Blog

MLS Regular Season

06 September 7:58 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 September 7:10 am

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

Taking advantage of speed – hitting Seattle on the counter attack

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

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

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

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

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

WATCH: Anibaba, Segares talk Saturday's match

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

01 September 6:20 pm
Quote Sheet
Chicago Fire vs. Houston Dynamo
Toyota Park – September 1, 2013
 
Frank Klopas, Chicago Fire Head Coach
 
On the game
 
“I thought the guys played well. I think we came out and created a lot of opportunities. It’s a shame we didn’t put the game away. It’s tough the way you lose in the last minute, but that’s how it is sometimes. It’s disappointing. We have to make sure we play all the way to the end. Obviously, this hurts right now dropping these two points at home. We have a tough stretch of three games coming up so all of the points really count. So we have to find a way to pick them up somewhere else.”
 
On the last ten minutes of the game
 
“The team is playing a lot of long balls to put guys in and we knew we had to defend well. We have to be better in possession. That’s the key, if you get the ball and you keep turning it over then they are going to play a long ball. When we did get the ball we had to be better even in transitions from when we did get it to be a little bit better and finish the game. That’s how it goes and we just have to move on.”
 
On the Houston goal
 
“I saw the same thing you saw. We have to defend better and stop the ball, so I saw the same thing you saw.”
 
On taking Alex out of the game
 
“He was tired, he worked very hard. I don’t know if you were watching the same game I was, but he had a good game. He got tired towards the end, so we needed fresh legs in the game. That is why we have a team we have to rely on our players. Unfortunately we dropped those two points at this point of the season where all of the points count. We have to find a way to pick up these two points.”
 
On Houston’s possession
 
“They kept possession and knocked it in the back. We had to be better with our decision making and sometimes taking extra dribbles. They had possession, but we are the ones that created the better chances.”
 
Chris Rolfe, Chicago Fire Forward
 
On the result:
           
“I thought we played well and everybody worked hard.  To give up a goal in the 90th minute is always tough to swallow.”
 
On the offensive chances in the first half:
 
“If you look at Mike and me, we had plenty of chances to put the game away in the first half.  It’s a game of inches and it just hasn’t been going our way a little bit. The defense played well today and stopped a lot of dangerous attacks; they just kind of got worn down.”
 
On the play he received a yellow card caution:
 
“He took a long touch, I saw the ball and thought I could get there, but I’m not a good defender so I fouled him.”
 
On dropping two points:
 
“We’ve got a tough stretch coming up here, especially against Seattle.  But it’s a good time to catch them; I think they are missing a couple of players. It’s still going to be tough, we put a lot into this one – we needed three points and we came away with one.  We need to deal with it and pick up three points somewhere else.”
 
Gonzalo Segares, Chicago Fire Defender
 
On the result:
 
“This one feels like a loss, we had three points in our hands and we let it slip away, it’s definitely tough to swallow.”
 
On the late Houston goal:
 
“We have to be able to manage the game better.  Just a minute before that we were dropping back and holding, we just have to be able to maintain that.”
 
On the last few minutes of the game:
 
“We stopped moving the ball, we couldn’t put two or three passes together and get the ball back, so it was hard for us in the back to move the lines up so we could get back in shape and not just be sitting in the back like how it happened.  It happened in a few games prior to this, teams start pushing to come back and it’s just a matter of us in the back learning how to manage it.  The line needs to move up and the guys in front of us to hold it and give us a breather because for 10 minutes they are coming and coming knocking the door.  A lot of times we are able to hold them off, but today we couldn’t.  We definitely need to learn from it.”
 
On the differences in the first half versus the second half
 
“We had plenty of chances in the first half to be up 2-0 or 3-0 and put them away, but we didn’t.  We let them have a little breather and they came back and tied the game. That’s frustrating because it’s a game that we thought we had three points in our hand.”
 
Jeff Larentowicz, Chicago Fire Midfielder
 
On dropping points at home:
 
“In the end it feels like we lost some points, but it was a tough game and it’s a tough team.  For the remainder of the year we have to look to get max points at home, tonight we let a couple slip.”
 
On the last ten minutes of the game:
 
“They take off midfielders and bring on forwards so there are more guys up front.  They are bigger guys and they launch balls forward. I felt like we dealt with it for the most part until the end when we weren’t getting on after we cleared it and that gave them more space to come back at us.  A guy got free, and it’s not guy you want to leave open in the box.”
 
On the difference between the first and second half:
 
“They changed personnel a little bit.  In the first have we were good, positive and created a lot of chances, but unfortunately we didn’t put them away because I think that if we had it would have been a much different game.  In the second half they’re an experienced team, they bring on guys who know they can try and get points on the road by putting the ball into the box, and they did that.” 
 
Houston Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear
 
On the match:
 
“I thought we started off the game really good.  In the first ten minutes I thought we were excellent.  Obviously some miscues in midfield led to some chances for them and that sort of slowed us down a little bit.  In the second half, I think we got out stuff together, we played a little better and at the end we were just chucking balls in the box, and Cam [Weaver] was getting his head on a few of them.  It was a good heads up play by Corey [Ashe].  It’s a little bit of a mixed bag.  I think it’s a good point, I think we created enough chances to get a goal.  Tally [Hall] made a great save at the end.  It’s tough.  They’re fighting for their playoff lives, we are also.  There’s going to be swings in momentum, but just glad to see the momentum swing back to help get us a goal and a point.”
 
On getting more consistent results:
 
“It’s not just us.  It’s not just walk on the field and win the game.  Sometimes you are playing against very good teams.  The object is to step on the field and play well and win every game, no matter what.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a busy week for us with our Saturday-Wednesday-Sunday coming up, and a big game in Columbus on that Wednesday…so we want to remain consistent.  We want to drive home and reinforce why we’ve been successful and remind ourselves what is not working for us.  If we can put those all together, get the bad out of the way, it makes for a complete performance.”
 
On Eric Brunner’s injury:
 
“He turned his ankle, that’s all I can tell you right now.”
 
Houston Dynamo Midfielder Corey Ashe
 
On his assist:
 
“[The ball] was well struck by [Moffat].  I was trying to push the pace towards the end since we were down a goal and try to capitalize on the fact that some of their guys weren’t being honest defensively so I wanted to take advantage of that and fortunately I saw Moffat at the last second and rolled it back to him and he did the rest.”
 
On the result:
 
“I think a tie was appropriate.  I thought in the first half we were really giving the ball away, we were really out of sync, we were fortunate not to have them score more, but I thought the team showed a lot of effort, a lot of resiliency.  We were able to fight back and get that point.  It’s definitely what you need at this stage of the season.”
 
On feeling the playoff pressure:
 
“A little bit.  I think what everyone around the league knows about this team is that we’re good at finishing the season.  A lot of veterans have been here and done it and this gives us the lift that we need.  Obviously coming off a disappointing loss in Montreal, you take a step kind of in the right direction result-wise, but we know we still have a lot of work to go.  Obviously Columbus is right behind us, so we are at the stage where you can’t be really dropping points.  Chicago is so close to us, the race for the playoffs is so tight, so every game is really important.”
 
Houston Dynamo Midfielder and Captain Brad Davis
 
On the team’s performance:
 
“I thought the beginning of the game was good for us.  I thought we started great, had a real good opportunity there with Will [Bruin] on goal, and I think we had one other decent chance I can remember. I think after the first 15 minutes, once that goal didn’t go in, I think the tables kind of turned a little bit.  They put us under pressure.  They scored a goal on a set piece, and that’s something we need to work on and get tighter.  We’ve allowed too many goals this year on set pieces.  We need a little fire lit under us, came in here at half time and had a good chat, and came out with the right attitude.  I felt that the second half showed a team that is fighting.  Things haven’t necessarily gone the way we’ve liked them to, but we continue to fight and get everything we can.  Today is another example and it shows what we are capable of when we are down and our backs are against the wall.  We have to get something out of it, and we were able to.”
 
Houston Dynamo Midfielder Adam Moffat
 
On his goal:
 
“I saw Corey bringing it, and I made a little extra effort to make a decent run in behind him there and he spotted it and it was a great play by him.  I think I took a touch and a little time, and if I have time like that that close to goal, I’m going to have a crack.  I’m grateful nobody pressured me.  I caught it really nice.”
01 September 5:35 pm

Select shots from the Fire's 1-1 draw with Houston.

 

 

CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire

30 August 8:59 am

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

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

Getting behind the Houston defense – looking for through balls

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

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

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

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

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

PREVIEW: Magee, Nyarko preview Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

LISTEN: Hunter Jumper talks face planting on first career goal

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

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

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

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

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

28 August 3:39 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 August 12:28 pm

If there was ever a game for our schizophrenic 2013 Fire to overcome on what in any other week might have been a highly appealing Friday night home game - this was it.

Squad issues: Hunter Jumper had to replace suspended Bakary Soumare and his calming presence, while new arrivals Arevalo Rios and Juan Luis Anangono are still working to fit neatly into the side.

Opponent: KC, the only team to beat the Fire at Toyota Park in the Mike Magee era, coming to town with Graham Zusi and Teal Bunbury back fit, the team with the most headed goals in MLS against the Fire’s makeshift center back pairing.

Off the field: Coach Frank Klopas was suspended, national headlines off the field, time running out on the playoff race.

And then, like they’ve done time and again this year, the Fire rebounded from a disappointing loss to play up to their potential and not only take all three points, but also show the fans that there’s real quality on this team.

Whereas Rios and Jeff Larentowicz seemed out of rhythm in New England, they matched each other swimmingly on Friday, stepping and dropping, playing each other in tight spaces, and frustrating Benny Feilhaber and the rest.

Whereas wide players created next to nothing in New England, Dilly Duka was a force on the right on Friday. Meanwhile, Alex, who seemed out of place as a substitute deployed wide in New England, picked his runs to the middle of the field with considerable vision on Friday, providing support for Magee and Chris Rolfe up top, pushing counter attacks forward, and getting back to help prevent Zusi’s service on KC’s right side.

So let’s give credit to the squad for playing up to their potential in yet another massive game for the Fire. Let’s also look briefly at the magic of the 4-4-2 formation, that often-mocked old school set up the Fire rely on because Arrigo Sacchi and (occasionally) Sir Alex Ferguson aside, it’s not exactly the formation of kings.

The 4-4-2 is the everyman’s formation, the formation you play in your rec league, the most logical way to cover the field and balance attack with defense. Yet at the top level, it’s fallen out of fashion in the past decade or so thanks to the emergence of the three man midfield, Vicente Del Bosque’s 7-midfielder thing, and the desire to free up superstar players in attacking positions.

But the Fire proved that the 4-4-2 is still a viable formation in the right setting. Unlike complicated, imbalanced, shifting formations, the 4-4-2 is less about creating specific advantages in areas of the field than it is about creating 1v1 situations everywhere. That means it’s about winning individual battles, endeavoring for second balls off 50/50s, and that extra 10-yard sprint.

Of course it has its subtler points: overlapping outside backs, the way Magee dropped deeper once Anangono came on to make it more of a 4-4-1-1, etc. But what we saw on Friday night was a team focused on working hard on and off the ball for the entire game. In that way, Hunter Jumper’s scrappy goal was a perfect game-winner, because all game the Fire were on the ground, reaching balls just an inch before KC player’s could.

The commitment seemed to shoot out from Rios and Larentowicz’s eyes. They were everywhere, covering far more space than two men ought to, sliding around, starting counter attacks, holding the ball, and annoying KC all game.

You could say it’s a weakness of the 4-4-2, that it takes complete self-sacrifice. But you have only to look at the reaction of Rios at the final whistle to see that the pride in exhaustion is always worth it. 

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

24 August 12:32 am
Quote Sheet
Chicago Fire vs. Sporting Kansas City
Toyota Park – August 23, 2013
 
Mike Matkovich, Chicago Fire Assistant Coach
 
On the atmosphere
 
“How about those guys tonight? How about the Fire? They played good, good for them. I’m so happy for the guys. They came out here tonight in a playoff atmosphere.”
 
Patrick Nyarko returned after missing two matches with injury but took a few hard hits. What does the team have to do to protect one of its best players?
 
“The most important thing is we went through the protocol. The league does a very good job, I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s point 1, 2, 3, 4 all these steps they have to take, so the training staff felt he could give us 30 minutes. We knew that going in, and that was the game plan going in there. It’s a game of contact sometimes guys get hit. He will just get better as we go. He took a tough hit at the DC game.”
 
On Hunter Jumper scoring his first career MLS goal
 
“I am just so happy for Hunter, this is his chance. We talked before the game about giving guys opportunities. He played like a veteran tonight. He was focused and we kept things simple for him. What can you say? He has got to be the man of the match in my eyes.”
 
On the shutout
 
“We kept things tight, obviously they hit a crossbar and we had a brick. You know how it is in this game, you take your chances. For the most part we were pretty strong defensively. We kept things simple early in the game and played in their half. There were times where I thought we could’ve played a bit more. It’s hard to find those moments to play. Overall defensively I thought the guys rolled their sleeves up tonight. At halftime we said you know it’s 45 minutes and you have another 45 minutes of the fight.”
 
On overcoming this week’s distractions
 
“Those things happen in this sport. Professionally the guys are focused and that stuff happens off the field. More importantly we are a group and we are focused on the field. We knew what was at stake. Every point is valuable, so we can’t let that stuff distract us right now that we are in the middle of a playoff race. Most important thing is what happens on the field.”
 
On the play of Arevalo Rios
 
“I think he is just going to get better. It is going to take some time for them to figure him out. The guy has played in two World Cups obviously he gives you everything he has. He has leadership, I know he doesn’t speak English but he leads by example and he is such a great guy to have. He is a true professional and comes in here every day and works hard. It’s just a pleasure to have him on the team.”
 
On Anangono being an impact player
 
“Any time a guy comes to a new country and a new environment it’s going to take some time. He had a great shot, but we just have to give him time. The nice thing about the guy is that he didn’t start and came in played his role and helped us win and that’s the most important thing. Sometimes guys come in and are not team guys, but this guy is clearly a team guy. I think he’s going to get better as we go along. There are so many players throughout the world that have changes. Sometimes it takes up to six months. We will be patient, we like what we saw tonight, his goal is coming.
 
Mike Magee, Chicago Fire forward
 
On Hunter Jumper tallying a  goal and assist in only two appearances:
           
“I didn’t see the first game he played in, but you can throw away the goal and defensively tonight he was amazing.  To shutout a team like K.C. is as difficult as it gets and he was fabulous.”
 
On the team playing with a chip on their shoulder:
 
“We’re trying to make the playoffs; we have a big chip on our shoulder right now.  I think that playing at home we need points.  Last week we had a terrible result and this week we are trying to make up for it.”
 
Hunter Jumper, Chicago Fire defender
 
On his goal:
 
“It still hasn’t sunk in yet, but it feels pretty good just because we got the three points.  Going into it we knew it was a really big game.  We looked at it and we were eight points back behind first place and had two games in hand, so three points is huge.”
 
On the shutout and defensive performance:
 
“It was easy out there tonight because communication between the back four and Rios and Larentowicz was unbelievable.  Guys were talking, and when everyone is talking and helping each other out it was easy for me to step in.  Obviously we were going for it and wanted to be better on the ball, but defensively I thought we were sound and weathered the storm.  I thought they had a couple of good chances, but I think we had a couple of good chances as well, especially when Juan [Anangono] came in.  The guy can head the ball, he’s a special player.”
 
On his position change from left back to center back:
 
“I’ve been playing there in practice lately and it’s not the biggest transition, like it would be playing forward to defender.  I definitely appreciate the position a lot more because you don’t realize how much communication you have to have out there.  Last year I thought our defense was incredible – when you have guys like Arne [Friedrich], Austin [Berry] and Baky [Soumare] back there they are natural leaders.  For someone like me, you just have to be open, grow and learn the position.  I just pushed myself and hopefully it won’t be too much of a transition.”
 
Sean Johnson, Chicago Fire goalkeeper
 
On the shutout:
 
“It shows a lot about our team’s character and will.  I think we’ve been okay defensively for the past 11 games or so, but to get a shutout shows and reflects all the hard work we’ve been putting in week in and week out.  I think we deserved it tonight – we fought, we battled and we made plays when we had to and came away with a result.”Sporting KC Head Coach Peter Vermes
 
On the match:
 
“We gave up a very amateur goal early in the first half.  It gave them some life.  We were chasing ever since.  I thought we created more than enough chances to get back in it.  We actually really had some good chances and the frustrating thing is we didn’t score.  That’s really on us.  At the end, you have to score.  That’s what the game is about.  When you don’t score, you’re not going to win.  You’re not going to get back into the game.  Unfortunately, we really needed to put the pressure on and I think we would have scored.  It would have changed the game a little bit for them as well.  They were content with just bunkering down and countering, bunkering, and countering.  They never really built the ball out of the back at all.  They played every ball long from the very get go.  It’s obviously is a much different game.  Anyway, I think we should have scored.”
 
On the upcoming game in Honduras:
 
“We got to do it, right?  After winning the Open Cup last year, that’s the world we are in.  We want to be in the competitions.  It’s exciting for us to be involved in that.  We need to continue to stay in form for the league as well, not just the Champions League.  Good thing is, we have a lot of games left and we have to get back on it quick.”
 
Sporting KC Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen
 
On the having more opportunities to score in the second half:
 
“Yea, I think we did.  I think we started extremely poorly.  We gave up a couple of chances, we gave up a goal.  We were struggling for the first twenty, twenty-five minutes, the last piece of the first half and second half, we did everything we could.  You don’t win games when you don’t score goals.  We created some good chances but we weren’t sharp enough to score with them.”
 
On needing three points to pull ahead of New York:
 
“We should probably not focus on winning our division now and we should focus on making the playoffs now.  Focus on the next point.  The last five points we’ve got five points and we are still in it, which is impressive but the train is going and if you want to be on it, it’s now.”
 
Sporting KC Forward Teal Bunbury
 
On the differences between the first half and the second half:
 
“I felt like we played well in the first half, we were creating a lot of chances but we weren’t putting them in the back of the net.  We had a little mishap and the Fire were able to put it in the back of the net and that’s how they got their goal.  But besides that, I felt like we put them under a lot of pressure and they didn’t have too many chances other than the one they put away.  We had a decent amount and could have done better.  Overall, I felt like we had a really good game, despite not putting goals in the back of the net.”
 
On feeling frustrated not getting the equalizer:
 
“Not really, our mentality is we don’t give up and we just continue.  There’s not a point in the game where we really got frustrated.  Obviously after losing, no one is happy but throughout the whole game I feel like we kept it even keel, didn’t get frustrated, and didn’t show too much emotion.  We were unfortunate not to get a result.”
 
On working towards keeping the team at the top of the conference:
 
“We have a great squad, great team unity.  We have a lot of games coming up, so we are going to forget this game and just move on from it.”