MLS Regular Season
Select shots from the Fire's 1-0 win over Toronto FC.
CREDIT: Brian Kersey, Chicago Fire
With two massive road victories under their belt, the Fire play the final regular season game of 2013 at Toyota Park against Toronto FC on Saturday night (LIVE 7pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports Wisconsin).
With six goals scored in the last two matches, the Men in Red are hitting form at the right time and know if results go their way, they could be guaranteed an MLS Cup Playoff spot by the final whistle. Toronto have nothing to play for but will be looking to play spoiler. Here are some tactical things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Keeping up the high pressure tactic – play a high line and get players into the TFC box
As I mentioned before, the Fire have scored six goals in the last two games. The closest to that tally in a previous two-game MLS span has been four goals. With that in mind, the Men in Red must try and get people into the box whenever possible against Toronto.
In many games this season, Toronto have not been undone by individual brilliance, but rather defensive errors. TFC coach Ryan Nelson, a former defender, must be disgusted by the amount of tap in goals his team has allowed with Sporting KC, Montreal and New York all scoring simple goals against Toronto and all stemming from defenders ball watching and not following their marks.
The Fire need to try and take advantage of this by getting more players from the midfield into the box to support assumed strikers Mike Magee and Juan Luis Anangono. The high pressure tactic can be very beneficial to this, with players like Alex not allowing the defenders to have time and space on the ball. With the team playing a high line and not dropping deep, it will give players an opportunity to get forward and into the box faster.
The Rios conundrum – who to start in the center of midfield?
Arevalo Rios played two grueling matches for Uruguay over the past week, helping La Celeste qualify for the World Cup intercontinental playoff against Jordan.
After playing 180 minutes for his country and only returning to Chicago on Thursday, it might be difficult for him to start in the middle for the Fire on Saturday night.
WATCH: Magee, Berry talk Toronto FC
One reason that the coaching staff might decide to start Rios however is that Jeff Larentowicz is currently sitting on four yellow cards and one more against TFC would rule him out of the season finale at New York next Sunday.
Another option for the Men in Red could be to start Larentowicz and bring on Rios for the former New England man if the Fire are in a comfortable position.
That being said, as we have seen from the past two games, the high pressure tactic is effective regardless of who starts in the middle.
Muzzling Bobby Convey – a danger on both wings
Bobby Convey is one of the few players to have a strong year for TFC and the Fire must not allow him to create chances for target striker Bright Dike. Convey is equally comfortable playing on either wing and it wouldn’t surprise me if he started on the right where he would link up with improving right back Mark Bloom.
While Bakary Soumare has found form again in the last few matches after having a few horror moments previously, Gonzalo Segares is a player that will be looking to have a better performance against TFC.
In 1v1 situations, Sega is very difficult to beat but the problems start when players make runs in behind him. The Costa Rican can sometimes be caught too high up the field while other times he is forced to move inside to cover for one of the center backs. Both of these were highlighted in last weekend’s match against Dallas.
Against Toronto, I would also like to see the Fire’s outside midfielder track back and help out Segares more, especially if Bloom gets forward. A composed and compact performance by the Fire’s back four as a unit will give the team a very good chance of coming out of the game with three points and maybe even a guaranteed playoff spot.
Prediction: After having to endure a nervy end to last week’s match, the Fire make it easier on fans by winning 2-0 with goals from Alex and Mike Magee.
Hey, look at that... For his vaillant performance en route to a win over FC Dallas, the folks over at MLSsoccer.com decided to make Mike Magee the #3 performer of the week!
And since we're on the subject of Mike Magee, we would like to subtly steer you in the direction to support him to be the MLS MVP. Check out the video below!
The Fire won back-to-back away games and scored six goals. They sit in a playoff position and control their own fate with two games remaining. Juan Luis Anangono is heating up. Mike Magee is so hot he’s scoring goals by accident. Sean Johnson is playing like, and being recognized as, one of the four or five best American goalies. Jeff Larentowicz is owning midfields. Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry are two of only three MLS players who’ve played every single minute so far this season and their defensive relationship is finally solidifying. There’s real depth on the outside and through the middle (where captain Logan Pause and summer standout Daniel Paladini are working to get past Alex and Arevalo Rios).
That’s the general view right now. The squad is playing up to their potential and the depth is supporting them. The competition for spots is pushing everyone harder, and the depth is allowing Frank Klopas to cover for injuries, international duty (Rios, Lindpere), or to go with the hotter player (Anangono over Chris Rolfe).
In other words, things are shaping up nicely. The general feeling is a good one, momentum is building, the Twitter trolls have returned to their caves, and it’s hard to fend off enticing thoughts like, you know those lower-seeded teams that barrel into the playoffs and scare everyone because they’re playing with momentum and confidence? What if the Fire can be that team?
All season long, the Fire’s major problem was consistency. They were infuriatingly inconsistent from game to game and, indeed, from half to half. Maybe it was a focus thing, maybe it was a changing personnel thing, who knows. But now the Fire are managing games better. They’re attacking straight from the beginning. They’re pressuring the ball all over the field. They’re getting crucial two-goal advantages and defending well enough to hold on to them.
We saw all that last week in D.C., where a super high defensive line pushed the Fire team way up the field to pressure United players into mistakes that led to chances and goals. We saw the same thing in Dallas on Saturday night. Alex, especially, was way up the field in the first half, never letting the Dallas players play the ball comfortable in their own half. (Magee, Anangono, Patrick Nyarko, and Dilly Duka deserve credit too.) How many shots did the Fire have at the top of the Dallas box in the first 30 minutes? It was harassment.
So just like in DC, a high defensive line and concentrated pressure led to a 2-0 first half lead. But just like in DC, we saw where it could be dangerous. We saw the team pay the price of so much early pressure, with Nyarko tweaking a hamstring and the rest of the team almost running out of gas late in the second half. We also saw how pushing too eagerly can be scary:
But I like this high pressure because it fits the moment, with the Fire desperately needing these results to make the playoffs. There are just two games left and the Fire have to prove their potentially newfound consistency beyond the past two away wins. They have to show the urgency and the commitment and the work rate into the next two games, too. Klopas's high risk and high pressure tactic fits.
It's a great moment: After all the work and all the struggle, suddenly the players’ quality shines through. Suddenly everybody trusts each other. Goals and points happen. Anibaba scores a stunner. Other teams hit the posts.
I don't know about predicting anything against Toronto and New York. But if we keep seeing the Fire play as they have these past two games, they'll get to play a few more.
Bet you didn't see that title coming two weeks ago did you?
While much of MLS sat idle this weekend, teams in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race nearly played a full slate with perhaps the Fire coming away as the biggest winners from the weekend’s results.
A look at where the race stands heading into the final two weeks of the season...
x - 1) New York Red Bulls
Current Points: 53 (15-9-8)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: DDWWW (11pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 10-2-4 / 5-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 59
Average Opponents Pts: 47.0
Remaining Schedule: 10/20 @ HOU, 10/27 vs. CHI
Rundown: New York sat idle this weekend, letting the rest of the Eastern Conference catch up to them on games played. Already qualified for the playoffs, Red Bull will be watching the Cascadia clash between Seattle and Portland closely Sunday night as it will have significant implications on the Supporters Shield race.
Red Bull will certainly be in the mix for their first true silverware the last two weeks of the season but with so many teams still in contention for the hardware, Fire fans shouldn’t expect New York to put out a weaker lineup on the last day of the season.
A win this week vs. Houston would at the very least lock up a top two finish in the East for New York while a loss would make things very interesting…
x - 2) Sporting KC
Current Points: 52 (15-10-7)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5: DWLWW (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 8-5-3 / 7-5-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 58
Average Opponents Pts: 31
Remaining Schedule: 10/18 vs. D.C., 10/23 vs. OLI**, 10/26 @ PHI
Rundown: Sporting KC could have controlled their own destiny for the top spot in the East if they would have won out but Wednesday’s draw at Houston means they’ve relinquished that opportunity to New York.
Still, Sporting welcomes D.C. United this weekend and will no doubt be in the equation for both that top spot and potentially the Supporters Shield race on the final day of the season.
By virtue of the draw between Philadelphia and D.C. United Saturday, they also locked down a playoff berth. A win Saturday vs. D.C. and Sporting will lock in a top two finish in the East.
3) Houston Dynamo
Current Points: 48 (13-10-9)
Games Remaining: 1 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: DWWWL (10pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-3-4 / 4-6-4
Maximum Possible Points: 56
Average Opponents Pts: 34.5
Remaining Schedule: 10/20 vs. NY, 10/24 @ AU**, 10/27 @ D.C.
Rundown: The midweek draw vs. Sporting KC cooled off the Dynamo’s hot streak just a bit, leaving them exposed to a potential drop in the standings at the weekend. Fortunately for Houston, Montreal fell to New England and the Dynamo are still in with a small chance for a top of the East finish.
With three games in eight days to end the season, the Dynamo have a huge week ahead of them beginning Saturday vs. New York.
How the qualify this week: A win over New York combined with a Philadelphia loss or draw to Montreal or a win over New York combined with a Philadelphia draw/win and a Chicago loss or draw to Toronto FC.
4) Montreal Impact
Current Points: 46 (13-11-7)
Games Remaining: 3 (1 home/ 2 away)
Last 5 Games: LLDLL (1pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 9-4-3 / 4-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 56
Average Opponents Pts: 39
Remaining Schedule: 10/16 @ LA, 10/19 vs. PHI, 10/26 @ TFC
Rundown: Oh how the mighty have fallen. Long holders of the Eastern Conference top spot the first half of the season, Montreal are now winless in their last five following Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to New England.
Montreal still hold a game in hand over the rest of the East but make that up with a tough midweek match Wednesday at LA. In that game the Impact will be down two starters in Matteo Ferrari and Davy Arnaud due to yellow card accumulation while Landon Donovan returns to the Galaxy from U.S. Men’s National Team duty.
A loss in that match and Montreal will officially be in the dog fight for one of the knockout playoff spots and will have to recover quickly as they’ll host fellow contender Philadelphia three days later.
How they qualify this week: Two wins vs. LA and Philadelphia is the simplest way but a combined four points with the win coming against Philadelphia along with either a New England loss/draw to Columbus or a Fire loss to Toronto FC.
5) Chicago Fire
Current Points: 46 (13-12-7)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: WWDLW (10pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 9-4-3 / 4-7-4
Maximum Possible Pts: 52
Average Opponents Pts: 39.5
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 vs. TFC, 10/27 @ NY
Rundown: Following the disappointing 2-2 draw to Montreal on September 28, naysayers said the Fire should give up on the season and “play the kids” with only home game remaining out of their final four.
Two weeks later, they've won two straight MLS games for the first time since early July and both of them came on the road. Naysayers…
Now above the red line and tied on points with Montreal (and Philadelphia), the Fire are actually in a position where they could clinch a playoff berth this weekend and still have the possibility to finish in the East’s top three spots, something that would have been unthinkable back in mid-May.
With two games left, the Fire control their own playoff destiny and after two confidence boosting victories, have a very winnable game in Saturday's home finale vs. Toronto FC.
How they qualify this week: A Chicago win over Toronto FC combined with a Philadelphia loss vs. Montreal and a New England loss or draw vs. Columbus.
With the Chicago and Philadelphia even on points, how would this work you ask? If the Fire won and Union lost, couldn’t they still catch the Fire on points? Yes, but they would only tie Chicago and the Fire would already have a two-game edge in the first tie breaker which is total wins.
With both Montreal/Philadelphia and New England/Columbus ending before the Fire/TFC game, Saturday could be a very special night at Toyota Park. Get your tickets!
6) Philadelphia Union
Current Points: 46 (12-10-10)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: DWWLL (7pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-4-5 / 5-6-5
Maximum Possible Points: 52
Average Opponents Pts: 49
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 @ MTL, 10/26 vs. SKC
Rundown: For two weeks in a row, Philadelphia have needed a very late goal to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot. On Saturday though Jack McInerney’s strike was only good enough to equalize with lowly D.C. United, meaning the Union missed out on a huge opportunity to gain crucial points ahead of what will be two tough matches at Montreal and vs. Sporting KC to end the season.
How they qualify this week: Even if Philadelphia beats Montreal (and the Impact have lost to LA at midweek) and the Fire and Revolution both lose to Toronto and Columbus respectively, Philly would still need to get a point in the final week against Sporting KC.
7) New England Revolution
Current Points: 45 (12-11-9)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: WDDWL (8pts)
2013 Home/Away Record: 7-5-4 / 5-7-4
Maximum Possible Points: 51
Average Opponents Pts: 41
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 vs. CLB, 10/27 @ CLB
Rundown: New England bounced back well from a disappointing 2-2 draw last week at New York, earning a valuable 1-0 away win in Montreal but still find themselves in a difficult spot after the Fire win in Dallas and Philly’s last gasp draw in D.C.
An odd home-and-home series with Columbus (who are now all but out of the playoff race) will help determine their playoff fate but even if they win both matches to close the season, they’ll need help in the form of two teams above them dropping points. With Montreal, Chicago and Philadelphia all just one point ahead and the Impact and Union facing each other this week, New England still has plenty to play for.
8) Columbus Crew
Current Points: 41 (12-15-5)
Games Remaining: 2 (1 home / 1 away)
Last 5 Games: LWWWL (9pts)
2013 Home / Away Record: 7-6-3 / 5-9-2
Maximum Possible Points: 47
Average Opponents Pts: 42
Remaining Schedule: 10/19 @ NE, 10/27 vs. NE
Rundown: The Revolution and Fire wins as well as the Union draw pretty much put to bed the Crew’s hopes for the postseason. It’s not that they’re mathematically out, it’s just that it’s damn near improbable that all the results that would need to go Columbus’ way would.
It’s not even worth getting into with two weeks left but if they can play a little spoiler and win at New England this weekend and are still in the hunt on the final day, I’ll explain it next week.
Select shots from the Fire's 3-2 win over FC Dallas, presented by MiAllstate.
CREDIT: USA Today Sports Images
After getting the job done in DC last Friday night, the Fire head south to take on a FC Dallas side needing a miracle to make the MLS Cup playoffs Saturday night (7pm CT My50/TWC Wisconsin). Dallas are in free fall and despite the Fire’s record in Texas, the Men in Red should be settling for nothing less than three points. Here are some things to keep an eye on from a tactical perspective.
Perez away on Panama duty
Blas Perez has all the characteristics of an elite CONCACAF striker: finishing ability, gamesmanship and non-stop focus; similar to Carlos Ruiz. So perhaps it’s a good thing that the Dallas’s leading goal scorer is away for Panama’s crucial World Cup qualifying match with Mexico this weekend.
Perez has 11 goals on the year, with his closest teammate being Kenny Cooper at four. In Perez’s absence, it’s hard to see Dallas switching way from their lone striker formation and Cooper would seem the likely candidate to slot in after ending his nearly five-month goal scoring drought last weekend vs. RSL.
Cooper is a powerful forward that has historically done well against the Fire, tallying six goals in 12 career matches. With a goal last weekend under his belt and Dallas fighting for their playoff lives, he won’t be one to take lightly.
Focusing on Jackson – the Brazilian is instrumental in the Hoops’ attack
Jackson has impressed me in Dallas’s most recent matches against Columbus and RSL. He normally operates on the right wing, trying to get the ball inside to Perez or a midfield runner. In the last match against RSL, Jackson drifted inside more often.
This was in part due to the fact that RSL had a man sent off early after a disgraceful tackle on the Brazilian. He also showed that he can be a threat in the box, forcing Nick Rimando into a brilliant 1v1 save after an attempted flick over the keeper with the outside of his foot.
In last week’s match against DC, the Fire played a very open style of play in the first half, attacking in numbers. If you only looked at the score line, you would think that this tactic was a success but it could’ve been a lot different if it wasn’t for Sean Johnson. He bailed his team out with some brilliant saves after DC caught the Fire out with too many players forward.
It is understandable that the Fire will play in a similar fashion against Dallas due to the need for three points but allowing a player like Jackson time and space on a counter attack can be very dangerous.
Singling out Kellyn Acosta – targeting the Homegrown wingback
In their most recent home loss to Columbus, FC Dallas were exposed on the wings, most notably on the left where Dominic Oduro torched Zach Loyd. On the right, FC Dallas Homegrown player Kellyn Acosta also looked vulnerable. His distribution out of the back was poor; with the 18-year-old trying to play one-touch passes too often.
Columbus clearly targeted Acosta, with players such as Federico Higuain running at the defender whenever possible. A tactic that I would like to see on Saturday night is a constant switching of the Fire wide players so that Acosta is never comfortable.
If Fire wingers Nyarko, Duka, Alex and Co. can get into 1v1 or 2v1 situations with Acosta, it could pay dividends for the Men in Red.
Prediction: The Fire won’t play as open as last weekend but score early and late. 2-0 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex
Select shots from the club's 16th anniversary party and #cf97ThirdKit unveiling.
CREDIT: Nick Sintich, Chicago Fire