Blog

Tactical Preview

11 September 8:16 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 6:10 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 7:59 am

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

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

Getting behind the Houston defense – looking for through balls

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

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

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

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

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

PREVIEW: Magee, Nyarko preview Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

LISTEN: Hunter Jumper talks face planting on first career goal

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

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

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

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

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

23 August 7:09 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 7:38 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 7:36 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.

BUY: $12 TICKETS FOR U.S. OPEN CUP SEMIFINAL

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 7:23 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.

READ: Duka, Alex look healthy for Philadelphia clash

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.

READ: Mike Magee is the cover boy in the latest edition of MLS Overlap

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

26 July 9:09 am

After a confidence boosting 4-1 win over D.C. United at Toyota Park last weekend, the Fire fly south to take on the Houston Dynamo at the fortress that is BBVA Compass Stadium Saturday night (LIVE 8pm CT on NBC Sports / La Ley 107.9 FM). Houston beat Premier League side Stoke City 2-0 at midweek and currently occupy the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a position the Fire is fighting for.

Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Shadowing Andrew Driver – A threat both inside and out

Englishman Andrew Driver has had a stellar debut season in MLS for the Dynamo and his versatility has made him one of the most dangerous wingers in MLS this season.

WATCH: Match Preview: Fire vs. Dynamo

Though naturally left footed, Driver is comfortable playing on either wing and is most dangerous when playing on the right, where he can cut in onto his left foot.

Though not on the level of Brad Davis, Driver’s crossing ability and dead ball prowess gives Houston another dimension and makes the Texas team even more threatening on set pieces.

READ: Fire winger Duka a no-go for Houston

When the ball is on the other side of the field, Driver gets into the box to support the forwards and has chipped in with three goals this season.

He’s also not afraid to come inside and switch positions with withdrawn striker Giles Barnes who played primarily on the wing in England before being converted by Houston coach Dom Kinnear.

Driver’s most recent goal came against D.C. United in May where he won the ball and played it wide to Will Bruin before bursting into the box and receiving a return pass before finishing.

Tracking Driver’s runs when he does cut inside will be key on Saturday night.

How to beat the Houston backline – 1v1s and runs off the ball

In last week’s match against D.C., the Fire forwards, most notably Chris Rolfe, made some brilliant runs off the ball and were found by great penetrating passes from midfield. Both of Rolfe’s goals came from off the ball runs and more of the same will be needed on Saturday.

A weakness of the Houston defense is paying too much attention to the person with the ball and neglecting to pick up the runs from other forwards or midfielders.

In the Dynamo’s last league match against New England, they allowed Diego Fagundez to pass the ball to Chad Barrett at the top of the box and pick up a return pass unmarked in the box. But for some better finishing, the Dynamo would’ve been a goal down.

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In the Dynamo’s last league loss against the Red Bulls, the killer second goal came when the Houston defense fixated on Thierry Henry, allowing Johnny Steele to make a run into the box unmarked and the Irishman scored after a simple through ball from Henry.

WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner

Off the ball runs from Rolfe and Mike Magee can open up the Houston defense and it will be up to players like Patrick Nyarko and Joel Lindpere to find the strikers as they did so well last Saturday.

The center midfield battle – who starts for the Fire

In recent weeks, Fire coach Frank Klopas has stuck with the midfield duo of Jeff Larentowicz and Alex to great effect but there are others knocking on the door for a starting spot and Saturday’s match could be the perfect time to make a change.

Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini are back from injury and suspension respectively and I believe one could come into the starting lineup in place of Alex.

Houston are a team that have high-energy midfielders such as Adam Moffatt, Boniek Garcia and Ricardo Clark. All three are not afraid to get forward and this will force the Fire’s two center midfielders to protect the back line.

With the fluidity of players like Giles Barnes, Driver and Garcia to deal with, a player like Pause or Paladini who are more defensive minded than Alex, may be more suited to deal with the flooded midfield.

Against a team like Houston, you must watch for through balls in behind the defense. A player like Logan Pause, who reads the game so well defensively and is constantly intercepting opposition passes, could be a better fit tactically.

Prediction: 1-1 with the Fire goal coming from Chris Rolfe.

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

19 July 8:07 am

The Fire head back to Toyota Park on Saturday evening after a disappointing display in Vancouver last weekend, giving up three second half goals to the Whitecaps. D.C. come to town (LIVE 7pm CT on My50) after last playing out a 0-0 draw in Colorado on July 7. With D.C. sitting last in the East and the Fire slipping back from the playoff positions in recent weeks, this game is extremely important.

 Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Team defense – be wary of quick transitions

In last weekend’s match against Vancouver, individual errors were again to blame for the Fire not coming back with any points but the team’s defending in transition also left something to be desired.

When the Fire turn the ball over, it is up to the team as a whole to defend, obviously not just the back four. D.C. will be looking to catch the Fire on the break as much as possible and when this happens, Fire players, most notably the outside defenders must turn attack into defense.

READ: Pause likely to be back for D.C.

Against Vancouver last weekend, the Whitecaps first goal came from a quick transition from a corner where the Fire were caught with too many players up the field. The Men in Red should be able to create multiple chances against D.C. and while getting forward and coming up with chances is important, the players must not neglect their defensive responsibilities.

DC getting back to full strength – DeLeon and Porter return

Athletico Coaching Corner on D.C. 

Over the past few matches, D.C. United have been without two of their start players, Nick DeLeon and Kyle Porter due to injury and international duty respectively. Both look set to return to the team on Saturday night which will be a big boost to the Black and Red.

Though still raw, Porter’s crossing and 1v1 abilities make him one of the best up-and-coming wingers in MLS, while DeLeon’s creativity in the attack is also a major threat. D.C. have only scored eight goals this season but Porter and DeLeon have either scored or assisted in three of those.

That may sound like a small number but when you’ve only scored eight, contributing to three makes you responsible for almost half of the teams goals!  

Because D.C. plays with one recognized striker, the emphasis is on players like DeLeon and Porter to get forward and support the lone striker whenever possible. The more the Fire can isolate both players and not allow them to link with the lone striker and withdrawn forward Chris Pontious, the better.

Targeting the middle two – getting past Kitchen and Thorrington

D.C. plays a system with two recognized defensive midfielders, presumed Saturday night to be John Thorrington and Perry Kitchen. Unlike Vancouver, whose three central midfielders often get forward to support the attacking three, D.C.’s pair are very much holding midfielders.

Both players sit in front of the back four to provide cover which makes D.C. a very difficult team to break down. There are times however when one of the central two is dragged wide, leaving space in the middle to exploit. When this happens, players like Alex must step forward and take advantage.

READ: Johnson keeping tabs on Fire from USMNT camp

Recognizing when these opportunities present themselves and quicker switches of the point of attack from the wing to the middle are things I am looking to see on Saturday night.

After the last home match against Kansas City, Mike Magee criticized his teammates for not getting forward in larger numbers in the second half when the team was down.

If the Fire can get more people forward and force Kitchen and Thorington into 2v1 situations, the team will create chances.

Prediction: 3-0 Fire with goals from Magee, Nyarko and Alex  

12 July 9:50 am

 
After a disappointing home loss against Sporting KC last weekend, the Fire head to the Pacific Northwest on Sunday to face a resurgent Vancouver Whitecaps side. The ‘Caps beat arch rivals Seattle last weekend and are unbeaten in five games.
 
Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
 
Shaun Francis full debut – a baptism of fire?
 
Shaun Francis only joined the Fire Wednesday and seems likely to make his full debut for the team in Vancouver. The left back should replace suspended stalwart Gonzalo Segares and will need to hit the ground running in an intimidating atmosphere.
 
Luckily for Francis, Vancouver are without their usual wide right player in the 4-3-3 formation, Russell Teibert who is in Canada’s Gold Cup squad. The winger has tallied six assists this season, twice the amount of the leading Fire player (Jeff Larentowicz and Daniel Paladini with three) . Instead of facing the pace of Teibert, Francis will likely be battling Corey Hertzog, who is in his first season with Vancouver.
 
Francis, who likes to get forward, will also have to face another outside back who likes to do the same in Young-Pyo Lee. Despite being 36, Lee is an extremely fit player and though he has lost a step of pace, is still very dangerous in the attack.
 
It will also be interesting to see how well Francis and presumed starting left mid Dilly Duka combine in Vancouver. A strong performance in this away game will not only boost Francis’ confidence but will be necessary if the Fire want to leave Canada with points in the bag.
 
The Fire’s back four – cutting out the individual mistakes
 
Before the game against Kansas City last weekend, ESPN showed a stat that since the arrival of Bakary Soumare, the team’s goals against average per game has dropped. This is certainly true but stats can also be deceiving.
 
In the KC game, the Fire had a shambolic first 10 minutes defensively, giving up two very soft goals. The first came from a poor clearance from a long throw and the second from allowing KC’s best player Graham Zusi too much space to shoot/cross from outside the box.
 
Since the arrival of Bakary Soumare and the switch of Jalil Anibaba to right back, the team’s back four has remained stable and for the most part work well as a unit. Individual errors like those in the SKC game are the issue.
 
These are a hard thing for a coaching staff to work on because the majority are mental mistakes.  It’s been nine games in the league since the Men in Red kept a clean sheet and one would be very welcome on Sunday evening. If the back four and goalkeeper can keep their concentration for 90 minutes and communicate well with one another, a clean sheet can be achieved.
 
Breaking down the Whitecaps – how to defeat the 4-3-3
 
Vancouver coach Marin Rennie favors a 4-3-3 formation with three ball-winning midfielders and three attackers who are very mobile. There are a few weak spots in this formation however that the Fire should look to exploit.
The first is getting balls in behind the three-man midfield, either by playing through balls or looking over the top. In Vancouver’s last loss, a 3-2 defeat by Seattle, the Sounders were able to get behind the three-man wall catching the Whitecaps center backs out of position.
The Sounders capitalized numerous times in that match when gaps opened up between the Whitecaps center backs. In Vancouver’s recent 3-1 win against Chivas USA, the Chivas goal also came from getting behind the central midfielders, this time from a brilliant pass from the center of the park which split the Vancouver mids and resulted in a 1v1 between the Chivas striker and a Whitecaps defender.
Another area where the 4-3-3 can be exploited is on the outside, a strong area for the Fire. Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka’s ability to stretch the three man midfield of Vancouver will be very important, not only because it leaves gaps in the middle to exploit, but it also forces one of the midfielders into a 1v1 battle with one of the Fire wide men. I would bet on our wingers in that fight.
When you add the Fire’s outside defenders to that equation, it makes it difficult for Vancouver to defend. I look for the likes of Alex, Nyarko and Duka to try and exploit the 4-3-3 system whenever possible, for the Fire’s benefit. 
Prediction: 1-1 with a goal from Alex.