The Fire start the 2013 MLS season at the Home Depot Center on Sunday against the two-time defending champions LA Galaxy (LIVE 4pm CT on UniMas). Both teams made some major changes over the off-season and will be looking to start 2013 off on the right step. Here are a few tactical things to keep an eye on...
New central midfield pairing – how will the JL’s play together?
Last season, the Fire paired Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo in central midfield. This season, two new midfielders take their places: MLS veterans Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere. Both have played together in preseason but the regular season, against the defending champions at the Home Depot Center is a different animal.
Lindpere is noted for his attacking ability but he will be required to help Larentowicz defensively, especially when the Fire turn the ball over. It will be important for both players to hold their positions and not get caught too far apart.
In an away match, it is vital to hold on to possession when you get it and it will be important for both of the JL’s to link well with each other through the match.
Set pieces – how will LA deal with service from Lindpere?
One thing that really stood out during the preseason was Lindpere’s ability to deliver a good ball into the box, especially from dead ball situations. Time after time, Lindpere put balls into the danger area – the space between the penalty spot and the six yard box. The Fire got some goals from set pieces last year and players like Austin Berry are a major threat from them.
Larentowicz is also good in the air, scoring a header in the Carolina Challenge Cup from a Lindpere corner. The Galaxy will be looking to avoid giving up silly free kicks around the area and will try to limit the number of corners the Fire but with Lindpere’s quality, the Fire can be very dangerous in this department.
LA will be debuting the vastly experienced ‘keeper Carlo Cudincini and the Fire’s set pieces will question whether he and his defense are on the same page.
Dilly Duka vs Sean Franklin – youthful exuberance vs experience
Dilly Duka looks set to make his debut for the Fire on Sunday, starting on the left wing. Duka’s opponent will likely be Sean Franklin, one of the best right backs in the league and a player with well over 100 MLS games under his belt.
This matchup is fascinating because just as Duka loves to get forward and take on his man, Franklin regularly pushes up to support in the attack, contributing with his fair share of assists. Duka will need to find a good balance between trying to keep Franklin pinned back by pushing forward, and helping out Gonzalo Segares when Franklin does advance to support the attack.
Duka is a very creative player and could end up giving Franklin a tough time but on the other side of the coin, if Segares and Duka are not in tandem, Franklin could hurt the Fire.
Robbie Keane – it’s not just all about goals
Robbie Keane’s goals dragged the Gals to their second MLS Cup victory in a row last season but his play is not all about goals. He likes to drop into the hole and link up with the Galaxy’s midfielders. Keane is very good and holding onto the ball in tight spaces and playing through balls to advancing players.
At Euro 2012, Keane played a similar role for the Republic of Ireland but was often crowed out, something the Fire should look to do if and when Keane drops deeper into the hole. Keane will certainly miss Landon Donovan and Mike Magee on Sunday but even without them, he is a major threat and should prove a handful for Berry, Friedrich and co.
Prediction: 2-1 Fire with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Arne Friedrich.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
After a frustrating draw at home on the last day of the season against D.C., the Fire now have a quick turn around in Wednesday night’s Knockout Match at Toyota Park against a very experienced Houston Dynamo side (LIVE 8pm CT on ESPN2/ESPN Deportes). Anything can happen in a one-off game but, with the home crowd behind them, the Fire will be looking to build on the good performance against DC and advance to play Sporting KC this weekend. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Counter attack: the Fire's best friend
Against D.C. last week, especially in the first half, the Fire used the counter attack to perfection, creating an enormous amount of chances but failing capitalize. The Fire allowed DC to be lulled into a false sense of security by sitting back, letting them control the possession and move men forward before breaking at lightning speed if and when the Men in Red were able to turn the ball over.
WATCH: Coach's Take on Houston
Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime. As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.
If the Men in Red can counter as well as they did against D.C., Houston are going to be in trouble.
Finishing: improvement needed for the Playoffs
As I previously mentioned, the Fire had a host of chances last week against United but only managed to put one in the back of the net. In the playoffs, not taking your chances is a recipe for disaster and the Fire will need to make the most of the ones they get tonight.
MacDonald was the main culprit against D.C. and he will certainly be looking to get on the score sheet in his first playoff game. MacDonald is his own biggest critic and I am sure he's been working doubly hard in training since Saturday. He is the kind of player who could go on a scoring run and getting a goal against Houston could start it.
Assistant coach Mike Makovich put it well in his pre-match interview, stating that he "would be worried" if the Fire weren't creating chances. In the Playoffs, a certain amount of luck is needed, but if the Fire create as many openings as they did against D.C., they should be fine.
Limiting defensive mistakes: no needless fouls around the box
Houston are the masters of the dead ball and the less chances the Fire give Brad Davis and co. to put the ball in the box, the better. The Dynamo are extremely good in the air and are also a very intelligent team, constantly looking for fouls in the final third.
Houston coach Dom Kinnear is also famous for his attempts to influence referees, something that he will surely be trying to do on Wednesday night. The Fire must try and not give referee Baldomero Toledo anything to think about, because the more needless fouls the team gives up, the more likely he will start hearing it from the Houston bench.
Houston's size, with giants like Macoumba Kandji and Will Bruin are tough to handle. Aside from the massively experienced Arne Friedrich and playoff experienced Segares, the Fire's other three likely defensive starters, Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba and Sean Johnson all will be making their MLS Playoff debuts so putting as little pressure on them as possible will be helpful.
WATCH: Players Preview Houston
Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime.
As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.
Kofi Sarkodie: Potential weak link for the Dynamo
For all the talk of Houston's playoff experience, one player who will be taking his postseason bow for the Dynamo is right-back Kofi Sarkodie.
Sarkodie only started seven games this season for the Dynamo and though he is not a rookie, he did not see any action during the teams run to the 2011 MLS Cup. I expect the Fire to try and test out Sarkodie as often as possible Wednesday night.
Flaco Fernandez had an improved performance against D.C. last weekend and if he can continue to get forward and combine with the attackers and left back Segares on Sarkodie's side of the field, it may cause the youngster problems.
In Houston's last meaningful game against the Philadelphia Union on October 20, the only Philly goal came on a cross from Sarkodie's side. He stood off the ball and allowed the cross to be played into the box for Jack McInerney to score. Another mistake like that could cost the Dynamo on Wednesday night.
Prediction: In a very tight and tense match, the Fire come out 2-1 winners with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Rookie of the Year Award runaway, Austin Berry.
With one game left and all to play for, there's no doubt that Saturday's game against D.C. United (LIVE 3pm CT on NBC Sports Network) is the the Fire's biggest game of the season to date. A win and the team finishes in second place in the Eastern conference and enjoys home field advantage for the Conference Semis. A loss or tie against DC and the Fire's destiny is out of their own hands, with a place between third and fifth in the cards. That being said, lets look at some tactical points for the big match.
Andy Najar - don't fool me twice
Andy Najar's coming out party as a right back was against the Fire in August when he put in a Man of the Match performance in a 4-2 win at RFK Stadium. Najar should start at right back again Saturday afternoon and the Fire will need to a much better job of containing him this time out. Against the Columbus Crew last week, Najar pushed forward constantly and provided an outlet for DC on the right. Columbus allowed Najar far too much room and he duly obliged by looking to cross the ball whenever possible.
WATCH: Fire vs. United Preview
D.C.'s midfielders look to switch the field of play to the advanced Najar whenever possible, something the Fire must look out for. For all his attacking prowess however, Najar can get caught too far up the field, something the left side tandem of Gonzalo Segares and Patrick Nyarko will be looking to exploit if the opportunity arises.
Stopping United from playing our game - target striker
D.C. sets up in a similar way to the Fire, namely with a target striker with an attacking mid/second striker playing just behind him. Against Columbus last week, Maicon Santos played just behind target man Lionard Pajoy. The partnership is still in its infancy, but should continue from the start on Saturday afternoon.
Against Columbus, Pajoy and Cesar did not combine well, often drifting too far from one another to effectively link up. DC's wide men, Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon, did their best to move central and support Pajoy whenever possible. Both of the wide players tendency to move inside caught Columbus short handed on a few occasions, especially when one of the wide men failed to drop back.
D.C. are not a team blessed with many creative players who look to take on their opponents, especially without Dwayne De Rosario. If the Fire can cut the supply line to Pajoy and force United to resort to trying to take them on it will work to the Men in Red’s advantage.
D.C.'s midfield - attacking through the middle
Similar to the Fire, United set up with two holding midfielders, Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa. In last week’s game against Columbus, both players were exposed by some neat interplay between the Columbus midfielders who quite simply passed the ball around Kitchen and Saragosa at times, especially in the first half.
Part of the reason for the exposure was because D.C.'s more advanced midfield trio failed to drop back quickly enough to support the holding midfielders when United lost possession. In the second half, this happened a lot less frequently, but it certainly is an area in which the Fire can try to take advantage. If the Fire can get midfielders forward in numbers, something they haven't been able to do as often in the last few games, then they could put some real pressure on the D.C. holding midfield core.
The return of Pardo - an experienced head for a big game
Since losing Pavel Pardo, the Fire have gone 3-3-0 in his six game absence. In the six games prior, the team won five and lost one. That stat alone gives you an indication as to how important Pavel is to the team.
His partnership with Logan Pause in the Fire engine room is one big reason for the Fire being a lot harder to break down this year. Pardo also reads the game as well as anyone in MLS, constantly positioning himself well to intercept a pass or pick up an advancing midfielder.
Having Pardo, a man with almost 150 caps for Mexico, will also be extremely important for the playoffs, especially because three of the five behind him have no postseason experience. Pardo's return gives the team an added boost ahead of the biggest game of the season to date.
Prediction: This game is going to be just as intense and nerve wracking as a playoff game but a sold out crowd at Toyota Park should give the Fire the advantage. 1-0 Fire with the goal coming from Chris Rolfe.
After dropping their last two games, the Fire travel to New York Saturday afternoon to face a Red Bulls team that has only lost at home once this season (LIVE at 2:30pm CT on NBC 5 Chicago). The Fire had their worst performance of the season on Wednesday night against Philadelphia while New York demolished Toronto FC last time out. That being said, both teams are level in the standings with 53 points and will be looking for a win in an effort to catch Sporting KC at the summit of the Eastern Conference. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical standpoint.
When you have it, keep it: ball retention
In the Fire's last two games, the team failed to keep hold of the ball for long stretches, often gifting it back to their opponents. Against the better teams, this can be a nightmare because it means that you have to defend wave after wave of attacks. Against Philly on Wednesday night, players were making misplaced passes all over the field and it prevented the team from getting into any sort of offensive rhythm.
Maintaining possession is important in any game but especially in matches away from home. The Fire could deploy a similar tactic to the one used in Kansas City last week, namely, getting the ball to Sherjill MacDonald and relying on him to hold the ball up and wait for support. Against KC though, the team were unable to get MacDonald the ball enough and on many occasions gave it away in the process.
If the Fire play the same way against New York, they must get the ball in to MacDonald's feet because not doing so will only hand the possession to Red Bull.
Center backs: beware of getting stretched
Fire color commentator and former defender Evan Whitfield made an excellent point in Wednesday night's game after the Union's first goal. He noted that center backs Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry were not close enough together, leaving a gap between them which Jack McInerney exploited to perfection on the first goal. The same thing happened against the Montreal Impact a few weeks back when Marco Di Vaio got in between the center backs to score.
Unfortunately, these are not the only two instances of this happening this season and its something the team needs to address. There is no one explanation as to why this is happening but there are some ways of limiting its negative effects.
We all know that Arne Friedrich likes to roam forward from time to time in an effort to help the attack. When this happens, the Fire need to be wary and drop one of the defensive midfielders into the back line if they lose possession. Also, when a ball is played in behind the outside defenders, it forces Berry or Friedrich to go wide to pick up the runner, leaving a space in the middle. When this happens, the outside back or someone else has to drop into the space left vacated.
Thierry Henry: picking him up when he drops deep
It may sound cliche, but the Red Bulls are a much, much better team when Thierry Henry is in the starting eleven. He single handidly tore Toronto FC apart last weekend, tallying a goal and three assists in a 4-1 victory.
Henry is a converted winger and still loves to move out wide, pick the ball up, and run at defenders. He did this on countless occasions against Toronto and was not dealt with. When he goes wide, the Fire must not drop back and allow him to run at defenders.
Henry also likes to play the "false 9" role, dropping into the middle of the field, to pick up the ball and then either take players on or look for a killer pass into the space he just vacated. This is a role that Chris Rolfe often plays for the Fire.
The other problem that Henry gives teams is that he draws so much attention away from his teammates, often leaving them with acres of space. Its a very tough balancing act, but the Fire must find a way to limit Frenchman's effectiveness while at the same time not allowing players like Tim Cahill and Kenny Cooper to go undetected.
Set pieces - the fewer the better
One of the things not mentioned in the last paragraph about Henry is that he takes almost all of New York's set pieces and is especially good at corners, often putting the ball into very dangerous areas.
Though the Red Bulls have many smaller players in their starting eleven such as Dax McCarty and Connor Lade, they also possess some who are genuinely dangerous in the air in Wilman Conde, Kenny Cooper and Markus Holgersson. Another player famous for his aerial ability Tim Cahill. The Aussie scored countless headed goals for Everton before signing for the Red Bulls earlier this season.
Though he hasn't made as big of an impact as most were predicting, the Fire coaching staff will be very disappointed if the teams allows the Red Bulls' biggest threat to hurt them on Saturday afternoon.
Limiting New York to only a handful of set pieces will be crucial for a positive Fire result
Prediction: Fire improve tenfold from Wednesday night to earn a deserved point with a goal from Sherjill MacDonald.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
The Fire travel to LiveStrong Sporting Park on Friday night to face Sporting KC (LIVE 7:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network) in a game which could go a long way toward determining who wins the Eastern Conference crown. Both teams are playing well and it has all the makings of a classic. Here are a few things to watch out for from a tactical perspective...
Balls over the top: Fire defenders beware
Sporting KC have a tendency to look for balls into space behind the opposing teams outside defenders and the Fire will need to be wary of this tactic Friday night. KC attackers such as Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong all like to make these runs which often drag a central defender out of position to cover, leaving space in the middle for the other attackers to move into.
PREVIEW: Fire vs. Sporting KC
The difficult part about defending these through balls is the fact that they can come from anywhere. In KC's last home match against Houston, it wasn't just midfielders like Roger Espinoza playing the balls into space but the defenders were getting in on the act, too.
Though he has played extremely well over the past month or so, Jalil Anibaba can sometimes stray too far forward which leaves space in behind him for players to run into and exploit. On the other side of the field, left back Gonzalo Segares also needs to be cautious.
High pressure: harass KC
In the Fire's past few matches, the team's policy of applying pressure to the opposition high up the field has been very effective. Not only does the pressure offer up the opportunity for a turnover, but it also disrupts the other team’s attacking rhythm.
In KC's last game away to Montreal, the Impact used the high pressure tactic and caused all sorts of problems for the away side. I look for the likes of Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko to be pressuring the KC players all night when they are in possession.
In the absence of Pavel Pardo, Alex has excelled in his new holding midfield position and his energy in the center of the park will be needed against Sporting KC. If he can also use his pace to pressure the KC midfield without straying too far out of position, it will be crucial to the Fire's chances of coming away with points.
Playoff atmosphere: keeping a cool head
There is so much riding on Friday night’s match and both teams know what is a stake, which is all the more reason for the Fire players to keep cool heads throughout the game. Kansas City has a tendency to get riled up very easily, starting with their coach, Peter Vermes. Players such as Kai Kamara and Michael Harrington also can get very emotional on the pitch, especially if they feel calls are not going their way.
With this in mind, I'm sure Frank Klopas has reiterated to his players not to let their emotions get the better of them in this high pressure game. For the most part, the Fire haven't had any problems with this aspect of their game this season but in a match of such importance where there isn't much between the teams, keeping your head can mean the difference between a positive and negative result.
Scoring first: stopping the bad habit
Though not necessarily a tactical point, a worrying trait that many would like to see addressed is reversing the trend of giving up the first goal.
This season, the Fire have gone a goal behind in games much too often for the coaches, fans and players liking. Though the team has often come back to tie the game and gone on to win it in many cases, sooner or later giving up the first goal is going to come back to haunt the Men in Red.
Clearly there is no one reason for going behind in so many games this season but if the team can reverse that trend it will make everyone happy. In the regular season to date, the Fire have only kept five clean sheets, the last of which came 11 games ago (1-0 July 14 vs. Vancouver). A clean sheet away from home Friday against Sporting KC would be a fantastic achievement.
Prediction: 1-0. Nyarko scores and Fire keep first clean sheet in 11 games to move into first place in the East.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
After beating Toronto 2-1 on Wednesday night, the Fire face Canadian opposition again on Saturday, hosting for the first time Montreal at Toyota Park (LIVE 7:30pm CT on CSN Chicago). Winning games that you don't play well in is the sign of a good team and the Fire certainly showed that against TFC.
Montreal is still fighting to sneak into the MLS Cup Playoffs but the Fire haven't lost to an Eastern Conference foe at home for over two years. Here are some things to look out for in Saturday night’s game:
WATCH: CLB 2, MTL 1 (9/1/2012)
Montreal's formation: back 3 or back 4?
Montreal manager Jesse Marsch has experimented with both a back three and back four this season. When fit, Nelson Rivas, Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari serve as the first choice defenders and you would be hard pressed to find a more experienced trio in all of MLS. The trio has hundreds of Serie A matches under their belt.
In Montreal's last game they played a back four system away against Columbus and I think we will see the same on Saturday night as the Fire's attacking ability and willingness to push the outside defenders up in support of the wingers would cause big problems for a three back setup.
Experienced defenders = lack of pace
Whenever an opposing team is asked about the Fire, the first aspect of the team's game that every coach and player talks about is "pace." Montreal's defenders may have all the experience in the world but with the Fire they come up against a team that has the ability to beat them with speed.
In his last two games, Patrick Nyarko has used his pace to devastating effect, blowing by the Houston defense to score after less than a minute and forcing the Toronto back line into making mistakes by applying pressure high up the field. Nyarko was also very dangerous on the break, especially after Toronto set pieces.
Patrick played very high up the field against TFC on Wednesday, almost as a third striker, and I think that will continue against the Impact.
Felipe - the often overlooked danger man
In attack, Montreal have two excellent wingers in Davy Arnaud and Justin Mapp. For the past decade, both players have consistently helped their teams by scoring goals but more importantly netting assists.
WATCH: CHI 2, TOR 1 (9/12/2012)
For the Impact, both play in the wide positions and distract from Felipe who is more central. He can fade in and out of games but he is very capable of providing a killer assist. Philadelphia were so concerned about his attacking threat that they man marked him for the entire match. I don't think the Fire will follow suit, but they cannot solely focus on the wide men and neglect Filipe.
Fire offense: finish your chances
In the game against TFC on Wednesday night, the Men in Red were once again guilty of missing too many excellent goal scoring opportunities. Those misses made the game a lot closer than it should have been, especially after TFC pulled it back to 2-1 in the second half.
Pavel Pardo and Sherjill MacDonald were both guilty of missing after going 1v1 against TFC 'keeper, Milos Kocic. Obviously not every chance will result in a goal but I would expect that coach Frank Klopas was stressing the importance of taking your chances to the players this week.
With the playoff race in the Eastern Conference so tight, a goal or two here and there could be the difference between coming 1st and 3rd in the final standings.
Prediction: 2-0 Fire. Frank Klopas' side take their sixth win in seven matches with goals from MacDonald and Nyarko.
After a massive home win against Houston and a morale boosting come-from-behind draw against Santos Laguna in an exhibition match, the Fire travel to Toronto full of confidence for Wednesday night's game at BMO Field. In contrast, Toronto are missing some key players through a combination of injury, suspension and international call-ups. Here are a few things to look out for in Wednesday night's match:
Terry Dunfield - how to replace a missing captain
The Fire lost captain fantastic Logan Pause due to lung and rib injuries against Philadelphia on August 12. Fortunately, the Fire had strength in depth with Alvaro Fernandez and Daniel Paladini filling the central role in Logan’s absence. Toronto do not have the luxury of a Paladini or Fernandez to replace their missing captain Terry Dunfield who, like Pause, is the heart and soul of the team.
Dunfield, like Pavel Pardo covers a lot of ground in the center of midfield and is essential to breaking up opponents attacks but also starting them for TFC. He has also scored some big goals this season including one in a recent away draw with Houston. Dunfield's absence is good news for Chris Rolfe who will look to exploit the more inexperienced potential replacements for Dunfield, namely Aaron Maund and Matt Stinson.
Long balls - TFC's bread and butter
Toronto have found some success in the long ball tactic, often bypassing the midfield altogether and looking for a flick on or knock down from Ryan Johnson and co. Johnson will be missing on Wednesday night but this will not stop TFC looking to kick it long at every possible opportunity.
The Fire back line will need to keep a close eye on TFC striker Eric Hassli who is always on the shoulder of the last defender looking for a ball over the top or a flick on. The long ball tactic also put a heavy emphasis on winning second balls. Stopping TFC from getting scoring chances from second balls is essential.
Possession - looking for more of the ball vs. TFC
In the Fire’s last game against Houston, their opponents had more than double the amount of possession. Though the Fire set up to play that way, I think we will see a much different game plan Wednesday night. The Fire will look to possess the ball for long stretches, looking do draw out TFC and create space for the attacking players to move into.
Kansas City held over 70% of the possession against TFC on September 1 and eventually broke them down, coming behind to win 2-1. The Fire will need to be patient, but their constant pressure should lead to goals.
When broken into 15 minute intervals, TFC have allowed the most goals this season from the 75th to 90th minute - another reason for the Fire to stay patient on Wednesday night.
Darren O'Dea - potential weak link in the back
In an interview on Monday night, TFC center back Darren O'Dea looked exhausted, and who could blame him? O'Dea had just returned from Kazakhstan where he played the full 90 minutes for the Republic of Ireland in their 2-1 victory on Friday. O'Dea also admitted that he was battling a cold but said he would be ready for Wednesday night.
Though very good in the air, O'Dea lacks pace and his partnership with Richard Eckersley is in its infancy. The Fire should be looking to get in 1v1 situations with O'Dea as often as possible bearing in mind his transatlantic excursions and illness. The Fire have managed to do this in the recent past, most notably when Sherjill MacDonald was able to turn Bakary Soumare and set up Chris Rolfe for an easy finish against Philadelphia.
The TFC coaching staff have been singing the praises of O'Dea since he joined the team but Wednesday's match is a potential banana skin for the Irishman .
Prediction: If the Fire stay patient, the goals will inevitably come. 2-0 Fire with goals from Chris Rolfe and Austin Berry.
Stopping Dynamo midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia is one key to three points Sunday vs. Houston
Having had over ten days to ponder the loss to DC, the Fire take to the field Sunday night at Toyota Park against the Houston Dynamo. (NBC 5.2/Galavision 6:00pm CT) Houston have had their own slips of late but will be looking to take away some points in a massive Eastern Conference match up. Here are a few things to look out for tactically.
Right back starter: Jalil Anibaba or Dan Gargan?
In the past few games, Jalil Anibaba has started over Dan Gargan at right back. Though not playing in his natural position, Jalil has used his athleticism and speed to make the transition to the outside. After a tough game against DC, some fans were calling for the return of Gargan but, against Houston, Anibaba’s aerial abilities will be needed.
Everyone knows that Dominic Kinnear’s team makes its living on scoring from set pieces. The Dynamo are a big side and Anibaba's height will be needed to deal with the likes of Will Bruin and Macoumba Kandji
WATCH: Fire vs. Dynamo Preview
Double team in the left: Neutralize Kandji
In Houston's last two league matches, Kandji had two completely different performances. Against Toronto, especially in the first half, he was excellent, running at the defenders, latching on to long balls over the top and also bringing the ball inside to link up with his strike partners and advancing play makers.
The week before against Columbus, Kandji was effectively shut out of the game by being double teamed. Columbus also didn't allow him any room to operate out wide which made him a non-factor in the game. If the Fire continue their favored formation, either Patrick Nyarko or Alvaro Fernandez will need to drop to support Anibaba and prevent Kandji from getting in 1v1 situations.
Stop Davis and Garcia: plugging the middle
Against DC last week, Chris Rolfe was unable to operate because United packed the midfield. I can see the Fire deploying the same technique against Houston and their two deep lying play makers: Brad Davis (if healthy) and Boniek Garcia. Both are given license to roam, and do so eagerly knowing that recently returned midfielder Ricardo Clark is staying behind to protect the back four.
The movement and passing ability of Davis and Garcia is Houston's biggest threat and if the Fire can stop both players from creating, it will cut off the supply line to the attacking three. The outside midfielders, especially Fernandez who has experience playing in the middle, will need to tuck in as much as possible to help out Pavel Pardo and Daniel Paladini.
This, of course, leaves a lot of space out wide for the outside backs to move into but it is a worthwhile risk if it prevents Davis and Garcia from linking with the attacking three.
Biggest strength and biggest weakness: midfield
For all the talk of Houston's attacking talents from midfield, the weakness of the 4-3-3 system is that it only contains one defensive midfielder. Ricardo Clark may be one of the best holding midfielders in the league but he can easily be exploited if the Fire can transition quickly from defensive to attack.
Columbus did this to perfection against the Dynamo in their recent 2-2 draw. Houston's center backs like to come forward to help Clark out in an attempt to cut off balls into the target forward (in the Fire’s case, Sherjill MacDonald) and this creates gaps that someone like Chris Rolfe can move into.
In this formation, Rolfe should have more room to create and we all saw how effective that was against New England. Because Houston is playing away from home, they won't be as inclined to attack as the would be at home but on the occasions that they do get men forward, the Fire must be ready to pounce.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 1, Houston Dynamo 1 with Sherjill MacDonald bagging his second goal for the Fire.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
The Fire head to DC (live coverage at 6pm CT on CSNChicago) on the back of three straight victories after a tough 2-1 win at home against New England on Saturday. DC are entering the game after a fiery match against Philadelphia the following day where controversy and red cards reigned. Both United and the Fire are calling this a "six pointer" and DC will be looking for revenge after last year’s incredible "Capital Comeback" at RFK Stadium. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
The Return of Pappa: Who Starts on the Left?
Marco Pappa came off the bench for the last 13 minutes (plus another questionable five minutes off stoppage time) against New England after playing longer than Frank Klopas had liked for Guatemala in a midweek friendly. Pappa's return means it’s likely that Patrick Nyarko will begin the game against DC on the bench.
WATCH: Chicago Fire vs. D.C. United Preview
Having set up Chris Rolfe’s 5th minute penalty call and assisted on Sherjill MacDonald’s eventual game-winner, Nyarko had a very productive 75 minutes before being subbed out after picking up a slight back injury.
Both players are playing well at the moment but Nyarko's slight knock combined with a well-rested Pappa makes it more likely the Guatemalan will start. Nyarko has excelled in his recent role coming off the bench and could make a big impact if called upon.
DC Defenders: Bare Bones at the Back
With a combination of injuries (Robbie Russell and Daniel Woolard) and suspensions (Emiliano Dudar), DC United are very thin at the back.
One position in particular which is a problem area for Ben Olsen is right-back. Dejan Jakovic played most of the Philadelphia game there and looked very shaky at times before being subbed out. Olsen stated that the sub was because Jakovic needed a breather in order to be ready for Wednesday's match but it is likely that he will play in the middle with Chris Korb moving to the right.
Olsen has also floated the idea of playing Andy Najar in this position but that seems unlikely Wednesday night. Pappa or Nyarko on the left, combined with Gonazlo Segares getting forward in support, has the potential to exploit this DC weakness.
Outside Backs: Beware of Runs in Behind
Though Sega and Anibaba have done a fantastic job getting forward to support in the attack, they must also beware of being caught high up the field. This happened on more that one occasion against New England last week and could cause problems Wednesday.
Fire coach Frank Klopas noted that in the New England match the team had a lot of turnovers and were sloppy at times with their passes and with Jalil and Gonzalo's eagerness to get forward, a bad pass resulting in a turnover can leave the team exposed.
Rolfe vs Kitchen: Holding Mid vs Creative Play-maker
The battle I am most looking forward to tonight is Fire PDL alum Chris Rolfe vs. a much more recent Fire PDL alum Perry Kitchen. Kitchen plays in the holding midfield role for United, sitting just in front of the back four, a position that Rolfe loves to operate in. Against New England, Rolfe was everywhere and his combination play was superb.
After seeing the performance against the Revs, it wouldn't surprise me if DC coach Ben Olsen had Kitchen man-mark Rolfe in an attempt to stop him from creating. What made Rolfe so dangerous was his movement, not only dropping behind MacDonald, but also looking to get in behind the defense. If Rolfe can create space for himself like he did on Saturday night, it could help to unlock the DC defense.
Prediction: 1-1 with Sherjill MacDonald tallying his second goal in a Fire shirt
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.
The Fire face yet another Eastern Conference foe at home this week: New England. The clubs appear to be heading in opposite directions with Frank Klopas’ side only losing one of their last five while the Revs have lost four out of five but the Men in Red can’t overlook this one. Here are a few things to watch out for from a tactical standpoint.
Who will replace the captain? Logan out 4-6 weeks
Last week’s 3-1 win in Philly was very costly, namely because of the injury to captain Logan Pause who, to date, has had yet another stellar year. With Logan out for at least a month, two major questions arise – who should replace him in the lineup and should his injury force the Fire to change their tactics? The answer to the second question is almost certainly no. The tactic of two holding midfielders has served the Fire well this season and there is no need to change it.
Replacing Logan is a difficult task but the Fire certainly to have options. Fernandez slotted in for Logan in the second half against Philly but players like Corben Bone, Mike Videira, Daniel Paladini and Victor Pineda can all play in the center of midfield.
Having this many options is a luxury for coach Klopas but the obvious candidate in my eyes is Fernandez. He is the most experienced MLS midfielder and did a fine job in that position last week. Fernandez also didn’t play in Wednesday’s reserve game which could be another indication that he will be getting the start alongside Pardo.
Shots from Distance: Be Wary
Though New England haven't scored too many goals of late, its not for lack of trying. Midfielders, Lee Nguyen, Saër Sène (sometimes a striker) and Benny Feilhaber are all not afraid to pull the trigger from distance. Just a few weeks ago, Sène scored an absolutely brilliant goal against the Union, cutting in from the right before blasting it past Zack MacMath.
PREVIEW: Fire vs. NE
Nguyen scored a goal-of-the-season candidate earlier this season when he volleyed the ball from outside the box into the top corner. The Fire cannot allow the Revs' midfielders space to shoot from the outside. New England will also have target man Jerry Bengtson back from international duty and will be looking to him to provide layoffs for shots from the outside.
Chris Tierney: A Threat from the Left
New England have deployed different formations in its past two games but one thing that hasn't changed is the team’s reliance on left back Chris Tierney to get forward to provide crosses into the box. Against KC, Nguyen constantly pushed inside to allow space for Tierney to move into on the left.
Against Montreal last week, New England played with one striker but again the Revs made room for Tierney on the outside to get the ball in the box. The players pushing inside also meant that New England had numerous players waiting to attack Tierney's crosses instead of just the forwards. In both of the past two games, the Revs have pushed Tierney up in advanced positions while keeping the outside right defender on more a leash.
If the Fire do indeed bring Fernandez into the middle it will be up to his replacement (presumably Nyarko) to track back and help either Jalil Anibaba or Dan Gargan when Tierney gets pushes forward into the attack.
PREDICTION: Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 0 with goals from Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com, follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.