Blog

Tactical Preview

20 March 8:43 am

After picking up a fantastic point in Portland, the Fire head back to Chicago to face the New York Red Bulls in the team’s home opener Sunday afternoon (1:30pm CT on My50/TWCSWI).

The Men in Red will be looking to avenge the 5-2 season-ending defeat at Red Bull Arena last season - a result that kept the Fire out of the Playoffs. Here are a few things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.

Possible changes on outside - will Sega be fit to play?

After picking up a knock against Portland, Fire stalwart Gonzalo Segares is currently listed as questionable on the Athletico Injury Report with an ankle sprain for Sunday’s game. In his possible absence, the Fire coaching staff have a big decision to make.

On the one hand, the team could slot Hunter Jumper into a position he played in sparingly last year, famously scoring the winning goal against Kansas City in August and serving up an assist against the Red Bulls early last year. Reading into Frank Yallop’s lineup selections for the first two matches, a more likely scenario would be bringing newly acquired left back Greg Cochrane into the back line.

Cochrane was on the bench for the season opener and brings more experience than Jumper, playing in 12 games for the Galaxy last season. Whoever the starter is on Sunday will have to keep pace with the tricky Lloyd Sam on the Red Bulls right side. New York’s strikers also have a tendency to drift wide, opening up space for midfielders, which can result in 2v1 situations for the outside back to deal with.

As a unit, the Fire defenders had a much more composed match against Portland last week in comparison to the season opener and against a high powered attack like New York's, the coaching staff will be focusing on making this possible change to the back line as smooth a transition as possible.

Continuing the no target striker formation - with a focus on retaining possession in the attack

Last week, the Fire's no target striker formation worked quite well, with the team not letting one player get isolated in the attack. That being said, the team did play many long balls and empathized picking up second balls.

Against New York, a similar target-less striker formation is an attractive option, but the focus must shift from long balls to more possession in the attack. The Fire were able to do this at times against Portland, with Quincy Amarikwa linking well and getting behind the Timbers defense on numerous occasions.

New York relies too much on Dax McCarty to break up opposing team’s attacks and if the Fire can get players in between him and the defense, it can be very beneficial. In the Red Bulls last game, the Rapids were able to play through McCarty a number of times but didn't have enough players in support to take advantage. If the Fire can continue to keep the attacking players narrow and close to each other like they did against Portland, they will certainly create chances.

Being wary of forwards peeling off - not allowing the Red Bulls strikers easy tap-ins

Ball watching can be one of the most frustrating things for coaches and fans to witness on the field. Though exclaiming that a defender should be watching his man and not the ball is easier in theory than practice, too many soft goals are given up each season because of it.

In the games involving both the Fire and the Red Bulls last weekend, cases of ball watching occurred, with much different results for each club. In Portland, Timbers attacker Gaston Fernandez was able to slip into the box unnoticed by a number of Fire defenders who only saw him when it was too late: after Sean Johnson parried the ball into the striker’s path resulting in an easy finish (see below).

In New York, Thierry Henry, the master of slipping away from defenders, did it again against the Rapids and headed home the lone Red Bulls goal (see below).

The Fire must continue to focus on not letting players like Henry peel away on the back post and lurk unmarked.

Prediction: The Fire's good home form from last season continues over to 2014. 1-0 Fire with a goal from Mike Magee. (Steve’s record in 2014: 1-1)

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

WATCH: Shipp, Joya preview Sunday's match vs. Red Bull

14 March 8:32 am

After a lackluster performance last weekend out in LA, the Fire are in Portland for what should be a much sterner test against a Timbers team unbeaten in home regular season play for over a year (1:30pm CT on My50 / TWCWI). The Timbers will also be looking to avenge the 2-2 draw in the team's only meeting last season where a brilliant Fire comeback left Caleb Porter seething. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

A tweak in formation option A: Packing the midfield

Against a Portland team playing their usual 4-3-3 formation, a safer option for the Fire, especially away from home, is to play another holding midfielder alongside Jeff Larentowicz in an attempt to pack the midfield. Portland rely on late runs from players like Will Johnson and another holding midfielder would ensure the Fire would be able to track these runs more effectively.

Logan Pause would be the prime candidate to partner Larentowicz in the engine room. Portland always look to get playmaker Diego Valeri on the ball and rely on his through balls to create many of the team's chances. Pause and Larentowicz read the game extremely well and are masters at intercepting the kind of balls Valeri will be looking to play.

This option requires that the Fire drop one of its attacking players, which in this case could be Chris Rolfe who is battling an injury. The approach could be seen as a negative one, but playing against a team unbeaten at home for over a year and one that scored the third highest amount of goals in the league last season, the Men in Red also need be realistic.  

A tweak in formation option B: Eliminating the target striker 

A more progressive option for the Fire this weekend would be eliminating the target striker completely in favor of a smaller and quicker attack. This move would see Juan Luis Anangono, a player isolated during large stretches of last weekend's match, drop to the bench in favor of a quicker, more dynamic player such as Quincy Amarikwa, a player on the cusp of a starting eleven place.

In last weekend's match against the Union, Portland were undone on more than a few occasions by some neat and quick interplay by the Philly midfielders and strikers.  With this smaller formation, the Fire will have more opportunities to play this type of game.

The interplay between players such as Duka, Rolfe, Joya, Amarikwa, Alex and Nyarko could certainly cause the Timbers problems with Benji Joya's goal last week serving as a classic example of this: Amarikwa playing a brilliant through ball to Alex who in turn found Joya at the back post for a tap in finish.

While this formation would certainly make the Fire quicker, it should also provide the Men in Red with an opportunity to have more possession and even slow the game down at times, especially if the away team manages to take the lead. With possession below 45% in last week's loss, an emphasis on keeping more of the ball is also necessary.  

Set pieces: a weakness for both teams

Both the Fire and Timbers have had problems defending set pieces in the past and that was apparent again during the first match of the season for both teams. Fire defender Bakary Soumare admitted fault after his mark was able to head home the winner for Chivas while Portland also gave up a goal from a corner against the Union.

The Fire's defensive play from crosses and set pieces was certainly suspect last weekend and coach Frank Yallop made no secret of his disappointment at how his team gave up goals in this manner.

Though Portland are not a very big team, players like Diego Valeri and Gaston Fernandez are some of the best set piece takers in the league and a more cohesive performance by the Fire back four is needed on Sunday afternoon.  On the other side of the ball, with the Timbers also looking frail on set pieces, I expect the Fire to load the box when the dead ball opportunities arise. 

Prediction: 1-1 with the Fire goal coming from Alex

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

WATCH: Clint Mathis on what it will take to earn a result in Portland

07 March 9:05 am

Chicago Fire take on Chivas USA and Erick Torres Sunday, March 9 at 2pm CT on UniMas

The Fire are in Los Angeles for the first game of the season looking to start off on a good note unlike this time last year when the team fell to the other team in LA, 4-0. As per usual, Chivas USA’s offseason was filled with turmoil, but there is a new air of optimism around the club after it was bought by MLS. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Fire’s new look back line – how will teams offseason acquisitions work as a unit?

New Fire head coach Frank Yallop was very upfront about his desire for the team to improve defensively this season after the team gave up a whopping 52 goals last year. It is likely that two new additions to the defense will start on Sunday afternoon, with former RSL utility player Lovel Palmer slotting in a right back and former Sounder Jhon Kennedy Hurtado set to start in the middle.

Hurtado’s partnership with Bakary Soumare at the heart of the Fire’s defense is crucial to the team’s success and both players will be looking to continue their good preseason form. In the air, both players are clearly dominant but it will be important that they do not get stretched by the Chivas USA attack especially with a player like Mauro Rosales looking to play balls behind the defense for Erick Torres and co.

Frank Yallop likes to have his fullbacks get forward and support the attack and Palmer certainly fits that style of play. The Fire’s distribution out of the back last season was not a strong point and Palmer’s good technical ability will mean the team will not be giving the ball needlessly back to the opposition as much this season.

It will certainly take time for the new look defense to gel, but a good start and perhaps a clean sheet would build confidence before the tougher tests ahead in the form of Portland and New York.

A new back line for Chivas USA – opportunities for the Fire to take?

Chivas USA overhauled the squad again this offseason but the team that gave up the most goals in the league last year don’t look like they’ve improved in that department, at least not on paper.

The team went undefeated in preseason but it remains to be seen whether this unit can be effective during league play. It is unclear who Fire legend Carlos Bocanegra will be paired with -- Bobby Burling or newcomer Andrew Jean-Baptiste but in either case, if the Fire creative players like Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko and Alex can get in 1v1 situations, I like this team’s chances.

The Fire could have more luck on the outsides, especially down the right where Eric Avila has a habit of straying too far forward from his full back position. The combination of little help defensively from Mauro Rosales and the attacking threats of Dilly Duka and Gonzalo Segares could pay dividends for the Men in Red.

A switch in philosophy – high pressure replaces the counter attack

For much of last season, the Fire tended to sit deep and try to hit teams on the counter attack but with the change in head coach comes a change in philosophy. Instead of the counter attack game, Yallop has emphasized a high pressure philosophy, with the Fire’s attackers putting pressure on the opponents’ defense when they are in possession.

This tactic was apparent in the team’s final match of the Diamond Desert Cup in Tucson last week where Juan Luis Anangono, Chris Rolfe and Dilly Duka all put the Chivas Guadalajara youth team defense under constant pressure and forced a number of mistakes from the Mexican squad.

If the team can push the issue against the new look Chivas USA back four and force the team into giving up possession, it will only help the Fire’s chances.  Though possession is not always an important factor, especially in an away match, the team will certainly be looking to control the tempo and increase the possession statistics this season and this change in philosophy should help that.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Mike Magee and Dilly Duka.

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

WATCH: C.J. Brown says, "The first game we get to focus on ourselves"

25 October 9:09 am

With three wins on the bounce, the Fire are on the brink of a playoff spot with only one game to go. The Men in Red could be in before the start of play on Sunday but the earliest they’ll know is a little over an hour from kickoff of their match vs. New York Red Bulls (LIVE 3:30pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports WI; 4pm on UniMas).

Still, there is plenty to play for, including a possible third place finish thus avoiding the play-in game. For New York no incentive is bigger than knowing a win against the Fire will guarantee the team’s first ever trophy. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Patrick Nyarko and Jalil Anibaba vs New York’s left back – taking advantage of a Red Bulls weak spot

Left back has been a problem position for the Red Bulls this season and with the two natural left backs nursing injuries, the Red Bulls may have to resort to playing right-back Brandon Barklage out of position as cover. Red Bulls coach Mike Petke admitted that he is wary of Patrick Nyarko and hinted that it could be Barklage that gets the start due to his strong 1v1 defending.

WATCH: Segares, Nyarko preview NYRB

 

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

With that in mind, I feel the Fire coaching staff will be encouraging Nyarko to get the ball and take the left back on as much as possible. Left midfielder Johnny Steele is not the best at tracking back and helping in the defensive third and this could also allow Jalil Anibaba to get forward and support Nyarko on the Fire’s right.

Anibaba’s crossing ability has improved dramatically this year and regardless of who New York starts on the left, I expect the majority of the Fire’s attacks to come down that side.

Logan Pause vs Alex – who will partner Rios in the middle?

The toughest decision for the Fire’s coaching staff this week is who will replace the suspended Jeff Larentowicz in the center of the midfield alongside Arevalo Rios. One of Logan Pause, Alex or Daniel Paladini will be half of the tandem that will have to compete against one of the strongest midfield pairings in MLS: Dax McCarty and Tim Cahill.

On the one hand, the Fire know that the Red Bulls will be playing for the win and the Supporters Shield crown that comes with the points. On the other, the Fire will also be going for the win, knowing what they will have to do to finish in either fifth, fourth or even third.

With this in mind, Alex would be a more logical pick to start alongside Rios due to his attacking creativity and willingness to get forward and support the strikers. To those who argue that starting Alex over Logan would mean the team loses some defensive clout, coach Frank Klopas would argue that Alex’s defensive play has been excellent this season.

Tactically, I think starting Logan Pause would be the wiser choice, especially when you take into account the fluidity of the New York attack. The center midfielders and strikers for the Red Bulls are never static, with players like Henry often drifting wide and Cahill moving forward to play as the target striker.

With Pause alongside Rios, the Fire would form a very solid block of four, similar to the formation that the Republic of Ireland played under Giovanni Trapattoni. This formation would make the Fire very difficult to break down but would put a lot more emphasis on the wide players to create. This coaching decision has the potential to have huge impact on the match.

Shutting down Fabian Espindola – a player easily lost in the shadows of Henry and Cahill

In the Red Bulls last home match against New England, Mike Petke started with Henry and Fabian Espindola up front and in the first half in particular, Espindola was unstoppable. The New England defense could not keep up with the Argentine striker, who dropped deep and wide in search of the ball, dragging defenders out of position along the way.

Espindola is a player that any coach would love to have due to his tireless work rate. He also hounds opposition defenders when they are in possession, always looking to force a turnover or mistake and does not give up possession easily.

His low center of gravity can be very difficult for defenders to contain and he will certainly pose a challenge for the Fire’s backline on Sunday afternoon. The Fire defenders must not allow Espindola to get behind the backline.

Individually the defenders must not allow him to drag them out of position and create space for players like Cahill and McCarty to move into.

Prediction: With both teams knowing a win would be massively rewarding, I expect an end to end thriller, especially if there is an early goal. 2-2 with goals from Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko.

18 October 8:38 am

With two massive road victories under their belt, the Fire play the final regular season game of 2013 at Toyota Park against Toronto FC on Saturday night (LIVE 7pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports Wisconsin).

With six goals scored in the last two matches, the Men in Red are hitting form at the right time and know if results go their way, they could be guaranteed an MLS Cup Playoff spot by the final whistle. Toronto have nothing to play for but will be looking to play spoiler. Here are some tactical things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Keeping up the high pressure tactic – play a high line and get players into the TFC box

As I mentioned before, the Fire have scored six goals in the last two games. The closest to that tally in a previous two-game MLS span has been four goals. With that in mind, the Men in Red must try and get people into the box whenever possible against Toronto.

In many games this season, Toronto have not been undone by individual brilliance, but rather defensive errors. TFC coach Ryan Nelson, a former defender, must be disgusted by the amount of tap in goals his team has allowed with Sporting KC, Montreal and New York all scoring simple goals against Toronto and all stemming from defenders ball watching and not following their marks.

The Fire need to try and take advantage of this by getting more players from the midfield into the box to support assumed strikers Mike Magee and Juan Luis Anangono. The high pressure tactic can be very beneficial to this, with players like Alex not allowing the defenders to have time and space on the ball. With the team playing a high line and not dropping deep, it will give players an opportunity to get forward and into the box faster.

The Rios conundrum – who to start in the center of midfield?

Arevalo Rios played two grueling matches for Uruguay over the past week, helping La Celeste qualify for the World Cup intercontinental playoff against Jordan.  

After playing 180 minutes for his country and only returning to Chicago on Thursday, it might be difficult for him to start in the middle for the Fire on Saturday night.

WATCH:  Magee, Berry talk Toronto FC

One reason that the coaching staff might decide to start Rios however is that Jeff Larentowicz is currently sitting on four yellow cards and one more against TFC would rule him out of the season finale at New York next Sunday.

Another option for the Men in Red could be to start Larentowicz and bring on Rios for the former New England man if the Fire are in a comfortable position.

That being said, as we have seen from the past two games, the high pressure tactic is effective regardless of who starts in the middle. 

Muzzling Bobby Convey – a danger on both wings

Bobby Convey is one of the few players to have a strong year for TFC and the Fire must not allow him to create chances for target striker Bright Dike. Convey is equally comfortable playing on either wing and it wouldn’t surprise me if he started on the right where he would link up with improving right back Mark Bloom.

While Bakary Soumare has found form again in the last few matches after having a few horror moments previously, Gonzalo Segares is a player that will be looking to have a better performance against TFC.

In 1v1 situations, Sega is very difficult to beat but the problems start when players make runs in behind him. The Costa Rican can sometimes be caught too high up the field while other times he is forced to move inside to cover for one of the center backs. Both of these were highlighted in last weekend’s match against Dallas.

Against Toronto, I would also like to see the Fire’s outside midfielder track back and help out Segares more, especially if Bloom gets forward. A composed and compact performance by the Fire’s back four as a unit will give the team a very good chance of coming out of the game with three points and maybe even a guaranteed playoff spot.

Prediction: After having to endure a nervy end to last week’s match, the Fire make it easier on fans by winning 2-0 with goals from Alex and Mike Magee.

11 October 8:43 am

After getting the job done in DC last Friday night, the Fire head south to take on a FC Dallas side needing a miracle to make the MLS Cup playoffs Saturday night (7pm CT My50/TWC Wisconsin). Dallas are in free fall and despite the Fire’s record in Texas, the Men in Red should be settling for nothing less than three points. Here are some things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.

Perez away on Panama duty

Blas Perez has all the characteristics of an elite CONCACAF striker: finishing ability, gamesmanship and non-stop focus; similar to Carlos Ruiz. So perhaps it’s a good thing that the Dallas’s leading goal scorer is away for Panama’s crucial World Cup qualifying match with Mexico this weekend.

Perez has 11 goals on the year, with his closest teammate being Kenny Cooper at four. In Perez’s absence, it’s hard to see Dallas switching way from their lone striker formation and Cooper would seem the likely candidate to slot in after ending his nearly five-month goal scoring drought last weekend vs. RSL.

Cooper is a powerful forward that has historically done well against the Fire, tallying six goals in 12 career matches. With a goal last weekend under his belt and Dallas fighting for their playoff lives, he won’t be one to take lightly.

Focusing on Jackson – the Brazilian is instrumental in the Hoops’ attack

Jackson has impressed me in Dallas’s most recent matches against Columbus and RSL. He normally operates on the right wing, trying to get the ball inside to Perez or a midfield runner. In the last match against RSL, Jackson drifted inside more often.

This was in part due to the fact that RSL had a man sent off early after a disgraceful tackle on the Brazilian. He also showed that he can be a threat in the box, forcing Nick Rimando into a brilliant 1v1 save after an attempted flick over the keeper with the outside of his foot.

In last week’s match against DC, the Fire played a very open style of play in the first half, attacking in numbers. If you only looked at the score line, you would think that this tactic was a success but it could’ve been a lot different if it wasn’t for Sean Johnson. He bailed his team out with some brilliant saves after DC caught the Fire out with too many players forward.

It is understandable that the Fire will play in a similar fashion against Dallas due to the need for three points but allowing a player like Jackson time and space on a counter attack can be very dangerous.

Singling out Kellyn Acosta – targeting the Homegrown wingback

In their most recent home loss to Columbus, FC Dallas were exposed on the wings, most notably on the left where Dominic Oduro torched Zach Loyd. On the right, FC Dallas Homegrown player Kellyn Acosta also looked vulnerable. His distribution out of the back was poor; with the 18-year-old trying to play one-touch passes too often.

Columbus clearly targeted Acosta, with players such as Federico Higuain running at the defender whenever possible. A tactic that I would like to see on Saturday night is a constant switching of the Fire wide players so that Acosta is never comfortable.

If Fire wingers Nyarko, Duka, Alex and Co. can get into 1v1 or 2v1 situations with Acosta, it could pay dividends for the Men in Red.

Prediction: The Fire won’t play as open as last weekend but score early and late. 2-0 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex 

04 October 8:16 am

After a disappointing September, the Fire head to the Capitol to face a D.C. United squad still on cloud nine after their shock upset of Real Salt Lake in the 100th U.S. Open Cup final Tuesday evening (LIVE 7pm CT on NBCSN). D.C.’s win combined with the Fire’s erratic away form means this game is very difficult to predict.

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

Forcing disruptions in the D.C. backline – not allowing them to act as a unit

In many games this season, D.C.’s opponents have stretched their backline, causing a number of errors. One example of this is forcing a central defender out of the middle and out wide. Another is forcing the defenders deep into their own half.

In D.C.’s recent match against New England, the Revs’ attack forced United to drop deeper and deeper, allowing players like Kelyn Rowe free shots from outside the box because defenders didn’t step up to challenge them.

In the Fire’s last MLS match against D.C., Joel Lindepere played some brilliant balls over the top of the United defense to the Fire strikers who were onside due to a combination of good runs and poor organization by the D.C. backline.

With the titanic effort put in on Tuesday night in Salt Lake, D.C. will almost certainly be making changes in defense but no matter who gets the start, the Fire players must be prepared to hound United’s backline from the first whistle and force them into making mistakes.

Changes to the Fire team – a more attacking starting eleven needed

In the first half of last weekend’s match against Montreal, the Fire set up too cautiously for my liking, most notably in the middle of the field where Logan Pause and Arevalo Rios played their first game together. Both players excel at breaking up the play but without Larentowicz or a more attacking player in the middle, the Fire were lacking in the attack.

Coach Frank Klopas recognized this and made two changes at halftime which completely turned the game around. The introduction of Alex and Chris Rolfe sparked the Men in Red into life offensively and but for some better luck, the team would have walked away with three points.

Bakary Soumare should return to the backline after his suspension, allowing Larentowicz to slot back into the midfield. Alex made big impact from the bench last week and starting him in front of Dilly Duka would give the Fire another dimension in the attack with his linkup play with Magee and Anangonó excellent in recent matches.

Duka has looked a little weary of late which isn’t a surprise considering he has started seven more matches this season than he did for the Crew throughout the whole of last season, already playing almost 500 more minutes with four games and potential playoff games to come.

A focus on Luis Silva – the former TFC man should start after being a sub in Salt Lake

Luis Silva came on for veteran Dwayne DeRosario with 15 minutes left to play in Tuesday’s Open Cup final and according to Washington Post journalist Steven Goff, Silva should get the start tonight.

Silva is comfortable playing as the lone striker or in the number 10 role, just behind the advanced forward.

As I mentioned in my tactical preview for the U.S. Open Cup semifinal, Silva and DeRo rely on their wide players to support the attack which allows Silva to get into the box and feed on crosses instead of having to drop deep and try and creature from there.

That being said, Silva is not afraid to take a shot from distance as Fire fans will remember, he scored a stunning 25 yard curler into the top corner against the Men in Red in July. The next week he also struck from distance, hitting a low bullet into the bottom corner against New England at RFK Stadium.

D.C. have scored a league low 20 goals this season and if the Fire can keep Silva under wraps tonight it will help keep the Red and Black off the score sheet.

Prediction: I have no idea what D.C. team we are going to see tonight but for all the talk of playing playoff spoiler, I think their minds will still be at Rio Tinto Stadium. 3-0 Fire with goals from Magee, Anangonó, and Berry.

27 September 8:49 am

After a disappointing loss in Columbus last weekend, the Fire come back to Toyota Park to face the Montreal Impact in the second to last home game of the season (LIVE 7pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports 32). Montreal have dropped their last three of their fo MLS matches and are stalling at the wrong time. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Replacing Bakary Soumare at center back – a new partnership in the middle?

Since the return of Bakary Soumare to the Fire at mid-season, the Malian and Austin Berry have essentially played every match together in the middle. Though Baky has made a number of individual errors this season, his suspension comes at a bad time.

This opening provides a conundrum for coach Frank Klopas.

We could see the return of Hunter Jumper in the middle after his goal scoring exploits against SKC last month. Jalil Anibaba could also slot over to his natural position of center back with one of Wells Thompson, Mike Videira or Logan Pause filling in at right back.

In last weekend’s loss to the Crew, Jeff Larentowicz moved back into central defense after the Soumare red card. Starting Larentowicz in this position seems the most likely option but it would mean breaking up the midfield tandem of the former Revs player and Arevalo Rios, which has made the Men in Red an extremely difficult team to break down.

Whoever replaces Soumare will be tasked with stifling a Montreal team that has scored the third highest amount of goals in MLS this season.

Matching up against Marco Di Vaio – attempting to slow down MLS’s top goal scorer

There isn’t much to say about Marco Di Vaio that hasn’t been covered already. At 36 and in his first season in the league, he has made it look easy, scoring 18 goals to date.

An even scarier stat is that none of his goals have come from the penalty spot with Canadian Patrice Bernier continuing as the Impact’s regular PK taker.

Similar to Robbie Keane, Di Vaio’s finishing is a step above most MLS strikers. He also puts himself in excellent positions, with many of his goals coming from tap-ins. His header from two yards out against Columbus was a prime example of this.

Fortunately for the Fire, one of Di Vaio’s favorite set up men, Felipe, will be missing due to suspension. The absence of the Brazilian is a blow for the Impact but with Patrice Bernier and Justin Mapp having excellent seasons, Di Vaio will have ample opportunities Saturday night.

In a tactical preview for the Fire’s game against Montreal back in April I talked about cutting the supply line to the Italian but he still managed to bag the second goal in the Impact’s 2-0 win.

With the plethora of creative midfielders on the field for Montreal, the Fire players must not neglect Di Vaio because one lapse in concentration can be fatal.

Isolating the Impact’s aging Italian defenders – getting in 1v1 situations with Ferrari and Nesta

For allof Montreal’s attacking prowess, the Impact have given up the most goals of any team currently holding playoff positions. Both Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari are excellent and experienced defenders, often making up for a lack of pace with brilliant positioning.

Both players have shown to be uncomfortable however when they are in 1v1 situations against a player with a lot of pace. This does not happen often but if the opportunity arises, most likely from a counter attack, the Fire must capitalize.

The movement from the Fire’s attacking players has dragged center backs out of position on numerous occasions this season and I look for Mike Magee and Co. to do the same on Saturday night, especially against players who have lost more than a step of pace.

Prediction: 1-0 Fire with a goal from Magic Mike Magee 

20 September 8:57 am

After a dramatic later winner against New England, the Men in Red head to Firehouse East (#FHEAST) Saturday night to face a surging Columbus team (LIVE 6pm CT on My50). Since relieving coach Robert Warzycha of his duties and replacing him with Technical Director Brian Bliss, the Crew have won two of three and remain in the MLS Cup playoff hunt.

The Columbus hierarchy are calling this match a six-pointer and I tend to agree. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Sticking tight to Dominic Oduro – regardless of what position he plays in

In my last preview of a Fire vs. Columbus match, I heaped praise on Oduro and since then, the Ghanaian has continued to put in good performances.

Many in Columbus called for Oduro to be played up top and for the first two games under Brian Bliss this happened but last weekend the ex-Fire man moved to the right wing, making room for Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta to take their places in the middle of the attack.

In truth, Oduro is difficult to contain in either position.

On the wing, his pace forces the outside defenders to be on their guard and not stray too far forward. Hiss crossing is also dangerous -- he looks to get the ball in the box as early as possible, oftentimes playing it low to the ground, bending it around the defenders. These sort of balls are a nightmare to defend and limiting Oduro’s space to cross will be important.

Oduro’s runs also make him a difficult player to mark when he plays up top. In the Crew’s last match against Montreal, he made a brilliant run into the box to get on the end of a sublime through ball from Federico Higuain and score the winner.

It will be an added incentive for the Fire defenders to keep their former teammate off the score sheet on Saturday night.

The midfield battle – Will Trap and Tony Tchani vs Jeff Larentowicz and Arevalo Rios

In just a few matches together, Jeff Larentowicz and Arevalo Rios have formed quite a formidable partnership in the center of midfield.

In the Crew’s last match against the Impact, Will Trapp continued to start, this time alongside Tony Tchani. This partnership is similar to the Fire’s, with one player advancing to help the attack while the other sits.

Tchani particularly caught the eye, bringing a physical presence that was lacking to the Crew’s midfield. The Cameroonian has surprisingly good foot skills for a burly 6’4’’ midfielder and is equally comfortable playing through balls from deep or driving forward with the ball.

The battle between the two sets of central midfielders will be very interesting to watch, with both trying to catch the other out.

The Fire’s central pair must continue to stay disciplined and not be caught in a situation where both are too far forward. The Fire’s midfield tandem certainly have the edge in experience and I expect them to display that against the younger pair.

Focusing the attacks down the Columbus left – targeting Tyson Wahl and co.

In the first two matches under Brian Bliss, Tyson Wahl returned at left back for the Crew, after sitting out the end of Warzycha’s reign. Wahl didn’t have the best of games in the first two outings of the Bliss era before moving to center back for last week’s match against Montreal.

It remains to be seen what position he starts in on Saturday night but in any case, the left side of defense is certainly a weak link for the Crew and one the Fire should look to exploit.

In the Montreal game, former Fire winger Justin Mapp caused the Crew all sorts of problems from his wide right position. After strong performances for Alex, Patrick Nyarko, Joel Lindpere and Dilly Duka in recent weeks, picking two of the four to occupy the wide positions will be a tough decision for Frank Klopas.

I look for Jalil Anibaba to get forward at every opportunity to support the starting right winger and extend the Crew’s defensive woes on the left hand side for another match.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Jalil Anibaba and Chris Rolfe.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. 

13 September 8:59 am

After missing yet another opportunity to jump into the Playoff spots after a disappointing draw in Toronto midweek, the Fire head back to Toyota Park on Saturday to face the team they are trying to catch, the New England Revolution (LIVE 7pm CT on My50). The Revs occupy the fifth and final Playoff spot and will be looking to put some distance between themselves and the chasing pack. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective:

Tracking Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez – monitoring the Revs playmakers movement

Both Rowe and Fagundez are having fantastic seasons for New England despite their young age. For an 18 year old, Fagundez has a real eye for goal and a knack of getting into very good positions in the box. Many of his goals this season have been tap-ins, with the Uruguayan being in the right spot at the right time.

Rowe on the other hand likes to operate outside the box and is excellent at picking up the ball in the space between the midfield and the back line. In New England’s last two matches against Toronto and Montreal, Rowe was allowed too much space to pick up the ball in these positions. From there, he is equally comfortable shooting from distance or running at defenders. He displayed both in the matches against the Impact and TFC.

To stop Rowe, the communication and decision making by the Fire’s midfielders and defenders is very important. Defenders such as Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry must come out and close down Rowe as quickly as possible when he picks up the ball in that position. As for Fagundez, tracking his runs into the box will also be crucial.

Concentrating on team defense – cutting out individual errors and defending better as a team

In the Fire’s last few matches, individual errors and lack of concentration have been the team’s downfall. On Wednesday night, a piece of nonchalant defending led to TFC’s tying goal while multiple players were guilty of not tracking their runners in the matches against Seattle and Houston.

Individual errors have plagued Fire defenders this season while the wingers are the culprits responsible for sometimes failing to follow their marks. As a defensive unit, the players must be focused for the entire 90 minutes, especially now because there is little room for error if the Men in Red are to make the Playoffs.  Against a team with such fluid attacking play and movement as New England, lapses in concentration like these will be punished.

Getting in 1v1 situations with A.J. Soares – Fire attack must try and isolate the Revs defender

In New England’s last match against Montreal, something that struck me was the ease in which Impact striker Marco Di Vaio was able to score both of his goals. Both goals were very similar, with the Italian receiving the ball in the box and going 1v1 with Soares before making a cut, losing the Revs defender and finishing with ease.

Don’t get me wrong, Di Vaio is a brilliant striker but his ability to beat players 1v1 is not his strong point, his deadly finishing is. As we have seen this season, Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee are not afraid to run at defenders and Quincy Amarikwa showed on Wednesday in Toronto that his pace coming off the bench can cause any defense problems.

Against New England this weekend, I would like to see the Fire strikers take on Soares if they find themselves in a position to.

Prediction: The Fire take the frustrations of the past few weeks out on the Revs and comfortably win 3-1 with goals from Magee (2) and Patrick Nyarko.