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Tactical Preview

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.

11 September 9:16 am

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

Controlling possession while being wary of TFC’s high pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

WATCH: Larentowicz, Nyarko preview TFC

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

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

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

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

Keeping an eye on Reggie Lambe – a powerful wide player

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

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

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

WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

23 August 8:09 am

 

After a morale sapping 2-0 loss in New England last week, the Fire need to pick themselves up for the visit of Eastern Conference table toppers Sporting KC Friday night. There has been no love lost between the sides over the past few seasons and this one promises to be no different. Here are few things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Changes to the Fire defense – who will replace Bakary Soumare

Since the return of Bakary Soumare, the Fire’s starting back four has remained virtually unchanged despite some less than stellar performances. Soumare’s suspension forces Frank Klopas into making a tough decision.

The two most likely options are moving Jalil Anibaba into the middle and replacing him with Logan Pause/Wells Thompson/Mike Videra or keeping Jalil at right back and drafting Hunter Jumper into the middle.

The latter seems the more likely choice, especially considering Jumper’s height and the coaching staff’s desire to play big men against Sporting KC in the past. Jumper has had limited playing time this season (just one appearance so far) and will need to adjust to a SKC team who started off so well at Toyota Park last time out.

A strong start and scoring first will be a huge boost to the Fire psychologically.

How to break SKC down – target the outside defenders

Kansas City have the second best defensive record in the East thanks in part to a brilliant goalkeeper and rock solid central defense pairing but it’s on the outside of the defensive four that some cracks appear.

In SKC’s recent loss against New York, more than one of the goals scored by the Red Bulls came from getting in behind the defense. With players like Mike Magee, who is so good at making runs, the Fire need to be trying to play through balls as much as possible Friday night.

Getting into 1v1 situations with the SKC outside backs is another good tactic. Joel Lindpere has made no secret of his desire to play in the middle and not on the wing, where he feels that his lack of place and ability to take a man on are on show.

With that in mind, switching Alex to the wing is a good option. With Alex and Dilly Duka on the wings, the SKC outside defenders would certainly be on the back foot for most of the night.

SKC wing play – don’t allow easy crosses

Just as the Fire should be looking to attack down the wings, the Men in Red must also be wary of SKC’s wide play. Normally, SKC rely on U.S. international Graham Zusi to create from midfield but in his absence, more emphasis has been put on getting the ball wide and putting crosses into the box for Bieler, Kamara and Saad.

In Sporting’s last match against New England, this tactic worked to perfection, with the first two goals of the night coming from crosses. New England allowed the SKC players far too much room to pick people out with crosses.

The Fire must be quicker to close Kansas City down, especially when they get the ball into the wide areas. It is expected that Zusi will be back in the starting lineup tonight but his presence should not distract the Fire from concentrating, not allowing Sporting players time on the ball.

Prediction: It’s a must win for the Fire and I expect them to come out on top: 1-0 Fire with a goal from Mike Magee.

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

09 August 8:38 am

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.

READ: NYARKO UNAVAILABLE FOR SATURDAY'S MATCH VS. MONTREAL

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.  

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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.

07 August 8:36 am

The Fire head back to Toyota Park Wednesday night for the biggest game of the season to date, a U.S. Open Cup semifinal against D.C. United. Both teams enter the game on the back of wins and knowing they are only 180 minutes away from a CONCACAF Champions League place.

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With that in mind, league form goes out the window. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Slowing down D.C.’s new attack – avoiding the Silva/DeRo red herring

United Coach Ben Olsen has used the 4-4-1-1 formation for most of this season but due to a number of factors, namely not scoring many goals and a numerous injuries, he is constantly changing his front two.

In last week’s match against Montreal, D.C. started Dwayne DeRosario and Luis Silva to great effect with both players’ movement caused Montreal problems, especially in the first 30 minutes.

Both took turns holding the line while the other dropped deep, making it difficult for the Impact to track. With Silva scoring three goals in his last three matches, it is easy to claim that both he and DeRo are the major threats to the Fire tonight, but that argument is too simplistic.

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In reality, both strikers have benefited greatly from some fantastic play from both the wide men and outside defenders in recent matches. Montreal’s lack of high pressure allowed D.C.’s outside defenders to act as auxiliary wingers at times, putting dangerous crosses into the Impact’s box.

With the defenders pushing up high, the wide midfielders were able to tuck inside and support the strikers in the box or pick up great positions just outside it.

For the Fire to be successful tonight, the team must not allow D.C.’s outside defenders to get forward as often as Montreal did. To do this requires a combination of high pressure from forwards such as Mike Magee and Chris Rolfe as well as positive attacking play from the outside mids, which will force D.C.’s defenders to stay back.

Minimizing set pieces – not allowing DC any unearned opportunities

In a cup semifinal, one mistake, or one brilliant piece of skill, can define the outcome. Countless knockout matches have been decided this way and it always leaves the losing team asking why they allowed an avoidable goal to be scored against them.
 

 

WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner

Playing as the away team and knowing the Fire’s strengths on the counter attack, D.C. will not be flooding players forward needlessly in tonight’s match. When set pieces present themselves however, the Black and Red will be looking to profit.

In the Fire’s last match against Philly, the team played very well defensively but again failed to keep a clean sheet. The Union goal came from a needlessly given up free kick resulting in the ball being bundled over the line.

Fire players must not rush into tackles and need to try and avoid giving up corners whenever possible. D.C. may be lacking in goals this season but giving up a set piece when DeRo is on the field could decide the match in D.C.’s favor.

Quick transitions to the attack – by any means possible

In recent tactical previews, I have lauded Patrick Nyarko for consistently pressuring defenders in the Fire’s offensive third of the pitch and forcing turnovers.

In last weekend’s match against Philly, Paddy did it again, winning the ball and bursting forward before dishing to Mike Magee who smashed in the winner.

Last weekend’s match also demonstrated how quick transitions can come from all areas of the pitch.

READ: 5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ON WEDNESDAY'S U.S. OPEN CUP SEMIFINAL VS. D.C.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson constantly looked to distribute the ball quickly and launch an attack through his kicking. Whenever Johnson collected the ball from a cross or shot, he looked for outlet runs and was able to pick out those of Rolfe, Magee and co. with his long kicks.

Supersub Quincy Amarikwa also demonstrated how pressuring defenders on long balls can result in turnovers. Late in the game, he challenged Amobi Okugo in the air before stalking the center back and forcing a turnover just outside the Philly box.

But for some better finishing, the Fire would’ve scored a third goal and effectively ended the match. A quick turnover from a player like Nyarko or an accurate kick out from Johnson could open up the DC defense tonight.

Prediction: I have seen the Fire win and lose U.S. Open Cup semifinals and know that games like this are almost always very tight and tense.  1-0 Fire with the goal coming from Patrick Nyarko.

02 August 8:23 am

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

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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.

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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