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Chicago Fire

12 July 9:50 am

 
After a disappointing home loss against Sporting KC last weekend, the Fire head to the Pacific Northwest on Sunday to face a resurgent Vancouver Whitecaps side. The ‘Caps beat arch rivals Seattle last weekend and are unbeaten in five games.
 
Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
 
Shaun Francis full debut – a baptism of fire?
 
Shaun Francis only joined the Fire Wednesday and seems likely to make his full debut for the team in Vancouver. The left back should replace suspended stalwart Gonzalo Segares and will need to hit the ground running in an intimidating atmosphere.
 
Luckily for Francis, Vancouver are without their usual wide right player in the 4-3-3 formation, Russell Teibert who is in Canada’s Gold Cup squad. The winger has tallied six assists this season, twice the amount of the leading Fire player (Jeff Larentowicz and Daniel Paladini with three) . Instead of facing the pace of Teibert, Francis will likely be battling Corey Hertzog, who is in his first season with Vancouver.
 
Francis, who likes to get forward, will also have to face another outside back who likes to do the same in Young-Pyo Lee. Despite being 36, Lee is an extremely fit player and though he has lost a step of pace, is still very dangerous in the attack.
 
It will also be interesting to see how well Francis and presumed starting left mid Dilly Duka combine in Vancouver. A strong performance in this away game will not only boost Francis’ confidence but will be necessary if the Fire want to leave Canada with points in the bag.
 
The Fire’s back four – cutting out the individual mistakes
 
Before the game against Kansas City last weekend, ESPN showed a stat that since the arrival of Bakary Soumare, the team’s goals against average per game has dropped. This is certainly true but stats can also be deceiving.
 
In the KC game, the Fire had a shambolic first 10 minutes defensively, giving up two very soft goals. The first came from a poor clearance from a long throw and the second from allowing KC’s best player Graham Zusi too much space to shoot/cross from outside the box.
 
Since the arrival of Bakary Soumare and the switch of Jalil Anibaba to right back, the team’s back four has remained stable and for the most part work well as a unit. Individual errors like those in the SKC game are the issue.
 
These are a hard thing for a coaching staff to work on because the majority are mental mistakes.  It’s been nine games in the league since the Men in Red kept a clean sheet and one would be very welcome on Sunday evening. If the back four and goalkeeper can keep their concentration for 90 minutes and communicate well with one another, a clean sheet can be achieved.
 
Breaking down the Whitecaps – how to defeat the 4-3-3
 
Vancouver coach Marin Rennie favors a 4-3-3 formation with three ball-winning midfielders and three attackers who are very mobile. There are a few weak spots in this formation however that the Fire should look to exploit.
The first is getting balls in behind the three-man midfield, either by playing through balls or looking over the top. In Vancouver’s last loss, a 3-2 defeat by Seattle, the Sounders were able to get behind the three-man wall catching the Whitecaps center backs out of position.
The Sounders capitalized numerous times in that match when gaps opened up between the Whitecaps center backs. In Vancouver’s recent 3-1 win against Chivas USA, the Chivas goal also came from getting behind the central midfielders, this time from a brilliant pass from the center of the park which split the Vancouver mids and resulted in a 1v1 between the Chivas striker and a Whitecaps defender.
Another area where the 4-3-3 can be exploited is on the outside, a strong area for the Fire. Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka’s ability to stretch the three man midfield of Vancouver will be very important, not only because it leaves gaps in the middle to exploit, but it also forces one of the midfielders into a 1v1 battle with one of the Fire wide men. I would bet on our wingers in that fight.
When you add the Fire’s outside defenders to that equation, it makes it difficult for Vancouver to defend. I look for the likes of Alex, Nyarko and Duka to try and exploit the 4-3-3 system whenever possible, for the Fire’s benefit. 
Prediction: 1-1 with a goal from Alex.
10 July 9:37 pm

Select shots from the Fire's friendly with Club America.

Credit: Brian Kersey, Chicago Fire

09 July 11:35 am

A mistake is just a mistake, an error, a blip - the definition implies that it’s somehow against what’s expected, it’s notable specifically because it’s not in rhythm with everything else going on. Repeated mistakes, predictable mistakes, they’re no longer mistakes. They’re problems.
 
After yet another game marked by early concessions (and, at last, without the gritty comebacks that defined the Fire’s breathtaking unbeaten streak) The Fire find themselves approaching halfway through the season with an opportunity to define their year.
 
Are all these frustrating early goals, the slow starts, the brief moments of futility - are they mistakes, errors, blips? Are they exceptions to the true Fire? Or will they define the Fire as a problem, and we’ll look back sometime in the fall at a team that cost itself a playoff spot?
 
Pour some out for the exhilarating and dramatic nine-game unbeaten run. After Wednesday’s game against San Jose, everything looked hunky dory. The Fire let in some goals, but they controlled the game, scored wonderfully, and showed just how much of a new team we were seeing compared to the disappointments of the spring. Now, the Fire will have to show whether Magic Mike Magee’s impact is just makeup, MLS cover-all.
 
The best part of soccer seasons is that, eventually, your strengths and weaknesses are laid bare. There are deserved and deserved results, sure, but there’s no such thing as a lucky season because there are enough games to balance out unlucky bounces, bad call, injuries, and so on. The points at the end of the season tell a complete story.
 
So, yes, Sunday was hot and humid. KC is stacked, with maybe the best back line in MLS. The Fire played on short rest. It was, in other words, the worst scenario to let in early goals.
 
But it also exposed the Fire’s tendency to let in these goals that just feel wrong. The only word I can think of to describe the kinds of goals we’ve seen against the Fire is icky. They’re icky. They’re kind of gross. They feel wrong. They’re not well worked, they don’t really break the Fire down or come from great passing or individual brilliance. I’m thinking about Lindpere’s own goal and Gordon’s ridiculous crossbar assist to himself on Wednesday; Feilhaber’s volley off the post and Zusi’s wind-assisted Shross on Sunday. Going back, there are the Austin Berry gifts to Deshorn Brown of Colorado and Dominic Oduro of Columbus. You have to go all the way back to June 8th against Portland to see a really nice goal scored against the Fire in MLS.

That’s a good sign, I think. I think it means that, once the Fire stop letting in these icky goals, Magee and the suddenly more clinical Duka - Nyarko - Rolfe supporting cast will continue to carry the Fire towards a playoff spot. It only seems right.

 

But with big road games in Vancouver and Houston coming up this month and the games starting to wear people down, the Fire are going to have to prove that their ascent is legitimate. They’ll have to prove that June’s run was no lie, that the early goals were a bunch of mistakes, errors, blips - not what defines them.

07 July 5:32 pm
Quote Sheet
Chicago Fire vs. Sporting Kansas City
Toyota Park – July 7, 2013
 
Frank Klopas, Chicago Fire Head Coach
 
On how the team performed today
 
“It was all in the start. We needed to have a good start to the game. It’s very difficult when you fall behind that early 2-0 because on a hot day like this you have to put in a lot of energy to come back. We got the one goal, which was important, but then in the second half we got some good chances and we weren’t able to come back, so obviously the start wasn’t what we wanted and falling behind 2-0 made it very difficult to come back. The guys put a lot into the game but we just have to move on now and just focus on the next game, regroup, see where the guys are, and get ready to go on the road.”
 
On if the loss was due to an inexperienced keeper
 
“He wasn’t inexperienced last year when he stepped in and played so I don’t look at it like that. I think it’s a position where you need games and rhythm to play and things that that will happen. We just have to move on.”
 
On the first half of the season and where the team is expected to go
 
“The start [of the season] wasn’t what we wanted, but I think you can see we are right in the mix of things. The team has been playing really well and the results have showed that. Even in a game like today I think we fell behind and sometimes it’s difficult, especially on a hot day like this [to come back]. There are a lot of games left to play and you can see when you put two three games together when you can have some success, and get points, then you are right there in the mix of things and I feel it’s going to come all the way to the end. There’s a lot of games left to play. Obviously this was tough, being at home with a great crowd behind us, but we weren’t going to go undefeated the whole season so we just have to regroup and go on another run like we did.”
 
On giving up goals on second balls and set pieces
 
“I think before the ball goes out we have opportunities to stop plays. [We could] maybe make better decisions with the ball, but when you do give it up everybody has to focus and concentrate and just stick with their assignments. Sometimes in a game, [mistakes] happen, Zusi tries to cross the ball and it goes upper 90. For sure that is an area as a team [we can work on]. It’s always difficult coming back. We talk about it, but now we have to make sure that we do have better starts to games where we don’t fall behind. That’s something we have to keep working on and  talking about. Also [we need to start] going out there with the mentality to start the game from the beginning.”
 
Austin Berry, Chicago Fire defender
 
On allowing set piece goals:
 
“We need to have the mentality of being the first to challenge for the ball and not let it bounce and sticking with your marks – that’s just not for the first ball, but the second ball, too, and clearing it out.  The older guys and leaders need to make sure everyone is ready to go, and I think we were.  We just weren’t tight enough, just not sharp enough for the first 10 minutes.”
 
Paolo Tornaghi, Chicago Fire goalkeeper
 
On why the team has started games so poorly:
 
“That’s the million dollar question, I don’t know.  That’s a tough question to answer.  We come out hoping for a good start and a good result.  In recent games we’re giving up too much in the beginning and trying to comeback.  Last game we did, but of course today it was a lot harder.”
 
On the benefits of playing more:
 
“Today I felt a lot better than I did in the game before.  The game in the beginning I was a little nervous because it had been several games since the last time I played, but now I’m rolling and it will get better game after game.”
 
Mike Magee, Chicago Fire forward
 
On lack time of possession:
 
“I wish I knew why [the Fire had such a small time of possession].  I think we felt the game was tied or we were winning, we were just going to sit back and be content.  Unfortunately we were down 2-1, so it wasn’t a very good game plan.”
 
On coming back from being down two goals:
 
“It’s déjà vu.  We’ve been saying it after every game that eventually it was going to catch up to us.  Obviously tonight it did.”
 
On his All-Star selection:
 
“I’m still fuming over the game today.  Yesterday I really wanted it, but today all I’m thinking about is how badly this loss feels at home in front of our biggest crowd that we’ve had since I’ve been here.  We literally laid down.”
 
Sporting KC Head Coach Peter Vermes
 
Thoughts on the match:
 
“I thought the first half for both teams was really difficult.  There was limited air flow in the stadium.  In the second half the wind picked up and I think it helped both teams a little bit.  The good thing is we scored a goal off a set piece we’ve been working on.  That’s a good thing.  I’m not sure if he was crossing it or shooting it, but it went into the back of the net and we need to get those sometimes.  We shouldn’t have given one up like we did in the 38th minute, but I think it gave them a little life.  I really thought we managed the game in the second half really well.  We were unlucky not to get a third one.”
 
On taking points away from a conference rival:
 
“I think we’re been really good this year in conference so these conference games we realize how important they are to us.  We have to continue to keep doing well against our conference teams.  I don’t know if it’s anything added.  We go about our business with a lot of consistency.  Sometimes you fall out of form a little bit and it all depends on how fast you get back into form.  I think the good thing is the guys are committed to working towards that.”
 
Sporting KC Midfielder Graham Zusi
 
On his goal-whether it was a shot or a cross:
 
“No, it was a cross.  [Jokes that] Benny’s was a cross though.”
 
On the slower pace of the game:
 
“It was tough conditions.  Very humid, very hot.  I think it took us until the second half to catch our wind and get going.  Luckily we got a couple early goals and it makes it a bit easier on yourself.”
 
Sporting KC Midfielder Benny Feilhaber
 
On coming away with a win:
 
“We did well to get a two-goal win early in the game.  Our tactics were a little different, playing away from home against a team like Chicago who has been playing really well the last month or two.  We wanted to draw them out and get the chances on the break.  I think we did well, and we stuck to the game plan.  We were able to hold the result because we were able to play a really good second half as well.”
 
On keeping the Fire off the scoreboard in the second half:
 
“I think we were really good in the second half.  I thought there were a couple moments early in the second half or maybe late in the first half, especially in the first half where we gave up the goal, we sort of turned off for a second and that goal definitely should not have happened.  I thought we played well in the second half, kept the ball.  I think we were the smarter of the two teams in the second half and we deserved three points today.”
 
On getting a win away from home:
 
“It feels good.  Especially against a team that’s been playing so well, probably one of the hottest teams in the league and coming away from home and getting three points is huge for us.”
06 July 8:58 am

The Fire will host Sporting KC on Sunday afternoon at Toyota Park attempting to extend their unbeaten run to double digits after a dramatic five-goal thriller against San Jose midweek while KC comes to Chicago after a disappointing home draw against Vancouver.

Both teams are not on friendly terms and this looks set to be a thriller. Here are some tactical things to look out for.

Limiting the set pieces – Don’t allow Zusi to work his magic

Sporting KC have a double threat on set pieces with a number of players who are very good in the air and they have Graham Zusi, one of the best strikers of a dead ball in MLS.

At the back, Frenchman Aurelien Collin is not only strong but always makes a nuisance of himself in the box. Up front, they’ve benefited from the return of striker Kei Kamara who spent some time with Norwich in the Premier League.

Dan and Kevin talk Sporting KC

TICKETS: Fire vs. Sporting KC

In KC’s last match against Vancouver, Kamara came very close to scoring from headers on multiple occasions not by outmuscling his opponent like Collin does but simply by out jumping them.

Like quite a few teams in MLS, Kansas City also possesses a modified set play – the long throw. Just as Jalil Anibaba deploys the it almost whenever possible for the Fire, SKC center back Matt Besler does the same.

The Fire gave away a silly goal from a set piece last week and better defending will be needed against a team that is well known for their set piece prowess.

Keeping SKC’s attacking wide players at bay – neutralizing Saad and Kamara

Kansas City starts in a 4-3-3 formation with striker Claudio Bieler in the middle with Kei Kamara and Soony Saad supporting him wide. Many teams are so focused (and I don’t blame them) on Bieler and attacking mid Graham Zusi that sometimes Saad and Kamara are overlooked and both players are good at finding space.

Coach Peter Vermes constantly orders the players to switch sides during play which makes picking them up even harder. In Kansas City’s last win against Columbus, Kamara chipped in with two goals, the first coming from a fantastic switch of the field which found Kamara in space that he was able to control and finish.

The attacking nature of Sporting’s outside defenders also gives Kamara and Saad an excuse to get into the middle and support Bieler. There will be some 1v1 battles between Saad and the Fire outside defenders but it will certainly take a team effort to keep the wide men at bay on Sunday afternoon.

Letting the Fire wingers create – creating room for Nyarko and Duka change the game

Anyone who has watched the Fire closely this season will tell you that winger Patrick Nyarko is playing the best the best soccer of his career and if he can overcome the tight hamstring that brought him out early against San Jose and start against KC the Fire have a great chance of winning. 

Athletico Coaching Corner with Mike Matkovich

Nyarko has done it all for the team this year, be it tracking back to win the ball from his opponent, beating a man in a 1v1 situation or combining well with his teammates.

In the midweek win against San Jose, Nyarko did something many critics of the Fire often call out for more of,  getting into the box to support the strikers. Nyarko not only got in but made a great near post run and finished superbly.

The cross provided for the Nyarko goal came from Dilly Duka who is starting to show his true potential. Duka had a goal and an assist in the win against San Jose and could’ve had a few more if not for narrowly missing a few rockets from outside the box.

READ: Will Nyarko be good to go Sunday?

In the past few weeks, Dilly has been a major threat from the wide positions, beating players at will and putting in numerous dangerous crosses. Duka has also got into the box to great effect, scoring two goals in as many matches.

The dual threat of attacking from wide areas as well as providing support in the box should cause the SKC back line some major issues on Sunday afternoon.

Prediction: Fire critics have claimed the club has yet to beat an elite team during the side’s nine-game unbeaten streak but I think those critics will be silenced on Sunday afternoon. 2-1 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex.

06 July 8:11 am

Miss Mike Magee's segment on MLS Insider last night? No fears Fire fans, check out the rather awesome feature around Mike's homecoming to Chicago below, courtesy of MLSsoccer.com:

Check out the full episode with features on the Cascadia Cup and Vancouver's Kekuta Manneh here.

05 July 10:33 am

Soccer in America is still constructing its infrastructure, and we need engineers. People to build the institutions that will support the weight. One of those engineers is here, with us. If you’ve watched a game in a bar in Chicago you probably already know him.

Tall, beer in hand, iconic rockabilly hat - that’s the ubiquitous German Cowboy. His name is Mike Knueppel, and he’s been in Chicago since 2005. You’ll find him often at the far side of the bar in Cleo’s on Chicago, sometimes in the back room, rarely on the patio, but you can always pick him out by his trademark collection of kits, dozens and dozens of them, all with COWBOY 57 on the back.

We were driving to Toyota Park on Wednesday night talking about all those jerseys. I once saw him change from a German kit to an American one at halftime of their friendly in June. How can one support ALL the teams? What happened to loyalty?

“I wear the shirt of who’s playing,” he said. “But mostly if they have a German player.”

This was hard to take. Aren’t we supposed to live and die for a club? That means hating other clubs, wishing harm on strangers in other colors, “You ain’t got no history,” all of that.

But he was saying something different. You watch because, first of all, you want to watch the game. The game is primary. Then, you have your local allegiance. His is German and Hamburger SV (He founded Hamburger SV Supporters Chicago with a few others.) He cares most of all about the German national team and he’s willing to wear shirts of teams he “can live nicely without,” as he says, like Bayern Munich, because of some of their players.

“I even bought a Bayern Munich shirt recently,” he told me. “I mean I really shocked their supporters, they know I don’t like that team, but as a fellow German I support them internationally.”

I said, “This is troubling. You support players as they come and go? They’re moving around constantly. It’s like rooting for mercenaries.”

“I don’t support only the players. That’s why I have COWBOY (or VAQUERO for Real Madrid) on my shirts with my birth year. At least I know that won’t change. But first you support your local club.”

That’s fine too, but the logic breaks down again because what about the organizations with detestable front offices or ownership groups? (I’m thinking about even some of our Chicago teams’ history.) You can’t just support a team willy-nilly.

“It’s true,” he said. “But you have to support your location.”

And Americans supporting European teams in places they may have never even seen in person?

These to me are the tough questions of support and fandom. What exactly are we doing supporting these teams, all over the world? Thankfully, seated in Toyota Park to watch our shared, indisputable, actual home team, we could lay the question aside for 90 minutes or so.

Fun game, too, right? Nice how the rain broke and the night warmed up. Dilly Duka more than deserved the standing ovation he got as he came off in the 87th. The Cowboy and I enjoyed watching him absolutely terrorize Quakes right back Steven Beitashour.

The night was beautiful. Leaving the stadium, I was mumbling about how we fans deserve these nights. Those cold, grinding results early in the season were tough. You could feel the fans’ relief at the result. No disappointment this time. Wednesday night was even better because of the challenge and drama; San Jose wouldn’t die, but the Fire earned the three points with three beautifully worked goals. “They won, that’s all that matters,” the Cowboy said. “Fans love the win.”

There’s a long story for how the Cowboy got to Chicago, a story including four weeks at the Presidential towers in 1987, karaoke, his wife Sharon, the city of Seattle, software programming - it’s a story that he might tell you if you see him at Cleo’s. He’s not afraid to share.

And in some ways, it’s fitting that he’s around. The Cowboy embodies the 21st century globalized soccer paradigm. He can watch his Bundesliga, follow die Mannschaft, and participate in the growth of soccer in America, all from a comfortable neighborhood bar in Chicago. His work developing Cleo’s website and social presence has made it one of the primary soccer locations in Chicago and turned heads nationally. Maybe most importantly, his unofficial freelance soccer ambassadorship has brought people from all over the world together.

You’ll see him meeting with local supporter clubs (some of which he founded himself) like those of Dortmund and Hamburg, as well as Section 8, the Fire, ESPN, and just last week, in the beer garden, you would’ve seen him watching Uruguay and Italy in the Confederations Cup with Hamburg’s senator of the interior and highest ranking police officer.

Ever since he convinced Cleo’s to let him fix up their site and control their Facebook page, and with the blessing and help of Stephen behind the bar, the Cowboy has been our handyman, fixing up games and posting schedules so we can watch American and European soccer at our ease. “I wanted a bar where I know them and they know me and I get there they put the drink on the bar,” he said. “Where I can watch all the games and they’ll open early.”

In other words, it’s not really about the fanaticism of watching games. Going back to our conversation about supporting clubs, it became clear to me that the whole “it’s what’s on the front of the jersey, not the back of the jersey” thing is cheesy and doesn’t apply - just having a jersey is what matters. In this way, the Cowboy is critical in experience-making. He’s not an owner of the bar, or even an employee - he’s one of us. His work setting up games and events at Cleo’s, with just watching the game as the goal, means that there’s less pressure to know esoteric European stadium statistics, or to spew hatred for teams thousands of miles away.

Maybe that’s the answer about why we support who and how. Maybe we just support the game. Watch the game for the game’s sake. Love the game. Talk to people. Drink beer. Amen.

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

04 July 4:27 pm

Part of Fire forward Mike Magee's incredible run of form since joining the Men in Red back on May 25 will be featured in Friday's episode of "MLS Insider" LIVE at 6:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network.

Check out the trailer below: