on the playoff race.
And then, like they’ve done time and again this year, the Fire rebounded from a disappointing loss to play up to their potential and not only take all three points, but also show the fans that there’s real quality on this team.
Whereas Rios and Jeff Larentowicz seemed out of rhythm in New England, they matched each other swimmingly on Friday, stepping and dropping, playing each other in tight spaces, and frustrating Benny Feilhaber and the rest.
Whereas wide players created next to nothing in New England, Dilly Duka was a force on the right on Friday. Meanwhile, Alex, who seemed out of place as a substitute deployed wide in New England, picked his runs to the middle of the field with considerable vision on Friday, providing support for Magee and Chris Rolfe up top, pushing counter attacks forward, and getting back to help prevent Zusi’s service on KC’s right side.
So let’s give credit to the squad for playing up to their potential in yet another massive game for the Fire. Let’s also look briefly at the magic of the 4-4-2 formation, that often-mocked old school set up the Fire rely on because Arrigo Sacchi and (occasionally) Sir Alex Ferguson aside, it’s not exactly the formation of kings.
The 4-4-2 is the everyman’s formation, the formation you play in your rec league, the most logical way to cover the field and balance attack with defense. Yet at the top level, it’s fallen out of fashion in the past decade or so thanks to the emergence of the three man midfield, Vicente Del Bosque’s 7-midfielder thing, and the desire to free up superstar players in attacking positions.
But the Fire proved that the 4-4-2 is still a viable formation in the right setting. Unlike complicated, imbalanced, shifting formations, the 4-4-2 is less about creating specific advantages in areas of the field than it is about creating 1v1 situations everywhere. That means it’s about winning individual battles, endeavoring for second balls off 50/50s, and that extra 10-yard sprint.
Of course it has its subtler points: overlapping outside backs, the way Magee dropped deeper once Anangono came on to make it more of a 4-4-1-1, etc. But what we saw on Friday night was a team focused on working hard on and off the ball for the entire game. In that way, Hunter Jumper’s scrappy goal was a perfect game-winner, because all game the Fire were on the ground, reaching balls just an inch before KC player’s could.
The commitment seemed to shoot out from Rios and Larentowicz’s eyes. They were everywhere, covering far more space than two men ought to, sliding around, starting counter attacks, holding the ball, and annoying KC all game.
You could say it’s a weakness of the 4-4-2, that it takes complete self-sacrifice. But you have only to look at the reaction of Rios at the final whistle to see that the pride in exhaustion is always worth it.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
Just in case you missed Friday's MLS Insider, Judah Friedlander documents how former Fire forward Roman Kosecki used inspiration from The Three Stooges to provide one of the top moments of comedy every seen... Check out Storytime Theater below...
Catch the full episode of last Friday's MLS Insider here.
Select shots from the Fire's Practice in the Community event.
Select shots from the Fire's 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City.
CREDIT: Brian Kersey
After a morale sapping 2-0 loss in New England last week, the Fire need to pick themselves up for the visit of Eastern Conference table toppers Sporting KC Friday night. There has been no love lost between the sides over the past few seasons and this one promises to be no different. Here are few things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Changes to the Fire defense – who will replace Bakary Soumare
Since the return of Bakary Soumare, the Fire’s starting back four has remained virtually unchanged despite some less than stellar performances. Soumare’s suspension forces Frank Klopas into making a tough decision.
The two most likely options are moving Jalil Anibaba into the middle and replacing him with Logan Pause/Wells Thompson/Mike Videra or keeping Jalil at right back and drafting Hunter Jumper into the middle.
The latter seems the more likely choice, especially considering Jumper’s height and the coaching staff’s desire to play big men against Sporting KC in the past. Jumper has had limited playing time this season (just one appearance so far) and will need to adjust to a SKC team who started off so well at Toyota Park last time out.
A strong start and scoring first will be a huge boost to the Fire psychologically.
How to break SKC down – target the outside defenders
Kansas City have the second best defensive record in the East thanks in part to a brilliant goalkeeper and rock solid central defense pairing but it’s on the outside of the defensive four that some cracks appear.
In SKC’s recent loss against New York, more than one of the goals scored by the Red Bulls came from getting in behind the defense. With players like Mike Magee, who is so good at making runs, the Fire need to be trying to play through balls as much as possible Friday night.
Getting into 1v1 situations with the SKC outside backs is another good tactic. Joel Lindpere has made no secret of his desire to play in the middle and not on the wing, where he feels that his lack of place and ability to take a man on are on show.
With that in mind, switching Alex to the wing is a good option. With Alex and Dilly Duka on the wings, the SKC outside defenders would certainly be on the back foot for most of the night.
SKC wing play – don’t allow easy crosses
Just as the Fire should be looking to attack down the wings, the Men in Red must also be wary of SKC’s wide play. Normally, SKC rely on U.S. international Graham Zusi to create from midfield but in his absence, more emphasis has been put on getting the ball wide and putting crosses into the box for Bieler, Kamara and Saad.
In Sporting’s last match against New England, this tactic worked to perfection, with the first two goals of the night coming from crosses. New England allowed the SKC players far too much room to pick people out with crosses.
The Fire must be quicker to close Kansas City down, especially when they get the ball into the wide areas. It is expected that Zusi will be back in the starting lineup tonight but his presence should not distract the Fire from concentrating, not allowing Sporting players time on the ball.
Prediction: It’s a must win for the Fire and I expect them to come out on top: 1-0 Fire with a goal from Mike Magee.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.