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19 April 9:30 am

The Fire return to Toyota Park to take on the Columbus Crew Saturday (LIVE 7:30pm CT on MLSsoccer.com) with no points to show after an encouraging performance last weekend against the Dynamo. But for a few mistakes, the result could have been a lot better for the Fire, but the team is certainly improving. 

Columbus come to Chicago on a four-game unbeaten streak and have picked up two wins on their travels this season. Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

Getting the ball wide – creating 1v1 situations with the Columbus outside backs

Looking at the Columbus defense, Chad Marshall has been a rock for 10 years in the middle and the addition of the Brazilian Glauber means the Crew has one of the strongest center back pairings in the league.

On the outside however, there are some weaknesses, particularly on the left. Against Montreal last week, the Crew stuffed the middle of the field when the Impact had the ball in an attempt to prevent Felipe from creating. This meant there was a lot of space on the wings and when the Impact actually got the ball to the outside, they created chances.

WATCH: CHIvCLB Match Preview

If the Fire are going to try and single out Tyson Wahl and try and get in 1v1 situations with him, Patrick Nyarko might be the best player for the Fire to deploy on the right hand side. Bringing in Nyarko would mean either dropping or shifting Daniel Paladini, the Fire’s standout player so far this season.

Another issue to deal with on the left hand side for the Crew is the presence of Eddie Gaven. Though Gaven has left his left back Wahl exposed on more than a few occasions this season, his attacking play makes up for it.

In any case, I expect to see a lot of activity on that side of the field and those battles should be fascinating to watch.

Dominic Oduro – not letting the former Fire player get in behind

The Fire traded Dominic Oduro to the Crew in the offseason for Dilly Duka and the Ghanaian has notched three goals for his new club this season. The Fire defenders will know all about the pace of their old teammate and the runs he tends to make, but they still need to be very cautious and the back line must work as a unit.

The danger of playing a high line against Oduro is that he can make runs in behind, whereas if the defense drops too deep, it allows the Crew to pile on the pressure and keep the Fire pinned back in their own half. Another, less reported danger from Oduro’s runs in behind is the second ball opportunities they create.

When balls are being played through to Dom, oftentimes defenders are stretching to cut them out, or just turning and blindly kicking the ball away, resulting in second ball opportunities. Columbus are very good at getting men forward to pick up on these second balls, with players like Higuain and Viana looking to do so whenever possible.

This tactic worked well for Columbus against the Impact last week. The emphasis will be on the Fire midfielders to track their runners and not allow Columbus to create chances from the second balls on Saturday night.

Defending set pieces – beating a dead horse but a noteworthy point

Watching the Crew’s last few matches reminded me again of how good Federico Higuain’s deliveries from dead balls are. His corners and free kicks, from any distance, cause havoc in the box.

Against Houston last week, the winning goal came off a badly defended set piece all around for the Fire. Brad Davis was allowed to put the ball in under no pressure after playing the free kick short and then the Fire’s back line and goalkeeper all froze, allowing the ball to bounce straight into the net.

It’s difficult to blame one person for the goal, but it was a very soft one to give up. That being said, I would like to see goalkeeper Sean Johnson start to come and claim more corners and crosses, especially with his size, but doing that brings about the risk of not getting to the ball and allowing easy goals to be scored.

In any case, allowing free headers against Columbus is unacceptable and picking up a clean sheet for only the second time this season would be welcomed by fans and technical staff alike.

Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Chris Rolfe and Joel Lindpere.

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

17 April 11:47 am

It's Tues... no it's actually Wednesday, but we still feel the need to entertain you with our awesome GIFs.

So instead of GIFTuesday, it's GIFWednesday's featured GIF, Chris Rolfe's 49th Fire goal across all competitions. As you can see below... it was quite a shot.

16 April 5:13 pm

We got some great news today that Saturday's match vs. Columbus will be carried LIVE and for FREE on MLSsoccer.com as the el Jimador Tequila MLS Stream of the Week

A few notes in order to watch on Saturday...

* The stream is available only at MLSsoccer.com and fans must use a device with Adobe Flash player.
* The stream is available to fans inside the U.S., Canada, and Mexico
* An MLS Network account is required. Register at MLSsoccer.com or at the top left of Chicago-Fire.com

Saturday's game will be carried on television in Chicago with a carrier announcement to come on Thursday.  

16 April 2:28 pm

 

By way of introduction, hi. I'm Ben. I've been with the Fire since the day they were born, through their first kiss with Stoitchkov, their Toyota Park Bar Mitzvah, up into their pimply stage today. I look at a lot of art and I watch a lot of soccer. I prefer when it works out that both happen at the same time; when they're the same thing.

This space will discuss those moments, those tiny moments that define games. It'll also chronicle what happens when you watch games with people across the art-culture-sports spectrum.

A quick word about Boston. Although it was under horrible circumstances, yesterday showed one of the reasons people come together and sacrifice money and time for something as meaningless as sport. The messages of support from the soccer community were uplifting (all this on top of the day we remember Hillsborough).

The euphoric addiction of following a team is matched in effect perhaps only by the relationships the sport engenders. It’s a terrible point to make, but I can think of few better examples of soccer’s significance as a cultural entity, which anyway will be the point of this column.

So.

On Sunday, the Fire went to Houston to try to turn the momentum from their first win of the season into a win against a team that’s basically unbeatable in their sweltering orange greenhouse of a stadium. Manager Frank Klopas hinted at the strategy going in: “Dealing with the temperature was the one thing we wanted to focus on. We wanted to be better in possession and not make a really high tempo game because that would affect us.”

In other words, Klopas wanted to avoid the kind of game that would tire out his players.

How do you control the pace of a game in soccer? In football you can run the ball. Some basketball sets are built to use up more of the shot clock. But soccer’s different. You can either sit back and try not to chase, or you can hold the ball as much as possible.

Trying not to chase is a dangerous game, and anyway a team that sits but doesn’t want to alienate the world with the worst kind of 0-0 games eventually has to counter attack, which means quick sprints upfield, exposed space behind the sprinters, and a game that can fly open into a reckless track meet.

That actually sounds kind of fun, but it’s not a good strategy away to Houston, so Klopas wanted to hold the ball. It’s a funny thing: Chasing another team around is exhausting, but you don’t get tired when you have the ball even when you’re running to receive the ball, create space, etc. It’s one of the great psychosomatic mysteries of the game.

But another mystery is attacking confidence. How do you slow down pace without affecting the fearlessness necessary to attack without hesitation?

There was a great moment in the first half on Sunday: The Fire defense collects the ball and Logan Pause gestures to the team to take it easy, to slow down (see the GIF below). It was the captain being the coach’s representative on the field (Klopas on Pause’s return against New York two weeks ago: “You can just see today my voice is a lot better than it was in previous games because he does a lot of that.”), but did it work?

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/3rnlYHlPCpDIchdUDnL69AXq34FmbxT3hH5It2uDlPgSK6bFMt0PXPZmS9jjOws8C4NEHooQ0sjB8EmDBVWXu6spdAWjZV-Vo94Ht12D2KXKWHaD1v9AYOlt

The intangible variances of soccer mean that a team visiting a place like Houston has to find the right balance between controlling pace without losing the pace necessary to attack. It’s an extremely delicate use of resources.

Did the anti-fatigue strategy make someone less willing to burst forward to join a counter attack? Or, did it take the kind of attacking risk in the final third that’s necessary to create scoring chances but which can also result in an exhausting recovery sprint (like how Houston’s Andrew Driver came out after a series of runs in the second half)?

Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure there’s enough evidence that Houston’s goals and Fire’s lack thereof had anything to do with fatigue, and it’s not like the Fire lined up defensively or were perceptibly so afraid to go forward. Pause’s gesture was, in the end, a moment in a game that may or may not have made a crucial difference, but it was the kind of moment that gives the game its complexity and its mystery. 

Find me on Twitter @bsto or at Cleo's on Chicago.

16 April 10:08 am

There are many words to express what the Trib's Sports Section did today...

To the people of Boston and our friends at the New England Revolution, we're with you. 

14 April 9:07 am

As they do every week, MLSsoccer.com's Dan Haiek and Matt Doyle give their view on Sunday's clash between the Fire and Dynamo...

12 April 2:11 pm

Need one last look at Sunday's 3-1 win over Red Bull? 

Our web guru Nick Sintich put Sunday's highlights to the music of the uber-popular song "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons.

Well done, YouTube music licensing is a great thing! 

12 April 9:47 am

You already watched Daniel Paladini and Wells Thompson preview Sunday's match-up versus the Houston Dynamo. You've also seen Assistant Coach Mike Matkovich talk tactics in the AthletiCo Coaching Corner.

Now check out how Dominic Kinnear and his side look at the Fire.
 

12 April 8:51 am

After picking up their first win of the season last week, the Fire travel to Houston for Sunday’s match (4pm CT on UniMas/La Ley 107.9FM) brimming with confidence. The Dynamo lost again on the road last week against Portland but are returning to BBBV Compass Stadium, a place where they have never lost. Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical perspective:

Giles Barnes – excelling in the role of second striker and deceptively good in the air

Giles Barnes has had an excellent start to 2013, playing in an almost free role just behind the target striker. Barnes is dangerous in a number of areas: he can drop deep or wide with the ball, taking on defenders, he can also win flicks on to his strike partner and he has come up with two headed goals already this season.

AthletiCo Coaching Corner

Against Portland last week and San Jose the week before, Barnes linked up well with central midfielders Adam Moffat and Ricardo Clark, taking the ball from them before turning and running at defenders from deep or around the box.

In the air, Barnes won many dangerous flick-ons against San Jose in Houston’s last home match. Barnes’ ability to win balls in the air seemed to baffle San Jose, who were clearly anticipating him to be running onto the flicks by Will Bruin.

In the matches against San Jose and the week before against Vancouver, Barnes chipped in with two headed goals. When teams play Houston, it is easy to get distracted by players such as Brad Davis or Boniek Garcia but Barnes has been their most dangerous player this season.

The Fire cannot give him space on the ground and players like Austin Berry need to match Barnes in the air.

 The possible return of Arne – if he returns, who moves to the bench?

Much of the talk this week in the Fire camp is the potential return of Arne Friedrich to a Fire back line that has been decimated by injuries at the beginning of the season.

Though everyone is looking forward to Arne’s return, it brings up a very tough tactical decision for head coach Frank Klopas, namely who plays at right back.

Wells Thompson has done a very solid job over the past two matches in that position, improving from a shaky first half against Chivas to having a standout game in last week’s win against NYRB.

Wells stated this week that he would like to “lock the down the spot and become a regular starter" and he certainly has put forth a good case to the coaches.

Thompson’s distribution out of the back is excellent and as the away team this week, the Fire will be looking to hold onto the ball for as long as possible and not be wasteful in possession.

Paladini, Thompson Preview Houston

The other realistic candidate for the starting right back spot should Friedrich return is Jalil Anibaba, last season’s starter. Against a physical and big team like Houston, Jalil’s strength could be needed.

Anibaba is also excellent in the air and with players like Barnes and Bruin to contend with, Klopas may turn to the third-year defender.

Houston’s knack for scoring goals from set pieces is also well-known and Anibaba’s presence in the box could be all-important on Sunday afternoon.

The Dynamo's frequency of scoring from corners is such that the home fans get to their feet for every corner, expecting a goal or good chance to be created from each one.

Though there was a lot of talk about Logan Pause moving to right-back at the beginning of this season, I don’t see the Fire changing too much the in the midfield after last week’s performance.

A start for Jalil at right back would be tough on Wells Thompson after two great performances, but tactically, starting Anibaba would make the most sense.  

Prediction: 1-1 with the Fire goal coming from Sherjill MacDonald

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