MLS Regular Season
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.
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:
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
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
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.”
TACTICAL: Rebuilt Fire defense gets first real test against Chivas USA's Erick Torres and Mauro Rosales
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"
Select shots from this afternoon's Chicago Fire Season Kickoff Luncheon and Primary Kit Unveiling