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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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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!

05 March 8:17 pm

Chicago Fire acquire midfielder Matt Watson on March 5, 2014

(Photo courtesy of Vancouver Whitecaps)

When asked about finalizing his roster before the start of the 2014 season Chicago Fire Head Coach and Director of Soccer Frank Yallop said on a conference call last week that he and his staff were "looking at other possibilities with other teams about maybe trading. We’re forever on the lookout.”

The options have become clearer as Yallop and his staff have pulled the trigger on two trades in three days.

On Monday, the team acquired left back Greg Cochrane from the LA Galaxy while the team acquired midfielder Matt Watson (above) from Vancouver in exchange for an international roster spot.

Neither player is brought in with a view of starting but it seems likely Yallop and his staff will look to both to provide depth. Cochrane played 12 matches for LA during his rookie season in 2013, filling in mostly for veteran Todd Dunivant. 

Watson, who's known for a high work ethic and steady, consistent performances, played a more regular role with the Whitecaps over the past two seasons, appearing in 21 matches in 2013. 

The acquisitions mean that the team roster sits at 29 players four days out from the season opener vs. Chivas USA. While MLS rosters can accomodate 30 players, Yallop has said he expects to start the season with 28, likely using the open two spots to earn allocation money from the league to help with the team's tight salary situation.

With the team admitting they're working towards a loan deal with Tottenham Hotspur's Grant Ward, it seems likely more moves could be imminent.  

Stay tuned.

06 February 2:45 pm

Today’s Numbers Game features a switch as second-year Fire midfielder Dilly Duka will now wear the #11. Acquired from Columbus this time last year in exchange for Dominic Oduro, the pair took each other’s numbers when they got to their new clubs (Duka taking 8, Oduro taking 11 in Columbus).

This year, with the Crew’s #8 shirt vacant, Oduro has switched back to his regular number while Duka completes the swap. Coincidentally, #11 became available at the Fire when the team traded Daniel Paladini to Columbus back in December.

“Number 11 is what I’ve worn going back to youth soccer,” Duka said. “It’s what I’m familiar with, it’s part of me as a player.”

Meanwhile, fresh off scoring the game-winner in Sunday’s friendly vs. Florida Gulf Coast Univesity, Giuseppe Gentile becomes the first player in Fire history to wear #92.

The dual Swiss-American citizen, who also happens to speak four languages and also shares a name with an Olympic triple jumper, went the Kellen Gulley route in choosing his number according to the year he was born, 1992.

So with that, we have two trivia questions for today…

1)      Dilly Duka  becomes the eighth player in Fire history to wear the #11 shirt, name the other seven.

2)      What four languages to Giuseppe Gentile speak? We’ll give you a freebie: English.

(SCROLL DOWN FOR ANSWERS)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANSWERS:

1)      Roman Kosecki (1998-1999), Diego Gutierrez (2000-2001), Billy Sleeth (2002), Nate Jaqua (2003-2006), Thiago (2007), John Thorrington (2008-2010), Daniel Paladini (2011-2013).

2)      English, Spanish, Italian and German

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).

01 February 7:53 am

After nearly a month of training camp and an early January trip to Brazil, Fire forward Mike Magee and goalkeeper Sean Johnson are set for Saturday afternoon's U.S. friendly vs. South Korea at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. 

For Johnson, January camp has become part of his preseason routine, while Magee's only been to one previous camp, way back in 2005. The 2013 MLS MVP spoke to ESPNFC's Doug McIntyre about his hopes of finally receiving his first U.S. cap at the age of 29 on Saturday and goal of making the U.S. team for this summer's FIFA World Cup in Brazil. 

Catch the U.S. take on South Korea Saturday at 4:00pm CT on ESPN2, Watch ESPN and Unimas. 

UPDATE: U.S. Soccer has announced Magee will not dress for today's friendly due to food poisoning. I don't even know what to say. We love you Mike, feel better.