With three wins on the bounce, the Fire are on the brink of a playoff spot with only one game to go. The Men in Red could be in before the start of play on Sunday but the earliest they’ll know is a little over an hour from kickoff of their match vs. New York Red Bulls (LIVE 3:30pm CT on My50/Time Warner Sports WI; 4pm on UniMas).
Still, there is plenty to play for, including a possible third place finish thus avoiding the play-in game. For New York no incentive is bigger than knowing a win against the Fire will guarantee the team’s first ever trophy. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Patrick Nyarko and Jalil Anibaba vs New York’s left back – taking advantage of a Red Bulls weak spot
Left back has been a problem position for the Red Bulls this season and with the two natural left backs nursing injuries, the Red Bulls may have to resort to playing right-back Brandon Barklage out of position as cover. Red Bulls coach Mike Petke admitted that he is wary of Patrick Nyarko and hinted that it could be Barklage that gets the start due to his strong 1v1 defending.
WATCH: Segares, Nyarko preview NYRB
With that in mind, I feel the Fire coaching staff will be encouraging Nyarko to get the ball and take the left back on as much as possible. Left midfielder Johnny Steele is not the best at tracking back and helping in the defensive third and this could also allow Jalil Anibaba to get forward and support Nyarko on the Fire’s right.
Anibaba’s crossing ability has improved dramatically this year and regardless of who New York starts on the left, I expect the majority of the Fire’s attacks to come down that side.
Logan Pause vs Alex – who will partner Rios in the middle?
The toughest decision for the Fire’s coaching staff this week is who will replace the suspended Jeff Larentowicz in the center of the midfield alongside Arevalo Rios. One of Logan Pause, Alex or Daniel Paladini will be half of the tandem that will have to compete against one of the strongest midfield pairings in MLS: Dax McCarty and Tim Cahill.
On the one hand, the Fire know that the Red Bulls will be playing for the win and the Supporters Shield crown that comes with the points. On the other, the Fire will also be going for the win, knowing what they will have to do to finish in either fifth, fourth or even third.
With this in mind, Alex would be a more logical pick to start alongside Rios due to his attacking creativity and willingness to get forward and support the strikers. To those who argue that starting Alex over Logan would mean the team loses some defensive clout, coach Frank Klopas would argue that Alex’s defensive play has been excellent this season.
Tactically, I think starting Logan Pause would be the wiser choice, especially when you take into account the fluidity of the New York attack. The center midfielders and strikers for the Red Bulls are never static, with players like Henry often drifting wide and Cahill moving forward to play as the target striker.
With Pause alongside Rios, the Fire would form a very solid block of four, similar to the formation that the Republic of Ireland played under Giovanni Trapattoni. This formation would make the Fire very difficult to break down but would put a lot more emphasis on the wide players to create. This coaching decision has the potential to have huge impact on the match.
Shutting down Fabian Espindola – a player easily lost in the shadows of Henry and Cahill
In the Red Bulls last home match against New England, Mike Petke started with Henry and Fabian Espindola up front and in the first half in particular, Espindola was unstoppable. The New England defense could not keep up with the Argentine striker, who dropped deep and wide in search of the ball, dragging defenders out of position along the way.
Espindola is a player that any coach would love to have due to his tireless work rate. He also hounds opposition defenders when they are in possession, always looking to force a turnover or mistake and does not give up possession easily.
His low center of gravity can be very difficult for defenders to contain and he will certainly pose a challenge for the Fire’s backline on Sunday afternoon. The Fire defenders must not allow Espindola to get behind the backline.
Individually the defenders must not allow him to drag them out of position and create space for players like Cahill and McCarty to move into.
Prediction: With both teams knowing a win would be massively rewarding, I expect an end to end thriller, especially if there is an early goal. 2-2 with goals from Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko.
When Sasha Chanoff, the founder of RefugePoint, reached out to the Fire’s ownership about hosting a family at Saturday’s Fire game that seemed like the least we could do.
The Lokango family, a Congolese refugee family (whose lives RefugePoint saved) are new arrivals in Chicago. Prior to Chicago, they were living as refugees in Kenya for a number of years. Not only did they suffer unspeakably before escaping the Congo, but the 13-year-old, Emile, was shot in the leg in Nairobi because they were living in a dangerous area where refugees had become targets.
RefugePoint’s Cheryl Hamilton, who escorted the family to Toyota Park, had met them a few months ago in Nairobi and worked with RefugePoint to get them out as soon as possible. They are overjoyed and overwhelmed with relief to finally be in Chicago and safe.
Sasha and Cheryl knew Chicago Fire owner Andrew Hauptman and had worked with the Hauptman family as they had hosted a fundraiser for RefugePoint in the past. Additionally, in 2010, RefugePoint's effort in protecting the world’s most vulnerable refugees was awarded with the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize (one of whose founders is Andrew Hauptman). As the boys also love soccer, Cheryl knew that it would be a warm Chicago welcome for them to come and experience a Chicago Fire game. They were seen cheering on the Fire and high-fiving other supporters after Mike Magee’s magical penalty kick.
In the end, it was an honor to host the family and for them to be recognized on field during Saturday’s game against Toronto. Their story touched everyone who met them at Toyota Park on Saturday, and they definitely brought the Men in Red good luck as well.
For more on RefugePoint and the hundreds of families they help (including the Lokango’s) visit http://www.refugepoint.org/.
What's more awesome than watching a Mike Magee penalty kick conversion? Watching a Mike Magee penalty kick conversion in slow motion, of course!
With the magic of a GoPro camera, a talented videographer (@laflores037), and some editing software, we're able to make it happen.
Check out this sweet video below, and remember to tweet your support of #MikeMageeMVP!
There were shots off the post, a disallowed goal, more Sean Johnson saves, the dramatic contexts of playoff contention and the last regular season home game of the season - Saturday’s win had a handful of talking points, but it had really only one truly interesting scene: Mike Magee’s game winning penalty.
Because despite the atmosphere and everything that was at stake, the game, in fact was pretty flat. Maybe it was the rain-soaked field, maybe it was a bit of nerves but Fire fans had to be uncomfortable when they saw the first 10 minutes with little of the urgency, high pressure, and high defensive line that pushed the team to those two huge away wins in D.C. and Dallas. Toronto was finding gaps all over the field to exploit and if it wasn’t for such bad finishing by Robert Earnshaw, they would’ve been in front.
The Fire grew into the game, however, and were in control when Magee scored the winning penalty. Then, as we’ve seen for the past month or so, the Fire managed the remainder of the and took all the points.
So maybe it’s good that it wasn’t a spectacle of high drama. Maybe it was just a professional victory -- a cold blooded three point snatch.
But then there was Magee’s PK.
Just a few weeks ago, Magee hit the crossbar with what would’ve been a game winning PK against Montreal. It cost the Fire two crucial points. “Tonight's on me,” he said after the game. “It won't be the last one I miss but I'm confident taking them and I'll bury the next one.”
It’s more or less the approach you expect from someone leading the league in goals and there aren’t many better opportunities to pad your stats than from the penalty spot.
And yet, and YET, Saturday’s PK was terrifying. I didn’t like the way Magee looked, I didn’t like his set up. He kept wiping his hands, and he started his run-up exactly at the whistle. You can often tell if a player’s going to score their PK based on their face, their calm, their approach, and their cool. We all know Magee is cool in front of goal, but wouldn’t the Montreal miss be on his mind? There he was, right in front of Section 8, back in his home city, a stadium chanting MVP - it was a moment, just a second or two, where some people might have thought about the whole chaos of the season. All the missed chances, all the posts they hit, all the points they dropped, all the mistakes and antagonism and pressure.
It happened so fast. Magee didn’t let the moment fester. He knew what he was going to do. He knows where the goal is. He wipes his hands, he tugs his shorts down a bit, he looks at the ref waiting for the whistle. When it comes he leaps off the line like a 5k start, skips a bit to the left of the ball, and approaching it that way, executes the deftest of chips right into where the goalie’s chest would’ve been if he hadn’t dove down to his right, where he thought Magee would go.
What I love about the way he took it is that he seemed to beat the rhythm of the game. I wanted a dramatic pause. I wanted to consider the entire season in the moment, and I wanted him to look straight at the keeper with fire in his eyes, like Rivaldo in 2002. But then, that’s what makes him such a good finisher, isn’t it? It’s the way he seems to catch defenders and goalies unaware. For some goals he’s quicker than you think he can be, and for others he seems to wait an eternity before calmly putting it away. The PK on Saturday was a combination of both. It had the quickness to take a few people by surprise (and short circuit any nerves), and the calmness to chip a Pirlo-esque panenka in front of thousands of people, in the most important game of the season.
After the game, Magee admitted he had some nervousness: “Normally I get up there and don't think twice about missing, and this time the last one off the back of the post was on my mind, so I figured I couldn't hit it off the post if I shot it up the middle.”
Even when admitting nerves, he sounds like the doubt in his mind didn’t really make him fear not scoring, it just pushed him to score differently.
And so now the Fire go to New York with nerves and doubts, but like Magee, they’ll have to use those doubts to push forward. They’ve learned from their mistakes against Montreal (and Columbus, and etc. etc.) but for three games in a row they’ve managed games and have a chance to finish the season the way Magee finished his PK: maybe a little afraid of the posts, maybe not exactly with the suave calmness of a secure playoff spot, but with a chance to kill it off, take the points, and head into the playoffs.
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.