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20 March 8:43 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 March 4:41 pm

Select shots from this afternoon's Giordano's Pizza Partnership Kickoff.

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.

17 March 2:39 pm

How is it that Quincy Amarikwa doesn’t have a neutral gear? What super power would he like to possess? Also, what exactly is #QuincyTime?

Answers to all these questions in Both Sides of the Badge, presented by Quaker:

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

13 March 10:31 am

Quincy Amarikwa has become somewhat of a statistical phenomenon in his time with the Chicago Fire.

Throughout his six seasons in MLS, Amarikwa has collected his paycheck in a super-sub role, bringing that extra bit of energy to go at defenders when his team is looking for a goal. Amarikwa has just 14 starts in 82 MLS appearances, nearly half of which (6) came with Toronto FC in 2012.

While he could always help generate some offense, Amarikwa’s stat line wasn’t anything too special during his first four MLS seasons, tallying four goals and four assists in 67 regular season games for San Jose, Colorado and Toronto FC between 2009-2012.

Flash forward to last year the way he earned his spot with the Fire. in a preseason friendly against San Jose in Santa Barbara, Calif. Amarikwa, who joined the team at their preseason training base earlier that day, ended up coming in for the final 15 minutes of a 0-0 deadlock.

Amarikwa made the most of his short time on the field, earning  a penalty that was eventually converted by Jeff Larentowicz to give the team a 1-0 victory over the Quakes.

Those 15 minutes earned him a contract with the club and were the start of what has become dubbed as “Quincy Time”, i.e., the short amount of time Amarikwa has to work with in order to produce offense.

This bore out over the course of last season when the veteran MLS forward racked up the best goals to minutes ratio in MLS, tallying three in just 299 minutes or .90 goals per 90 minutes.

With his goal in Sunday’s 3-2 defeat at Chivas USA, his scoring rate with the Fire actually increased to 1.08 per 90 minutes. Meaning in theory, statistically, Amarikwa is good for at least a goal a game.

In 332 minutes with the Fire, Amarikwa has matched the goal total he racked up playing 1958 minutes over his previous four MLS seasons.

So what’s the craziest part of all this?

He’s never started a match for the Fire, making 15 MLS appearances in just over a year. After consulting the TrueCar Player Registry, aside from newbie Benji Joya, Amarikwa is the only player in club history to score a goal without having started an MLS match.

Furthermore, Amarikwa has never even played a full half for the Men in Red – the most minutes logged in one game has been 43, which came in the 4-1 destruction of D.C. United on July 20 last season. Even though he didn’t score in that game, he did earn the penalty kick that Mike Magee converted for Fire goal number four.

He’s also scored each of his last three appearances for the Fire, dating back to a 3-0 win last October at D.C. United.

Amarikwa has surely done well enough in his short minutes with the Fire to earn more playing time and perhaps even his first start. Surely it’ll come at some point this season and when it does, his impressive goals to minutes ratio will inevitably drop.

Still, it’s hard to argue against seeing more “Quincy Time”.

WATCH: Quincy Amarikwa’s body of work for the Chicago Fire

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09 March 7:42 pm

Chicago Fire Head Coach and Director of Soccer Frank Yallop
 
Overall thoughts on the game
 
“If you look at the game as a whole, for us, we were poor. I thought our whole demeanor wasn’t what we’ve seen and worked on in preseason. Just very disappointing. Having said that, coming back and tying the game 2-2, we fought back, kept going, got back to tie the game, and to give up a set play like that is poor on our behalf. We’ve got to learn from it, we got to move on, but very disappointing.”
 
On the rebuilding of the backline
 
“Defensive set plays is everybody. I haven’t yet seen a replay of the third Chivas goal, but it didn’t look good from where I was sitting. It looked like a free header from six yards out. If you give that to anybody, they’re going to score. All in all, I thought we had a few chances in the game. Sunday afternoon, tough conditions with the heat, but there’s no excuses for us; we have to make sure that we’re ready to play and dig deep when we need to. We should’ve at least gotten a tie out of the game.”
 
Thoughts on Benji Joya’s debut
 
“Yeah, he scored a goal, he did well. He’s young; you’re going to get young decisions. He had a couple of fouls where I thought maybe he shouldn’t have dived in, but he did fine.”
 
On Mike Magee
 
“To be honest, he’s still a bit injured, so I didn’t want to risk him in this game. We said maybe, but I had already put Logan [Pause] on, Chris Rolfe was cramping, and we had already used all our subs. Mike was good for maybe ten minutes but we had to change it a little bit. It is what it is. I think Mike wanted to be part of it today and I did as well, but I didn’t want to risk it and give him 25 minutes when he probably only had 10 in him, and his hamstring is still a little bit tight, so I didn’t want to go there.”
 
If he saw anything of concern
 
“I think just our demeanor especially in the last goal against, our heads dropped a little bit with the two goals against. I think Quincy [Amarikwa] sparked us a little bit, did well, made it difficult for them to play against us, and all of a sudden, they get chances out of that. There are some positives, if you like, but losing is terrible, it never feels good no matter how you look at it. For us as a group, we have to make sure that we don’t buckle under and we’re ready for the fight until the last minute of the game. If you’re not ready to fight, then we’re in trouble.”
 
Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare
 
Overall thoughts on the game
 
“It was unfortunate. We worked really hard the second half to comeback; we could’ve gotten away with one point, unfortunately it didn’t happen. We have to regroup for next Sunday and hopefully get a good result.”
 
On Chicago’s spirit in making a comeback
 
“It showed character. It showed that the guys that came into the game, Quincy and Benji, they already played and they gave us a great push. They came out in the right moment, worked hard and gave us two goals to comeback and we let it slip in the end.”
 
On the backline’s performance
 
“Every time you give up three goals, you can’t say you’re figured out too well. Our goal this season was not to concede as many goals, and today we gave up three so you can’t say we did a good job. We worked really hard; the coaching staff has done a great job with the backline, working on defense. We know we conceded three goals today and we’re not happy about that.”
 
Chicago Fire midfielder Benji Joya
 
First goal in first game as a professional
 
“This week, all I’ve put in my mind is to get the debut and get a goal and get my name on the score sheet and luckily, the first touch I had today turned into a goal and I’m really proud of that.”
 
Overall thought on the game
 
“It’s part of the game. Sometimes you comeback and at the end, you get a little bit low and they get a good corner, good cross and that’s what pros are going to do. If you slack, they’re going to come out on top. I’m really proud of the effort of the guys and it’s the beginning of the season and we still have another game to look forward to and we really need to focus on the next game and get the win.”
 
On the team’s effort to win the game
 
“The effort was there, things didn’t go our way this game, but it happens. Soccer is back and forth and you just have to be constant. Things didn’t go our way today and we have to keep looking forward to the next game.”