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19 March 11:47 am

One took over the defending continental champions. Despite his 15 trophies as a manager, there were questions about how much better he could make them. Two-thirds through the season, he’s taken the champions to a new level of excellence.

Another replaced a legend in taking over the league champs. His experience and consistency made him a safe choice, but how would he lead the club into a new generation? Today the team sits seven places out of first.

The third assumed leadership of a historically successful club dealing with a few tough years. Fans wondered what would come next as contracts turned over and a new crop of youngsters presented themselves. With five coaching trophies, he’s highly knowledgeable with regards to the competition and what works in the league, but fans eagerly wait to see how he’ll plot the path forwards.

Which of the above new coaches came to the Fire? If you separated Frank Yallop from Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and David Moyes at Manchester United, good for you.

Coaching changes are so commonplace that they’re not in and of themselves particularly remarkable. In the Barclay’s Premier League so far in the 2013-2014 season, already five managers have been fired; that’s on top of the six managers who left clubs before the season already started. That means more than half the teams changed managers this year.

And in general with sports, personnel changeover is as much a part of the grind as winning and losing. It’s as much if not more common in the current adolescent stage of MLS, where parity dominates, new teams are forthcoming, and personnel rules and financial regulation necessitate almost constant player movement.

But what do the changes mean for the Fire?

This year is a new beginning. Even though the ownership and front office maintain a steadfast commitment to the club’s history and traditions, the technical staff was overhauled leading into the 2014 season. MLS legend Frank Yallop replaced Fire legend Frank Klopas. He brought C.J. Brown, another Fire legend, along with, and added assistant coach Clint Mathis on top.

And the change touched the players as well. Some consistent starters from seasons past, like Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba, are gone. Led by Harry Shipp and Benji Joya, a new crop of youngsters are fighting veterans for their places. Meanwhile, except for Sean Johnson in goal, Jeff Larentowicz in the middle, and the reigning MVP Mike Magee (whenever he’s back fit) up top, every place in the side is up for grabs.

Things change, okay, but this is now a totally different Fire team than the one we’ve seen the past few years. New players and new management means a new culture, new approaches both on and off the field. A 4-1-4-1 formation is in the works. But the gutsy 10-man point in Portland and loss at Chivas showed that old habits take time to correct.
 
Even though the Fire were frustrated to miss the playoffs a few times in recent years, they have the league MVP and enough player talent on paper to threaten the top teams in MLS. Yet by overhauling the technical staff, the Fire signaled a loftier statement: Being mediocre is not good enough, no matter how much successful history the club has.

Without going into huge detail about the strategic plans, the Fire players have said that this preseason felt different, that Yallop was fostering a different environment than Klopas’s. 

It’s important because whether we like it or not, this season will be defined by the changes the Fire made this offseason. Change is here.

The questions though: How much do you change, and how much do you keep? What is actually new? How exactly do you convey and impose a plan without sacrificing whatever was working before? What effect can a plan even have if there are many unpredictable and external issues?

It doesn’t look like Yallop is going to blow everyone away with some avant garde tactical system. Although the lineups have changed, in the first two games we saw tactical variations of familiar set ups, even if the advertised 4-1-4-1 was never totally deployed. We saw a cautious balance between MLS veterans and excited young guns.

In the media, we’ve seen a focus on working hard and coming together as a team - like the tactics and team selection, it’s a communications strategy that isn’t going to draw too much attention.

But don’t let the low key approach fool you. Yallop’s project with the Fire is massive. Whether he ends up tearing through the league like Guardiola, or taking a few steps back, like Moyes, certainly Yallop’s plan must be taken seriously for the long term. Change might be part of the game, but plans in this game only work when they’re given time to come to.

16 March 6:28 pm
Chicago Fire Head Coach and Director of Soccer Frank Yallop
 
Overall thoughts on the match
 
“Well, good to get a point, our first point this season. I thought we played very well in the first half; could have maybe been two-up, but that’s soccer. You’ve got to take your chances, but, in the end, with what happened in the match, getting the red card and being under a lot of pressure at the end, I think we did well to hold onto the point. Had a couple chances real late to maybe win it, so all-in-all happy with the performance of the team and, obviously, not overly pleased we didn’t get three points, but it’s a start for us. We’re building for the future.”
 
On the four line-ups changes from last week’s match against Chivas USA:
 
“Just wanted to freshen it up. I thought it wasn’t good enough last week when we played at Chivas USA. I thought we performed very well today. Harry Shipp had his first game, was great. Benji Joya had a start as well. Matt Watson, who I picked up from Vancouver, had a tremendous game today. I had Quincy Amarikwa up top and I thought Quincy was a real handful all game. He’s doing well, he works hard at his game, and those guys did really well today and I was happy.”
 
On the team’s performance:
 
“The response today was excellent. I thought our character was strong, we didn’t buckle, we kept going. That’s the sign of a good team, so hopefully that’s the sign for us moving forward. We don’t really have any natural wingers and I think Portland’s strength is down the middle. Once they get themselves dipped inside they’re very good in those underneath positions, underneath the back four and [Darlington] Nagbe coming off the line and stuff like that. So tactically we plugged the middle and I think we did a great job of that. Nicking balls and then broke on them a few times. Maybe could have punished them a bit better in the first half, but still our game plan worked. I thought we nullified a lot of the play, especially the first 60 minutes. Again, it was a good performance by us and I’m proud of the guys and proud of the way they handled themselves today.”
 
Thoughts on the red card for Nyarko:
 
“To be honest, I’d have to look at it again. But you have to make sure that’s worthy of a second yellow. I thought the first one, Nagbe had already played it, why didn’t he just play on or give a foul and not a yellow? The second one, it was right in front us. Patrick [Nyarko] was on the other side, so I couldn’t really see, but again it’s got to be worthy of the foul. I can’t really comment until I see it.”
 
Fire midfielder Matt Watson
 
On his first start in his first game with the Fire:
 
“It’s obviously good to get into the team. Obviously, I’ve got a lot to learn about how [Chicago] play and things like that. All the guys have been really welcoming since I’ve been here. We’ve come to Portland and to get a hard-fought point is good, but it’s disappointing we couldn’t get three.”
 
On Chicago’s performance
 
“I think we just need to clean up on small things. You can see the fight is there, things like that. All the basic fundamental things are there, but we need to just maybe relax a little bit on the ball; just play. If we can just take a step back, relax, play, we’ll be great this year. We’ve got some great guys. [Quincy] Amarikwa was fighting for every ball. When you see that, it just inspires you to play and get behind him and push up, things like that. If we clean up on the small things we’ll be great.”
 
Fire midfielder Harry Shipp
 
On making his debut
 
“It was obviously exciting, especially playing here for 90 minutes in front of a great crowd. It’s definitely something I’ve been working towards my entire life and to finally make the debut is special. I wish, obviously, we would have gotten the three points. Thought we had it at the end in stoppage time, but overall not too bad of a way to start.”
 
On Chicago’s tactical approach to Portland
 
“We had a lot of changes from the lineup last week, so I think our first and foremost responsibility was getting those good spots defensively. I think Lovel [Palmer] on the right, Gonzalo [Segares] on the left really did a good job talking to the outside mids in terms of cutting off those interior passes because obviously that’s what Portland likes to do first is find those guys in the seams. So I think, kind of forcing them wide, we were able to do that and kept them from being extremely dangerous.”
 
On Chicago’s performance:
 
“Quincy did a great job drawing the penalty kick first. I think we came out confident. We didn’t want to be shy. We felt like we didn’t come out with as much energy as we would have liked to last week, so we really wanted to change that this week. Then giving up the goal wasn’t what we wanted, but I think we responded pretty well. We had a couple good chances after we gave up that goal to actually steal the game and win 2-1. So overall I think we responded pretty well to giving up the goal.”
14 March 8:32 am

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

A tweak in formation option A: Packing the midfield

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

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

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

A tweak in formation option B: Eliminating the target striker 

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

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

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

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

Set pieces: a weakness for both teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 March 9:05 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A switch in philosophy – high pressure replaces the counter attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 March 5:59 pm

Chicago Fire forward Quincy Amarikwa proved rather effective in what time he got on the field last year (he scored three goals in 299 minutes). In his time off of it, he also proved to be perhaps the top MLS player in the league's Fantasy Manager game.

With the start of the 2014 MLS season just two days away, he's presenting a challenge: #BeatQuincy at MLS Fantasy Manager... See below:

Join the "#BeatQuincy Challenge" League on the MLS Fantasy Manager and you could win a signed-Quincy Amarikwa jersey along with other prizes!

Sign-up for Quincy's League using code: 17933-3213

Once you join, feel free to #TrashTalkQuincy on Twitter & Instagram @QuincyAmarikwa!

04 February 8:07 am

The Numbers Game rolls on Tuesday with the latest contestants being the center back duo of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni, who were recently acquired from the Seattle Sounders in a trade that sent Jalil Anibaba the other way.

Let’s start with the Hurtado. The 29-year-old center back will continue to don the same #34 he wore for five seasons in Cascadia. Asked why he’s chosen a somewhat “off the beaten path” soccer number, Hurtado explained 34 was the number he was given when trialing with AC Milan in early 2009.

“The opportunity was a special one and it’s stayed with me ever since,” he told Chicago-Fire.com last week.

Though 34 isn’t the most common soccer number, two Fire players have worn it before. Former Trinidad & Tobago international Osei Telesford was the club’s #34 in 2007 while Austin Washington wore it from 2008-2009.

Meanwhile, Ianni has chosen to suit up wearing the #6 for the Fire this season. Interestingly, Ianni and Anibaba weren’t just in part swapped for each other but they’ve also taken one another’s number at their new club as the former Fire defender will suit up as Seattle’s #4 this season.

Asked about the choice of #6, Ianni said, “I just wanted a lower, defender’s number,” but the only two digits that fit the criteria for the Fire were #2 and #6.

Althought the #2 is free for anyone to choose, Ianni says he took into account the legacy of assistant coach C.J. Brown’s 13 years wearing  #2 for the Men in Red and the fact that it’s only been worn one other time for 27 minutes by another Fire player (Wells Thompson in 2012). 

C.J. Brown wore the number 2 for the Chicago Fire for 13 seasons from 1998-2010

In the end, the choice was simple.

“I have a ton of respect for what C.J. did here wearing that number and what that means to Fire supporters. The six shirt suits me just fine.”

QUESTION: Ianni becomes the ninth player in Fire history to wear #6 for the Men in Red. How many of the other eight can you name? (SCROLL BELOW FOR THE ANSWER).

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANSWER: Brian Bates (1998), Tom Soehn (1998-2000), Sergi Daniv (2001), Kelly Gray (2002-2005), Brandon Prideaux (2008-2009), Julio Martinez (2010), Peter Lowry (2010), Jalil Anibaba (2011-2013).