Blog

MLS Regular Season

11 September 10:52 pm
Quote Sheet
Chicago Fire at Toronto FC
BMO Field – Sept. 11, 2013
 
Frank Klopas, Chicago Fire Head Coach
 
Thoughts on your team’s performance in the past two games
 
“I think against Seattle we played well.  It’s unfortunate to drop points.  I thought we started the game really well, we got the goal but a silly play, a mistake, and they got momentum and we allowed them back into the game a little bit and it became difficult.  We were not able to get on the ball and calm the game down a little bit and it became a little bit more of an up and down game.  I thought we had opportunities to dictate the tempo better and hold the ball and then we just forced it.  In the second half it was wide open a little bit.  The last ten minutes I thought, with the changes, we got into the game and had some opportunities, we pushed the game.  We knew that out of the two games that we needed points.  Saturday is going to be a big one – we need to get the three points at home.”
 
How concerned are you with the team’s inability to finish games when you have the lead?
 
“You got to get the second goal in this league – it’s crucial.  That is what we talk about all the time.  I think in Seattle we didn’t have very many chances in the second half. I think tonight we had a couple we just got to find a way to get that second goal because then you can put teams away.  I think we do create chances but we got to find a way to get that second goal and just limit our mistakes late.”
 
Do you still feel like your team’s playoff destiny is in your hands?
 
“Yes, for sure.  With the slow start we had I think we made up a lot of ground.  Right now we are right there.  With this league, we just want to be in a position where we are playing in the post season.  It’s great if you can be in first but we want to put ourselves in a spot where we can play for something and we are right there.  It really is in our hands.  We are just going to have to regroup and get ready for a big game Saturday because then you get three points there and we are right there.”
 
Dilly Duka, Chicago Fire Midfielder
 
Thoughts on your goal
 
“Well I received the ball in the midfield, was driving a bit.  I noticed that Mike (Magee) was going to make run at the time so I just tried to chip it in there.  I got it in there I was a little fortunate that it bounced by the keeper and Mike and it went in.  There was nothing to it, we all saw what happened.”
 
On the play of Toronto FC in the second half
 
“I think we put all the pressure in the first twenty, we got a goal, and then we stopped.  If you let a team play they are going to play and they came back and scored a quick one right after and we were on our heels for the rest of the half.  These games matter, especially if we are going to make it into the playoffs.  We are going to need more energy.”
 
Psychologically, how tough are these games?
 
“It’s tough but we’ve got to try and look at the positives in those games and build.  We just got to keep our guys healthy and look for the next one.  It hasn’t been an easy stretch, we’ve played some good teams.  And even though Toronto is at the bottom of the table they still compete with the best of them.  We have a home game against New England, they are a good team and we just got to have energy for 90 minutes and keep it positive.”
 
Mike Magee, Chicago Fire Forward
 
Psychologically, how tough are these games?
 
“It’s been frustrating over the last stretch of games.  It feels like every game we have the inability to score two goals and the inability to get a shutout.  Playoff teams get shutouts and playoff teams put teams away so we’re not doing it on either end.  It’s a lot of bad feelings after games to say the least.”
 
How would you assess how you guys played today?
 
“It’s not good enough.  Like I said, we score a goal and we kind of go back into our shell which has been a reoccurring theme with us.  We tend to get up a goal, and we play, well and then we don’t know how to manage it.  We create some chances and don’t put teams away.  Like I said we are in a frustrating stretch right now but at the end of the day we are one point out of a playoff spot so we can’t keep our heads down even though that is the feeling.”
11 September 9:16 am

After dropping points late for the second week in a row, the Fire head north to Toronto to play their game in hand against TFC Wednesday night knowing that a win would springboard the Club into a Playoff position (6:30pm CT on My50). TFC were also beaten in the Pacific Northwest last weekend, 4-0 by Portland. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Controlling possession while being wary of TFC’s high pressure

In recent matches, TFC have focused on pressuring their opponent high up the field in an attempt to turn the ball over and/or force the team to play long ball or go back to the goalkeeper. This tactic can work very well but it also has the result of drawing your players out of position in an attempt to put pressure on the opponent.

Last week New England showed the most effective way of countering that tactic, namely by playing neat, one touch soccer and playing through the pressure. When looking at the possession stats, the Fire aren’t one of the most dominant teams in that category, averaging 43% over their past three games but against a team like Toronto, this can be rectified.

READ: Gonzalo Segares talks how MLS Results can be Razor Thin

The Men in Red certainly possess players comfortable playing a one touch, possession brand of soccer and must not be forced into giving the ball away needlessly or kicking the ball long due to the pressure by the TFC attacking players.

I look for the team not to be wasteful in possession on Wednesday night and to play themselves out of pressure whenever possible.

Changes in the attack? Injuries may force a shakeup on Wednesday night

WATCH: Larentowicz, Nyarko preview TFC

With top goal scorer and talisman Mike Magee subbed off at halftime as an injury precaution and the team playing
two games this week, it remains to be seen whether he will go the full 90 tonight in Toronto. With this in mind, Fire coach Frank Klopas has a number of ways he can tinker the side.

One obvious choice would be to bring in Juan Luis Anangono in attack as a direct replacement for Magee, while Patrick Nyarko and Quincy Amarikwa can also play in the forward role. A second and more likely option would be to see Nyarko come in on the wing and Alex play up front with Chris Rolfe.

As Kevin Egan pointed out in the latest edition of “The Centerback,” the front four of Alex, Rolfe, Magee and Duka combined extremely well against Seattle and bringing another pacey player like Nyarko into the mix makes sense.

Toronto’s defenders are not the fastest, and the movement and speed of the New England and Portland attacking players caused TFC a lot of problems in the last two matches.  If Magee is not deemed fit enough to start, who better to bring on later in the game if the Fire need to bag a winner than the second top goal scorer in MLS this season?

Keeping an eye on Reggie Lambe – a powerful wide player

Though statistically Reggie Lambe isn’t having the best of years for Toronto, he has played well in TFC’s last few matches and will be a threat on Wednesday evening.

In TFC’s recent tie with D.C., Lambe switched wings with Bobby Convey and the move worked, crossing for Convey who finished neatly for TFC's lone goal in that match.

In TFC’s last home game against New England, the Canadians started with only Robert Earnshaw up front, but Lambe often drifted inside to support the striker. Lambe also plays a part in TFC’s high pressure style of play, trying to close down the opposition as quickly as possible when they have the ball.

WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner

It is important that the Fire neutralize Lambe and limit the amount of crosses he is able to send into the box for players like Earnshaw and Andrew Wiedeman.

Prediction: The Fire get what they came to Toronto looking for: 3 points with a 2 nil victory. Goals from Patrick Nyarko and Gonzalo Segares.

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

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. 

08 September 1:57 am
Quote Sheet
Chicago Fire at Seattle Sounders FC
CenturyLink Field – September 7, 2013
 
Frank Klopas, Chicago Fire Head Coach
 
On the outcome of the game
 
“I felt the team played well - played really well - and definitely deserved to walk away with points from here but that’s not how it goes sometimes, so we have to regroup. I think [we can] learn from some little things that we could do better and just regroup fast because we have to move on to the next game in Toronto. There’s a lot of games coming up and we just have to move on.”
 
On the own goal
 
“It happens.You’re running behind sometimes, the ball comes [...] those things happen. I just felt, I think, that the team put a lot into the game. We had some very good moments, created chances, and it’s a little disappointing right now not to walk away with points, but that’s how it is. We have to regroup and like I said just get ready for the next game now.”
 
On why Mike Magee did not play in the second half
 
“He had a groin situation, you know. With the amount of games coming up, and being on turf this game and stuff […] He tweaked it a little […] It could have been worse. He came out, hopefully we got it in time and hopefully he’ll be ready for Wednesday.”
 
On his game plan for the second half
 
“Obviously we talked about that in transition and just trying to be positive. We wanted the ball back, looked to play forward, even after dribble, look to go at them right away. We wanted to make sure we switched the point of attack always because they’re pretty compact and they over-rotate and spaces would be out wide. And when it wasn’t on, just making sure that we were good with the ball, just keeping it and making sure that the guys were moving off the ball and giving options for the guy with it. So, basically that’s it. Being on the road, and in a place like this, it’s never easy. I thought they played well. You feel for the group because they put a lot into the game but I think it’s going to make us better for the next one. We just have to move on and be ready for Wednesday now.”
 
On Magee’s goal
 
 “The whole combo, the play was fantastic. Dilly [Duka] coming inside, playing the through ball. We had some very good moments where we were able to combine and play. I think when we started the game and we played to feet and we had good movement off the ball, we were very dangerous. And we scored a great goal.”
 
On inserting Daniel Paladini late in the match
 
“I just think Chris ran hard and we needed some fresh legs at that point. Danny coming in, I think provided that, because I just felt we needed some fresh legs late in the game, with seven minutes left.”
 
On Lamar Neagle’s goal
 
“I think with that, anything that comes in the box […] I think the position was good. I think it’s more from the baseline. I think you have to be aware of where the ball is, both references and see the movement of the players. Sometimes the ball just pops right there, the guy was in a good position and he scored. It’s going to happen, you know?”
 
On the team’s tendency to give up late goals
 
“It comes down to little things, details. I think if we score the second goal, it’s different. Maybe we walk away. We had the chances, we didn’t. I feel like sometimes things will happen in a game like that.”
 
Sean Johnson, Chicago Fire Goalkeeper
 
On the game
 
“I thought it was hard fought. I thought we played actually a really good game.  I was proud of the guys, we really battled.  I thought over the course of 90 minutes—Seattle’s not an easy place to play—we made it difficult for them.  I think they were fortunate to come away with a victory at the end.  I think we deserved at least a point out of that game.  It’s a bit unfortunate for us given the way that we played on the night but it’s just one of those things.  We have to regroup and refocus and get ready for Toronto on Wednesday.  It’s going to be a short week for us so the good thing is we get back on the training pitch and we have another game in a few days and we’re able to get back to it.”
 
On the penalty kick save
 
“I was just trying to make a play and save it.  It’s just one of those things where you get in there and you try to react and make a good decision.  I think you can do one of two things—you can make your mind up or try to read and react and I just did the best I could to save a PK.”
 
On the own goal
 
“It just happened in the course of the game.”
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.

 

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.

 

03 September 9:48 am

After an interesting weekend of results, no teams actually changed spots in the Eastern Conference standings, though the group at the top all sit tied on points. Down below, Philadelphia and New England each held serve in spots four and five with weekend draws while the Fire missed a chance to leapfrog Houston with their home tie on Sunday.

The breakdown:

1) Montreal Impact

Current Points: 42 (12-7-6)
Games Remaining: 9 (4 home/ 5 away)
Last 5 Games: DWWLL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-1-3 / 3-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 69
Average Opponents Pts: 35.1
Remaining Schedule:  9/8 @ NE, 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: Despite their top spot in the conference, Montreal has had an abysmal road record vs. the East (1-6-2) so while they could have taken a big step over the weekend, perhaps a 0-0 draw at Philadelphia was them punching above their weight. September will be make or break time for the Impact as the team will play six competitive matches in a span of 20 days. If they hope to advance out of their Champions League group, they’ll likely need to win one of their two remaining games. meaning squad rotation will be prudent through the end of the month.

The Impact will hope to improve their Eastern Conference road record with another away trip to New England on Sunday.

2) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 42 (12-9-6)
Games Remaining: 7 (4 home / 3 away)
Last 5 Games: WLDLW (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-2-3 / 4-7-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 35
Remaining Schedule: 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: Red Bull did exactly what they had to do, downing MLS bottom dwellers D.C. United 2-1 at home Saturday night. With four of their remaining seven matches at home and no Champions League to worry about, if they win their games at Red Bull Arena, they should have no issue making their way to a postseason appearance. What they do with their away games should determine their positioning.

New York faces a six-pointer away to Houston on Sunday. Win and potentially distance yourself from the pack, lose and things will begin to get interesting.

3) Sporting KC
Current Points: 39 (12-9-6)
Games Remaining: 7 (3 home / 4 away)
Last 5: WLLWL (6pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-4-3 / 5-5-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 63
Average Opponents Pts: 29.9
Remaining Schedule: 9/7 vs. CLB, 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: Like New York, Sporting KC did the business with a 2-1 win over Colorado Saturday. Already with six points in their two Champions League matches, Sporting likely needs just two points from their remaining matches to win the group and have a lighter league schedule than fell CCLers Montreal and Houston. Two matches with Columbus and one each vs. Toronto and D.C. should see Sporting easily clinch and could help push them towards the top spot by the end of October.

This weekend, Sporting face a Columbus side that lost at home to 10-man Seattle on Saturday, fired their coach Monday and will face Houston at home Wednesday. If the Crew lose to the Dynamo, they’ll be all but eliminated from playoff contention, making KC’s home encounter even easier.

4) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 39 (10-8-9)
Games Remaining: 7 (3 home  / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: DLDWL (4pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-3-5 / 4-5-4
Maximum Possible Points: 60
Average Opponents Pts: 33.3
Remaining Schedule: 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: Three points at home Saturday would have seen Philly move to within one of first in the East but a draw against Montreal keeps them all on their lonesome in fourth place. With seven games remaining, the Union have a mixed type of schedule, facing Toronto FC and D.C. in back-to-back weeks in October but also with a games against Houston and Montreal and two matches against Sporting.

A west coast trip to San Jose, where the Earthquakes have dropped just one game this season (8-1-4) looms large this week, with a loss likely pushing the Union back down to the East bubble.

5) New England Revolution
Current Points: 37 (10-9-7)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: DWWLL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 6-4-3 / 4-5-4
Maximum Possible Points: 61
Average Opponents Pts: 33.75
Remaining Schedule: 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: Perhaps no team controls their own destiny like the Revolution. With eight games left, the Revs has an even split of four home and four away but perhaps more interesting is that five of their next six matches are against Eastern Conference foes that sit in the Top 7 positions. Should they be able to navigate well through those matches, their home and home with Columbus to end the season could be all about positioning.

New England needs to take advantage of Montreal’s poor road form Saturday to climb up the table.

6) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 37 (10-8-7)
Games Remaining: 9 (5 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: DLWLW (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-2-3 / 3-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 64
Average Opponents Pts: 34.3
Remaining Schedule: 9/4 @ CLB, 9/8 vs. NY, 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: Much like New England, Houston faces a number of teams they’re battling for playoff positioning with over the next month and like Montreal and Sporting KC, also need to balance Champions League play. The Dynamo will be favorites to take three points on the road at Columbus Wednesday but will close out a seven game/22-day stretch at home Saturday to New York. Houston holds fate in their own hands but balancing Champions League with games against conference foes will be the key to their postseason push.

Simple enough: Win at home, draw on the road, they should be in.

7) Chicago Fire

Current Points: 35 (10-10-5)
Games Remaining: 9 (3 home / 6 away)
Last 5 Games: DWLWW (10pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 8-4-2 / 2-6-3
Maximum Possible Pts: 62
Average Opponents Pts: 31.7
Remaining Schedule: 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: Sunday’s late 1-1 draw at home to Houston was no doubt a gut punch but the Fire are far from out of the playoff race.

The Good News: The team continues to have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the East with two games against Toronto and one each against Columbus and D.C.

The Bad News: Only three of nine remaining matches are at home and the Fire’s road record is towards the bottom in the conference.

And even though the Fire have never beaten Seattle and failed to win on turf since 2010, they have a real chance to take three points away to the Sounders with the home side missing Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Brad Evans, Leo Gonzalez on Saturday night.

Four to six points in the team’s next two away matches (remember Toronto FC on September 11) will set them up well for a return home vs. New England on September 14. Twice this season the Fire have had the chance to leap into fifth place and failed, mid-September should be a target date for them to AT LEAST be there.

8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 29 (8-13-5)
Games Remaining: 8 (4 home / 4 away)
Last 5 Games: LLWWL (6pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 5-5-3 / 3-8-2
Maximum Possible Points: 53
Average Opponents Pts: 38.6
Remaining Schedule: 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: If Sunday’s draw to Houston was a gut punch for the Fire, I’m not sure what to call the Crew’s 1-0 home defeat to 10-man Seattle on Saturday.

Still, Columbus have a small shot at the playoffs and their coaching change Monday makes things a bit more interesting. Keep in mind that seven of their eight remaining matches come against teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture but should they lose midweek to Houston, the weekend trip to Sporting KC could kill whatever hope they have left.