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12 August 8:56 am

In the 87th minute on Saturday night at Toyota Park, the Fire were holding on to a 2-1 lead against Montreal, who were seven points and two playoff positions ahead in the table. Daniel Paladini, who had come on for Alex 25 minutes earlier, set up to take a corner, but there were just two Fire players forward against six or so in blue. Jeff Larentowicz and Quincy Amarikwa were moving around, doing their best to make space, but this was all about the chance to have the ball deep in Montreal’s half and relieve some pressure.

BTL: The Production

Paladini saw Amarikwa a half yard away from his marker at the penalty spot and floated a ball in towards him. Judging from how the ball arrived to Amarikwa at about the height of Montreal center back Hassoun Camara, and considering Camara’s listed at 6-2 and Amarikwa at 5-9, the Fire forward’s insanely acrobatic bicycle attempt got his feet up to a half-foot above his own head.

Even though Amarikwa whiffed, it was one of those athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic moments that can define a soccer game because generally, the team that comes out the most athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic is going to win the games. (Also, Amarikwa made up for the whiff by converting an equally impressive bike in the reserve match on Sunday morning.) It said more, too, that it was a substitute that was making this sort of tone-setting play.

Amarikwa has impressed Fire fans in his cameos this season because of his work rate, willingness to take defenders on, and his creative spontaneity on the ball (even if that means sometimes he holds onto it for a bit too long). Those were exactly the traits the Fire needed to get maximum points at home on Saturday, a critical result that leaves the team now just two points out of a playoff spot. Even though he didn’t have the impact on the game, Amarikwa's work was symbolic of that of the whole team.

In the third game in eight days, with Mike Magee and Chris Rolfe day-to-day, Patrick Nyarko out, Dilly Duka picking up a new knock every game, new DP Juan Luis Anangono acclimating to MLS, Logan Pause coming back from injury, and the pressure for points greater than it’s been all season following Wednesday’s Open Cup exit, the Fire came out on Saturday with a new look to them.

BTL: Fire 2.0 earns key point in Houston

As two deeper lying midfielders, Pause and Larentowicz haven’t found their rhythm together this season, but this time Frank Klopas put them out with Alex (who took the spot when Pause got injured) pushed forward with Anangono. The wide players were the same (Joel Lindpere and Duka), but the seemingly minor adjustment of adding Pause and pushing Alex farther forward actually provided the Fire the first fresh tactical look seen since the spring.

And it was a solid system, too, because it morphed from a 4-5-1 with Alex dropping deeper during periods of Montreal possession, into the usual Fire 4-4-2 when the Fire won the ball, with Alex pushing on into space with Anangono. They worked well together on certain fast breaks; Anangono showed that he’s not afraid to make lung-busting runs to clear out space for others. But as much as the system provided some necessary defensive support without sacrificing the slingshot counterattacking Klopas loves, the game was always going to be decided by the players stepping up into the spaces left by Nyarko, Magee, and Rolfe.

Klopas couldn't have asked for a better response from Lindpere and Duka, the two creative wide players who have fought for their playing time all season, and who scored the two goals. They took their chances (and a bit of luck), but they also held the ball, moved the team forward, tracked back, and generally kept the pace of the game far above the revolting one we saw on Wednesday night.

Saturday night showed the Fire’s depth and flexibility in personnel, tactics, and mindset, and it was Amarikwa’s bike that showed the Fire’s potential for style and spontaneity. If this team is going to complete this massive comeback into playoff contention, it’s as much the creativity as it is the grit that’s going to take them there and it’ll have to come not just from the superstars and leaders, but from everyone on the team. 

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

06 August 8:28 am

At Toyota Park in May, Philly sat back, let the Fire run circles around them like some mean, old dog, then got a seemingly innocuous free kick and suddenly Jack McInerney, in on goal, kicked the team straight in the gut. That game felt like a one-act play, where the characters on stage build to an obvious conclusion, some grotesque act that you know is coming but still shocks and hurts when you see it live.

This Saturday, the Fire went to Philly to continue their climb back into the playoff picture and battled in a Three Act work of considerable drama. Each was punctuated by a goal. Here’s the liner notes, starring Philly and Chicago, two mysterious characters.

Act One, The Set-Up (0-45’)

Kick off. Philly comes out first, Chicago wakes up slowly, stretches arms to the sky, makes coffee, realizes it’s in the middle of a game, and immediately pops into action. Philly, who tried to come out with high and tight pressure, find themselves being passed around in sequences of quick one-twos and flicks, like those that lead to a beautiful first goal, with not even 10 minutes gone.

Philly broadcasters (the chorus), clamor for more “intensity” from the home team. The Fire look comfortable but ominously cannot extend their lead. They start to slow down a bit and Philly enjoy a few minutes of confidence-boosting possession at the end of the half, including a couple of dangerous free kicks. The plot thickens.

Halftime.

Act Two, The Montage (45’-54’)

This short intervening act provides the backbone of the drama. A little character development. Fresh off their orange slices, Philly and Chicago come out ready to party again.

Like Act One, Philly threaten first (Conor Casey flashes a shot just wide of goal two minutes in), but Chicago recovers and takes the upper hand. How predictable is this? Chicago finds space everywhere and kick off a few minutes of possession in the opponent’s half like we haven’t seen all season.

Cue montage and “Danger Zone.” A few not particularly interesting forays forward foreshadow something for Philly, but Chicago cruises.

What can go wrong?

Act Three, The Climax (54-90)

The Montage ends. The motorcycle crashes. Le Toux gets in on Chicago’s right and Sean Johnson makes a kick save. Chicago attacks and Rolfe finds enough space to squeeze a shot off - but Zac MacMath tips it over the bar. Go time. Philly go forward and get their goal with 30 minutes left - so much time for both to fight out the end.

Suddenly Philly is everywhere. Sean Johnson makes an impossible save off a corner. Another is cleared off the line. Chicago is wavering badly, Philly is matching Chicago’s dominance from Act Two.

There is no music. Chicago fights with their inner identity battle between the disappointments early in the year and their confidence to close games. (Mike Magee said after the game, “I think there was a point in the 65th minute where we had been getting pummeled the whole half and we all kind of looked at each other and said this game is there for us to win.”)

Two subs come on in the 67th, as Klopas tries to overturn Philly’s momentum.

And then it happens, the climax. Chicago confronts Philly. They continue pressing. The spirit of fight and persistence embodied in Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko combine with harrowing pressure. Nyarko fights the ball loose from a Philly midfielder and plays in Magee. Magee finishes calmly.

Your girlfriend is crying, but there’s still twenty minutes time! The drama carries over but the game is rarely in doubt. A penalty shout scares the audience, so nobody leaves their seats. Then the violin music. A stoppage time kiss at the sunset. Chicago steals the points.

Curtain.

02 August 7:23 am

The Fire head east to Philly on Saturday night to take on the Union in a critical Eastern Conference clash (LIVE 6:30pm CT on My50). After earning a credible come-from-behind draw in Houston last weekend, the Men in Red will be confident of picking up all three points (and extracting some revenge) at PPL Park.

Here are some things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.

Isolating Jeff Parke – getting behind and in 1v1 situations with the Union defender

Similar to the Fire, individual errors have cost the Union in recent matches and veteran defender Jeff Parke has been the weak link in the Union defense over the past few MLS games.

Though excellent in the air, his positioning errors or slack marking led to numerous chances created for the opposing team. In both matches against Chivas and Houston, Parke was either forced or strayed out of position, leaving room behind him to be exploited.

READ: Duka, Alex look healthy for Philadelphia clash

With the ability of Magee and Rolfe to drop into deeper positions to pick up the ball and thus drag defenders like Parke out of position, the other Fire players must recognize these opportunities when they arise and try and take advantage of them.

Staying with the runners – trying to limit giving up preventable goals

In soccer, there is a major difference between giving up a 30 yard screamer and giving up a tap in because a defender decided to switch off and not follow his runner.

 

WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner

All too often for the Fire this season giving up easy goals and frequently going a goal behind has been the teams M.O.  Fire center back Bakary Soumare has made more than one costly error over the past month, most recently on the Dynamo goal last weekend and the center-back will be looking for a solid performance against his old club on Saturday.

With that being said, the defense as a whole has been guilty of individual errors which has meant that the team’s last clean sheet in league play was nine games ago, twelve if you count all matches. As I have mentioned in previous previews, a clean sheet, especially in an away game, would be a major positive for the Fire.

Against a team with such attacking threats as Philly, a clean sheet would also give the back line confidence heading into the biggest game of the season to date, the U.S. Open Cup Semifinal against D.C. on Wednesday (TICKETS).

Taking advantage of the diamond system – pressuring Philly in their defensive third

The Union usually use a system similar in some ways to the Fire, deploying only one recognized defensive midfielder. In Philly’s case this is stalwart Brian Carroll.

Carroll plays in the “Makelele role,” sitting in front of the back four, breaking up attacks and rarely venturing into the opposing team’s attacking third. In this system, the assumption is that Carroll will not give up possession or be ahead of the ball in his defensive third.

READ: Mike Magee is the cover boy in the latest edition of MLS Overlap

One way to counter this system is to pressure Carroll and the Philly defenders when they have the ball and try and force turnovers in their defensive third.

We all saw how effective this tactic can be on the Fire’s goal last weekend. Patrick Nyarko stole the ball from a Dynamo defender before bursting into the box and crossing to Mike Magee for a tap in finish. A similar turnover on Saturday night could lead to the winning goal for the Fire.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex.

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

26 July 9:09 am

After a confidence boosting 4-1 win over D.C. United at Toyota Park last weekend, the Fire fly south to take on the Houston Dynamo at the fortress that is BBVA Compass Stadium Saturday night (LIVE 8pm CT on NBC Sports / La Ley 107.9 FM). Houston beat Premier League side Stoke City 2-0 at midweek and currently occupy the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a position the Fire is fighting for.

Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Shadowing Andrew Driver – A threat both inside and out

Englishman Andrew Driver has had a stellar debut season in MLS for the Dynamo and his versatility has made him one of the most dangerous wingers in MLS this season.

WATCH: Match Preview: Fire vs. Dynamo

Though naturally left footed, Driver is comfortable playing on either wing and is most dangerous when playing on the right, where he can cut in onto his left foot.

Though not on the level of Brad Davis, Driver’s crossing ability and dead ball prowess gives Houston another dimension and makes the Texas team even more threatening on set pieces.

READ: Fire winger Duka a no-go for Houston

When the ball is on the other side of the field, Driver gets into the box to support the forwards and has chipped in with three goals this season.

He’s also not afraid to come inside and switch positions with withdrawn striker Giles Barnes who played primarily on the wing in England before being converted by Houston coach Dom Kinnear.

Driver’s most recent goal came against D.C. United in May where he won the ball and played it wide to Will Bruin before bursting into the box and receiving a return pass before finishing.

Tracking Driver’s runs when he does cut inside will be key on Saturday night.

How to beat the Houston backline – 1v1s and runs off the ball

In last week’s match against D.C., the Fire forwards, most notably Chris Rolfe, made some brilliant runs off the ball and were found by great penetrating passes from midfield. Both of Rolfe’s goals came from off the ball runs and more of the same will be needed on Saturday.

A weakness of the Houston defense is paying too much attention to the person with the ball and neglecting to pick up the runs from other forwards or midfielders.

In the Dynamo’s last league match against New England, they allowed Diego Fagundez to pass the ball to Chad Barrett at the top of the box and pick up a return pass unmarked in the box. But for some better finishing, the Dynamo would’ve been a goal down.

DOWNLOAD: Chicago Fire Mobile App powered by Cricket Wireless

In the Dynamo’s last league loss against the Red Bulls, the killer second goal came when the Houston defense fixated on Thierry Henry, allowing Johnny Steele to make a run into the box unmarked and the Irishman scored after a simple through ball from Henry.

WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner

Off the ball runs from Rolfe and Mike Magee can open up the Houston defense and it will be up to players like Patrick Nyarko and Joel Lindpere to find the strikers as they did so well last Saturday.

The center midfield battle – who starts for the Fire

In recent weeks, Fire coach Frank Klopas has stuck with the midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Alex to great effect but there are others knocking on the door for a starting spot and Saturday’s match could be the perfect time to make a change.

Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini are back from injury and suspension respectively and I believe one could come into the starting lineup in place of Alex.

Houston are a team that have high-energy midfielders such as Adam Moffatt, Boniek Garcia and Ricardo Clark. All three are not afraid to get forward and this will force the Fire’s two center midfielders to protect the back line.

With the fluidity of players like Giles Barnes, Driver and Garcia to deal with, a player like Pause or Paladini who are more defensive minded than Alex, may be more suited to deal with the flooded midfield.

Against a team like Houston, you must watch for through balls in behind the defense. A player like Logan Pause, who reads the game so well defensively and is constantly intercepting opposition passes, could be a better fit tactically.

Prediction: 1-1 with the Fire goal coming from Chris Rolfe.

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

21 July 1:32 pm

Select shots from the Chicago Fire Season Ticket Holder Meet the Team event.

21 June 9:01 am

If you've paid attention to Victor Pineda's story over the last year, you'll know that just making the U.S. U-20 roster was a challenge.

The Fire's original Homegrown player came close to making his competitive debut at the end of 2012 before a meniscus injury sidelined him through much of this year's preseason.

Ever resilient, Pineda recovered in time to join the U.S. U-20s and will hopefully take the field when Tab Ramos' side opens up the FIFA World Youth Championships Friday vs. Spain in Istanbul, Turkey (LIVE 1pm CT on ESPN2).

Yanks Abroad's Brian Sciaretta wrote this excellent piece on Pineda's road to Turkey.

21 June 7:54 am

The Men in Red extended their unbeaten streak to six games across all competitions on Wednesday night (4-0-2), coming behind to defeat the Colorado Rapids 2-1. Columbus notched a big win against Montreal last time out and face difficult trips to Kansas City and LA after the Saturday’s home game against the Fire.

Here are some things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective in this big match for both teams (LIVE Saturday 6:30pm CT on My50).

The turnover game - both teams will look to pressure each other’s back line

In the Crew’s most recent loss to the Union earlier this month, the Ohio team had major problems retaining possession when put under pressure. The Union forwards, especially Jack McInerny, did not allow Columbus time on the ball and the pressure led to Philly getting on the score sheet.

Johnson, Rolfe Preview Columbus

As we know, players like Mike Magee, Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko are excellent at putting pressure on the opponent’s defense and this will be important on Saturday night.

On the other side of the coin, the Crew like to deploy the high pressure tactic too, with former Fire player Dominic Oduro often hunting down defenders and not allowing them time on the ball.

READ: Berry recovers from blunder with winning goal vs. Rapids

In the Crew's 2-0 win over the Montreal Impact last weekend, Oduro stole the ball from a Montreal defender before slotting home the Crew's second goal in the 22nd minute.

Fire defender Austin Berry had an unfortunate incident in Wednesday's match against Colorado where he was stripped of the ball allowing rookie Deshorn Brown to give Colorado the lead.

In a game that is expected to be very tight, the team making the least mental mistakes could end up on top.

The battle on the left side - Duka/Lindpere vs Anor

Columbus winger Bernardo Anor won many plaudits for his performance against Montreal last week on his first start back from a horrible ACL injury.

The left-footed Venezuelan started on the right against the Impact and will be looking to build on that performance against the Fire Saturday night.

On the same side of the field, coach Frank Klopas will be choosing between former Crew winger Dilly Duka and veteran Joel Lindpere for the start.

Dan and Kevin Talk Crew

Duka played his best game for the Men in Red against Colorado on Wednesday night as he was able to get in 1v1 situations on numerous occasions and earned the penalty that equalized the match.

Lindpere has yet to fully live up to the high expectations put on him by Fire fans after his move from New York this offseason.

With the team in the middle of a 4 games in 11 day stretch, a start for Lindpere seems plausible.

Getting back into the stating XI in a huge Eastern Conference showdown could be the perfect motivation for Lindpere to put in a man of the match performance on Saturday night.

Dominic Oduro - A striker with a point to prove

With seven goals to his name this season, Dominic Oduro has landed on his feet in Columbus after his trade away from the Windy City. Oduro also seems to have developed into a more complete striker since his move.

The speedy Ghanaian’s patience on the ball has resulted in him making better decisions and linking with his midfielders more instead of going alone and trying to score.

What has impressed me about Oduro since the trade is his move away from a reliance on his right foot to a player that is comfortable shooting with both.

READ: The Influence of Jeff Larentowicz

Fire fans will remember Oduro's hot and cold finishing but on his day, he can be unstoppable. The Fire have held Oduro scoreless in two matches already this season but at home, the Ghanaian will be aiming to prove a point and it is up to the Fire defenders to keep him quiet on Saturday night.

Prediction: 2-1 Fire with a brace from midfielder Alex

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

20 June 9:39 am

Earlier Thursday morning I was once again invited back to U.S. Soccer Federation headquarters in downtown Chicago to witness the semifinal round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup coin flips.

Let me be honest, unlike the previous three rounds, Thursday's process was the simplest I've witnessed.

That's because even before showing up at Soccer House on Thursday morning, U.S. Soccer had already confirmed what the potential semifinal pairings would be earlier this week based on geography.

Combine that with all eight quarterfinal teams applying to host the semifinals, literally all that was needed was to flip the famous bicentennial silver dollar twice.

Still, Competition Secretary Paul Marstaller kept things official, handing out the same formatted paper which clearly listed the matchups and assigned heads and tails.

That sheet looked like this:

Heads Tails
D.C. United/New England Revolution Chicago Fire/Orlando City*
Real Salt Lake/Carolina RailHawks* Portland Timbers/FC Dallas

If I can be bold enough to say, every time the Fire have come up in a coin flip, I honestly get this strange excitement in my stomach. The feeling of a simple coin going a long way to deciding your team's tournament fate is a thrilling, if not brief emotion.

TICKETS: Chicago Fire vs. Orlando City Quarterfinal on June 26

Luckily for the Fire, the first coin flip landed tails, meaning the winner of next Wednesday's game vs. Orlando City will host the winnder of D.C. United/New England on August 7. This is the third straight flip the Fire have won after losing the initial third round flip to the Charlotte Eagles.

In the second flip, the coin came up heads, meaning the winner of Real Salt Lake/Carolina RailHawks will host the winner of Portland/FC Dallas. The flip was the fourth consecutive win for RSL in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup.

And that was it.

Only one coin flip remains and that's for the final which will be played in early October. I'm told that will go down at some point in July.

All intentions to host the final were due along with intentions for the semifinal on Wednesday, though U.S. Soccer will likely not make that list public until the final coin flips occur.

I can confirm the Chicago Fire have applied to host the 2013 U.S. Open Cup final.

Earlier 2013 Open Cup Coin Flips:

- Quarterfinals
- Fourth Round
- Third Round

18 June 11:44 am

After a rousing comeback against Portland last time out in the league, the Fire start a busy period Wednesday night against a tricky Colorado Rapids team (LIVE 7pm CT on My50) who just their six-game unbeaten streak snapped at the weekend by San Jose Earthquakes. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective:

Exposing the Rapids center backs: targeting Drew Moor and Marvell Wynne

Colorado's usual starting pair at the center of the defense is Shane O'Neill and Drew Moor but with the Irish-born youngster in Turkey with the US U-20 team, right back Marvell Wynne has slotted into the middle.

FIRE vs. RAPIDS: Tickets Still Available

Against San Jose last week, this pairing had a lot of trouble, especially when the Quakes attacking players separated and isolated the center backs.

The movement of Rolfe and Magee, both very mobile strikers, could open up the Colorado defense. If the Fire’s attacking pair can draw Moor/Wynne out, it can lead to space being created behind them, something San Jose did well last weekend.

Keeping an eye on Deshorn Brown - the rookie has 4 assists this season

Similar to my thoughts a few weeks ago about D.C. rookie Kyle Porter, Deshorn Brown has caught my eye for Colorado this season.

Playing on the left of a front three he’s dangerous and a good supplier of the ball for striker Edson Buddle. Much of Colorado's chances in the past few matches have come from Brown’s side.

Larentowicz, Duka Preview Colorado

The Rapids will be without Atiba Harris after his red against San Jose last week which puts even more emphasis on Brown to step up in the Kittitian’s absence.

Right-sided players Jalil Anibaba and Patrick Nyarko will need to be very wary of the rookie on Wednesday night.

Fire squad rotation - my case in for it

The Men in Red have a tough stretch of 4 games in 11 days and it would be very demanding on the players to try and stick with the same starting XI for all four because of a risk of burnout.

A more likely approach would be one of steady and not drastic rotation meaning making a few changes each match and not starting a completely different team. This is of course assuming the team doesn't pick up any injuries or suspensions during this stretch.

READ: Nyarko says next eight day stretch is "crunch time"

Giving a few players a break Wednesday night with one eye on the tough away Eastern Conference match against Columbus on Saturday might be a worthwhile policy for head coach Frank Klopas.

Fire squad rotation - my case against

Something fans have criticized coach Klopas for is sticking to a regular starting XI and not making too many changes from game to game.

That being said, the team is currently unbeaten in four games and if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The last 20 minutes against Portland last weekend was the team’s best spell all season and if they can continue that form the next few weeks could see us in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals and moving closer to the MLS Cup playoff positions in the East.

With the back line finally stable and the Mike Magee/Chris Rolfe partnership starting to really gel, there is a strong case for coach Klopas to stick with the same XI during this run of games.

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

06 June 7:32 am

The digital age we live in doesn't always allow for some nice, long-form journalism to take place. 

Still, we've decided to buck that trend and are excited to show a sneak peak of the club's first-ever digital magazine, FireSide, set to be released next week on the internet, tablets and your mobile devices.

Check out some of the screenshots below...