MLS Regular Season
In the 87th minute on Saturday night at Toyota Park, the Fire were holding on to a 2-1 lead against Montreal, who were seven points and two playoff positions ahead in the table. Daniel Paladini, who had come on for Alex 25 minutes earlier, set up to take a corner, but there were just two Fire players forward against six or so in blue. Jeff Larentowicz and Quincy Amarikwa were moving around, doing their best to make space, but this was all about the chance to have the ball deep in Montreal’s half and relieve some pressure.
Paladini saw Amarikwa a half yard away from his marker at the penalty spot and floated a ball in towards him. Judging from how the ball arrived to Amarikwa at about the height of Montreal center back Hassoun Camara, and considering Camara’s listed at 6-2 and Amarikwa at 5-9, the Fire forward’s insanely acrobatic bicycle attempt got his feet up to a half-foot above his own head.
Even though Amarikwa whiffed, it was one of those athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic moments that can define a soccer game because generally, the team that comes out the most athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic is going to win the games. (Also, Amarikwa made up for the whiff by converting an equally impressive bike in the reserve match on Sunday morning.) It said more, too, that it was a substitute that was making this sort of tone-setting play.
Amarikwa has impressed Fire fans in his cameos this season because of his work rate, willingness to take defenders on, and his creative spontaneity on the ball (even if that means sometimes he holds onto it for a bit too long). Those were exactly the traits the Fire needed to get maximum points at home on Saturday, a critical result that leaves the team now just two points out of a playoff spot. Even though he didn’t have the impact on the game, Amarikwa's work was symbolic of that of the whole team.
In the third game in eight days, with Mike Magee and Chris Rolfe day-to-day, Patrick Nyarko out, Dilly Duka picking up a new knock every game, new DP Juan Luis Anangono acclimating to MLS, Logan Pause coming back from injury, and the pressure for points greater than it’s been all season following Wednesday’s Open Cup exit, the Fire came out on Saturday with a new look to them.
As two deeper lying midfielders, Pause and Larentowicz haven’t found their rhythm together this season, but this time Frank Klopas put them out with Alex (who took the spot when Pause got injured) pushed forward with Anangono. The wide players were the same (Joel Lindpere and Duka), but the seemingly minor adjustment of adding Pause and pushing Alex farther forward actually provided the Fire the first fresh tactical look seen since the spring.
And it was a solid system, too, because it morphed from a 4-5-1 with Alex dropping deeper during periods of Montreal possession, into the usual Fire 4-4-2 when the Fire won the ball, with Alex pushing on into space with Anangono. They worked well together on certain fast breaks; Anangono showed that he’s not afraid to make lung-busting runs to clear out space for others. But as much as the system provided some necessary defensive support without sacrificing the slingshot counterattacking Klopas loves, the game was always going to be decided by the players stepping up into the spaces left by Nyarko, Magee, and Rolfe.
Klopas couldn't have asked for a better response from Lindpere and Duka, the two creative wide players who have fought for their playing time all season, and who scored the two goals. They took their chances (and a bit of luck), but they also held the ball, moved the team forward, tracked back, and generally kept the pace of the game far above the revolting one we saw on Wednesday night.
Saturday night showed the Fire’s depth and flexibility in personnel, tactics, and mindset, and it was Amarikwa’s bike that showed the Fire’s potential for style and spontaneity. If this team is going to complete this massive comeback into playoff contention, it’s as much the creativity as it is the grit that’s going to take them there and it’ll have to come not just from the superstars and leaders, but from everyone on the team.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
On the match:
Select shots from the Fire's 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact
CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire
After a lackluster performance in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss earlier this week, the Fire must pick themselves up for Saturday’s crucial Eastern Conference match against Montreal on Saturday evening at Toyota Park (LIVE 7pm CT on My50). The Impact are still sitting pretty in third place in the East and also played at midweek, beating San Jose 1-0 in CONCACAF Champions League play.
Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Starting stronger – better tempo from the Fire
Jeff Larentowicz summed up the game against D.C. well when asked how it compared to the 4-1 loss against the same opponent just weeks ago. He astutely observed, “The difference between this game and the last time we played them is that we scored early.”
This might sound overly simplistic, but an early goal and a good start is extremely important.
In Wednesday’s match, the team were positive in the opening exchanges but then allowed D.C. to set the tempo. Against Montreal this weekend, the Fire must come out of the gates quickly and play a very high-tempo game.
In Montreal’s last game against D.C., the Red and Black had a very good opening 30 minutes and created a lot of chances. D.C.’s high-tempo start clearly caught Montreal off guard and it took the Canadian team a while to find their rhythm.
The Fire had a great start against Philly last weekend, scoring in the ninth minute. A repeat of that could put the Fire on course to picking up three more precious points Saturday night.
Attacking Montreal on the outside – wide play important
Against D.C. last weekend, Montreal looked vulnerable in the wide areas, especially when United got their wingbacks forward.
WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner
The Fire are very good at allowing Gonzalo Segares and Jalil Anibaba to get forward and help in the attack, especially at home. I look for this to happen as often as possible against the Impact.
The advancement of the wing-backs also allows the Fire wingers to come into the middle and provide support to the strikers.
With the potential absence to Patrick Nyarko after Wednesday’s head injury, the team will be relying on Joel Lindpere and Dilly Duka to have big games Saturday night.
Keeping an eye on Justin Mapp – former Fire player finding his groove in Canada
Like Dominic Oduro, many Chicago Fire fans are torn over former winger Justin Mapp. He is certainly one of the most frustrating players to ever wear the badge but his skill and talent was there for all to see.
After leaving the Fire, Mapp had two quiet years in Philly but has flourished in Montreal’s 4-3-3 system, playing in one of the advanced wide positions, tallying two goals and four assists for the Impact this season.
Mapp is comfortable on both wings and is a very good crosser of the ball. He also likes to cut inside from the wing and combine with Patrice Bernier, Davy Arnaud and Felipe.
Though he might not be the fastest player on the field, Mapp is also very dangerous in the open field, often starting counter attacks for the Impact or looking for through balls to Marco Di Vaio.
Fire fans will also remember that the 28-year-old is very good in 1v1 situations and it will be up to players like Alex and Larentowicz to support the outside defenders and double team him whenever possible.
Mapp is not a physical player and can sometimes be “kicked” out of a game. Limiting the amount of time he has on the ball will be important for the Fire and a physical approach might be the answer.
Prediction: 1-0 Fire with a goal from Joel Lindpere.
At Toyota Park in May, Philly sat back, let the Fire run circles around them like some mean, old dog, then got a seemingly innocuous free kick and suddenly Jack McInerney, in on goal, kicked the team straight in the gut. That game felt like a one-act play, where the characters on stage build to an obvious conclusion, some grotesque act that you know is coming but still shocks and hurts when you see it live.
This Saturday, the Fire went to Philly to continue their climb back into the playoff picture and battled in a Three Act work of considerable drama. Each was punctuated by a goal. Here’s the liner notes, starring Philly and Chicago, two mysterious characters.
Act One, The Set-Up (0-45’)
Kick off. Philly comes out first, Chicago wakes up slowly, stretches arms to the sky, makes coffee, realizes it’s in the middle of a game, and immediately pops into action. Philly, who tried to come out with high and tight pressure, find themselves being passed around in sequences of quick one-twos and flicks, like those that lead to a beautiful first goal, with not even 10 minutes gone.
Philly broadcasters (the chorus), clamor for more “intensity” from the home team. The Fire look comfortable but ominously cannot extend their lead. They start to slow down a bit and Philly enjoy a few minutes of confidence-boosting possession at the end of the half, including a couple of dangerous free kicks. The plot thickens.
Act Two, The Montage (45’-54’)
This short intervening act provides the backbone of the drama. A little character development. Fresh off their orange slices, Philly and Chicago come out ready to party again.
Like Act One, Philly threaten first (Conor Casey flashes a shot just wide of goal two minutes in), but Chicago recovers and takes the upper hand. How predictable is this? Chicago finds space everywhere and kick off a few minutes of possession in the opponent’s half like we haven’t seen all season.
Cue montage and “Danger Zone.” A few not particularly interesting forays forward foreshadow something for Philly, but Chicago cruises.
What can go wrong?
Act Three, The Climax (54-90)
The Montage ends. The motorcycle crashes. Le Toux gets in on Chicago’s right and Sean Johnson makes a kick save. Chicago attacks and Rolfe finds enough space to squeeze a shot off - but Zac MacMath tips it over the bar. Go time. Philly go forward and get their goal with 30 minutes left - so much time for both to fight out the end.
Suddenly Philly is everywhere. Sean Johnson makes an impossible save off a corner. Another is cleared off the line. Chicago is wavering badly, Philly is matching Chicago’s dominance from Act Two.
There is no music. Chicago fights with their inner identity battle between the disappointments early in the year and their confidence to close games. (Mike Magee said after the game, “I think there was a point in the 65th minute where we had been getting pummeled the whole half and we all kind of looked at each other and said this game is there for us to win.”)
Two subs come on in the 67th, as Klopas tries to overturn Philly’s momentum.
And then it happens, the climax. Chicago confronts Philly. They continue pressing. The spirit of fight and persistence embodied in Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko combine with harrowing pressure. Nyarko fights the ball loose from a Philly midfielder and plays in Magee. Magee finishes calmly.
Your girlfriend is crying, but there’s still twenty minutes time! The drama carries over but the game is rarely in doubt. A penalty shout scares the audience, so nobody leaves their seats. Then the violin music. A stoppage time kiss at the sunset. Chicago steals the points.
Select shots from the Fire's 2-1 win over the Union
SOURCE: USA Today Sports Images
The Fire head east to Philly on Saturday night to take on the Union in a critical Eastern Conference clash (LIVE 6:30pm CT on My50). After earning a credible come-from-behind draw in Houston last weekend, the Men in Red will be confident of picking up all three points (and extracting some revenge) at PPL Park.
Here are some things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.
Isolating Jeff Parke – getting behind and in 1v1 situations with the Union defender
Similar to the Fire, individual errors have cost the Union in recent matches and veteran defender Jeff Parke has been the weak link in the Union defense over the past few MLS games.
Though excellent in the air, his positioning errors or slack marking led to numerous chances created for the opposing team. In both matches against Chivas and Houston, Parke was either forced or strayed out of position, leaving room behind him to be exploited.
With the ability of Magee and Rolfe to drop into deeper positions to pick up the ball and thus drag defenders like Parke out of position, the other Fire players must recognize these opportunities when they arise and try and take advantage of them.
Staying with the runners – trying to limit giving up preventable goals
In soccer, there is a major difference between giving up a 30 yard screamer and giving up a tap in because a defender decided to switch off and not follow his runner.
WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner
All too often for the Fire this season giving up easy goals and frequently going a goal behind has been the teams M.O. Fire center back Bakary Soumare has made more than one costly error over the past month, most recently on the Dynamo goal last weekend and the center-back will be looking for a solid performance against his old club on Saturday.
With that being said, the defense as a whole has been guilty of individual errors which has meant that the team’s last clean sheet in league play was nine games ago, twelve if you count all matches. As I have mentioned in previous previews, a clean sheet, especially in an away game, would be a major positive for the Fire.
Against a team with such attacking threats as Philly, a clean sheet would also give the back line confidence heading into the biggest game of the season to date, the U.S. Open Cup Semifinal against D.C. on Wednesday (TICKETS).
Taking advantage of the diamond system – pressuring Philly in their defensive third
The Union usually use a system similar in some ways to the Fire, deploying only one recognized defensive midfielder. In Philly’s case this is stalwart Brian Carroll.
Carroll plays in the “Makelele role,” sitting in front of the back four, breaking up attacks and rarely venturing into the opposing team’s attacking third. In this system, the assumption is that Carroll will not give up possession or be ahead of the ball in his defensive third.
One way to counter this system is to pressure Carroll and the Philly defenders when they have the ball and try and force turnovers in their defensive third.
We all saw how effective this tactic can be on the Fire’s goal last weekend. Patrick Nyarko stole the ball from a Dynamo defender before bursting into the box and crossing to Mike Magee for a tap in finish. A similar turnover on Saturday night could lead to the winning goal for the Fire.
Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve
It's #MLSALLSTAR and Chicago Fire goal-scorer extraordinaire Mike Magee.
You'll laugh, and you'll cry (not really) as Daniel Libit explores Mike Magee's return back home to Chicago, and how he has provided "the spark" that the Men in Red needed to get back on track.
That's all i'm giving away, now go read it for yourself!
Just like the podcast, GifTuesday is also making it's triumphant return. This week Mike Magee reminds us that he had a little help scoring his goal in Houston.