So now we have a different sort of perspective. Now suddenly the Fire are sitting in a playoff spot. Now the fight has paid off and the double comeback on Saturday night has everyone high and talking about “attitude” and “mentality” and there’s a different feel. Can you tell? Off-field issues, on field disappointments, coaching decisions, refereeing - it all feels a little irrelevant right now.
Now the approach is different. Now the Fire have in some way reached their goal, they’ve come back and got into a playoff spot. Now the team has a little momentum again, a little confidence, a little faith in this season’s various experiments.
Suddenly the Arevalo Rios/Jeff Larentowicz partnership looks as good as the Alex/Larentowicz partnership, while Alex has excelled as a utility attacker (center/left/right) off the bench or filling in for Rios on international duty.
Juan Luis Anangono finally finished and is beginning to look like a player you would spend transfer dollars on, while some healthy competition between Patrick Nyarko, Dilly Duka, and Joel Lindpere for outside midfield spots will only push them more and mean more service for Anangono.
Suddenly, the Fire look like a deep, experienced, full squad that can bring players like Chris Rolfe and Logan Pause off the bench if need be.
I just mean to say that the feeling after a dramatic and total team victory like Saturday’s is so much different from the panic, terror, and anger that fans felt on and off for most of the season. Toyota Park was more energized after Alex’s goal on Saturday than at any other time all year.
It feels like some fans and commentators have been calling games “must win” for the Fire since the spring, in a way that - deserved or not - everything felt like it was on the edge of a complete and utter disaster. That’s sports, especially in Chicago, but now that a goal’s been reached, there’s a feeling that you could almost call pride, back again.
So forgive us, playoff gods, for looking to the calendar because, as Mike Magee said Larentowicz told the team down 2-1 at halftime on Saturday, “the season gets shorter and shorter now and business has to be done.”
How will the team deal with being in 5th place looking down, instead of the other way around?
The Fire still have to improve on their away form if they’re going to hold their position despite tricky trips to Columbus, RFK, and Dallas, before finishing the season at first place New York. And the Fire still have to take the seemingly easier points against Toronto and DC. But it’s just six games and they hold their own destiny.
We know the playoff spot is the Fire’s to lose, and the fans can sense that this team, with its three different phases this year, and its hot streaks and cold streaks and other hot streaks and other cold streaks - this team might just have found enough consistency to not only make the playoffs but, well, if it was too early to panic about making the playoffs, it’s probably too early for the overly optimistic thoughts too, right?
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
For all the talk of the Fire’s possession problems, you wouldn’t have known it in the first 20 minutes of Wednesday night’s game in Toronto. The Alex/Jeff Larentowicz partnership hummed along like it did during the squad’s hottest streak this year, a fresh looking Patrick Nyarko did his havoc-creating thing, and it all culminated with a deserved goal.
Of course, at the final whistle it was obviously a shame they didn’t get one or two more during that period. But that’s what this Fire does. They pull off the tough results and tend to drop the seemingly easier ones. Even on short rest, away from home (where they’ve struggled all year), Toronto was the perfect opponent.
And in the first 20 minutes, the Fire pretty much had their way with the ball and the field, pressing hard to win it up field, running off each other -- it was yummy. It’s hard to pick one sequence but there was one down the right side in the 15th minute I loved. The Fire won the ball and played a couple fast one-touch passes before Nyarko just missed Chris Rolfe, wide open past midfield. It didn’t come off, but just look at the wide open spaces in TFC’s team shape.
TFC started bad. Really bad. They misplaced more balls than a dog with amnesia and the Fire took all the space they wanted. It was a veritable buffet for Rolfe, Dilly Duka, and Mike Magee, enjoying constant service from midfield as well as the enterprising Gonzalo Segares.
TFC’s goal shouldn’t have been the last goal of the game but it was and thankfully other results held up so the Fire are still in perfectly okay position for the playoffs. They need to pick up points down the stretch, yeah, but they’re all of one point out of fifth with seven games to play. I still don’t understand the doomsayers calling the season off already.
If the 14th minute, free-flowing Fire example showed everything this team can be when it flows right, Quincy Amarikwa’s 78th minute chance showed what’s sometimes dispiriting about them. They let points get away from them.
Off a TFC attack, Magee got the ball in his own half and turned through the midfield to play Rolfe, who spotted Amirakwa’s dash inside. It was a great run because he timed it later than Juan Luis Anangono’s, which was a bit too early so his defender could recover before Pause pushed close enough to goal.
Amarikwa’s run came directly in front of his defender, giving Pause the angle and target he needed, and Quincy was in. He had the choice of laying off for Anangono, who was beyond the goalie and just a simple touch away from giving the Fire the lead, but he went himself. Against his own team, in on goal, Amarikwa went himself and shot right at TFC keeper Joe Bendik. Anangono (and Fire fans) were furious.
It’s not outrageous for a striker in that position to go himself; actually, it’s probably the right thing to do versus risk an extra pass. But it was a moment the Fire couldn’t quite grasp, the kind of moment they’ll need to in the next seven games if they’re to keep their season going into the playoffs.
Select shots from the Fire's draw with TFC.
CREDIT: USA Today Sports Images
After dropping points late for the second week in a row, the Fire head north to Toronto to play their game in hand against TFC Wednesday night knowing that a win would springboard the Club into a Playoff position (6:30pm CT on My50). TFC were also beaten in the Pacific Northwest last weekend, 4-0 by Portland. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Controlling possession while being wary of TFC’s high pressure
In recent matches, TFC have focused on pressuring their opponent high up the field in an attempt to turn the ball over and/or force the team to play long ball or go back to the goalkeeper. This tactic can work very well but it also has the result of drawing your players out of position in an attempt to put pressure on the opponent.
Last week New England showed the most effective way of countering that tactic, namely by playing neat, one touch soccer and playing through the pressure. When looking at the possession stats, the Fire aren’t one of the most dominant teams in that category, averaging 43% over their past three games but against a team like Toronto, this can be rectified.
The Men in Red certainly possess players comfortable playing a one touch, possession brand of soccer and must not be forced into giving the ball away needlessly or kicking the ball long due to the pressure by the TFC attacking players.
I look for the team not to be wasteful in possession on Wednesday night and to play themselves out of pressure whenever possible.
Changes in the attack? Injuries may force a shakeup on Wednesday night
WATCH: Larentowicz, Nyarko preview TFC
With top goal scorer and talisman Mike Magee subbed off at halftime as an injury precaution and the team playing
two games this week, it remains to be seen whether he will go the full 90 tonight in Toronto. With this in mind, Fire coach Frank Klopas has a number of ways he can tinker the side.
One obvious choice would be to bring in Juan Luis Anangono in attack as a direct replacement for Magee, while Patrick Nyarko and Quincy Amarikwa can also play in the forward role. A second and more likely option would be to see Nyarko come in on the wing and Alex play up front with Chris Rolfe.
As Kevin Egan pointed out in the latest edition of “The Centerback,” the front four of Alex, Rolfe, Magee and Duka combined extremely well against Seattle and bringing another pacey player like Nyarko into the mix makes sense.
Toronto’s defenders are not the fastest, and the movement and speed of the New England and Portland attacking players caused TFC a lot of problems in the last two matches. If Magee is not deemed fit enough to start, who better to bring on later in the game if the Fire need to bag a winner than the second top goal scorer in MLS this season?
Keeping an eye on Reggie Lambe – a powerful wide player
Though statistically Reggie Lambe isn’t having the best of years for Toronto, he has played well in TFC’s last few matches and will be a threat on Wednesday evening.
In TFC’s recent tie with D.C., Lambe switched wings with Bobby Convey and the move worked, crossing for Convey who finished neatly for TFC's lone goal in that match.
In TFC’s last home game against New England, the Canadians started with only Robert Earnshaw up front, but Lambe often drifted inside to support the striker. Lambe also plays a part in TFC’s high pressure style of play, trying to close down the opposition as quickly as possible when they have the ball.
WATCH: Athletico Coaching Corner
It is important that the Fire neutralize Lambe and limit the amount of crosses he is able to send into the box for players like Earnshaw and Andrew Wiedeman.
Prediction: The Fire get what they came to Toronto looking for: 3 points with a 2 nil victory. Goals from Patrick Nyarko and Gonzalo Segares.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
Gut punched again! Maybe not as bad as the Philly gut punch game from May, definitely not as painful as the Open Cup gut punch, but Houston’s smash and grab draw is the kind of result that could shake a team. That said, we’ve been here before this season. The Fire have proven they can rebound from disappointing results and it’s too early for the playoff panic, there are too many games left to play. Games like Sunday’s hurt, but now, a few days after, it doesn’t seem like any sort of total season KO.
What it is: another example of this team’s schizophrenia and oft-infuriating inconsistency. I mean, how delicious was that first half?
Dilly Duka was terrorizing, Alex has taken his move to the outside with relish, Arevalo Rios and Jeff Larentowicz are working well together, Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee keep popping up in annoying positions to track, and the Fire broke down a solid Houston defense, creating chance after chance after chance.
But because this game rarely if ever makes sense the way it should, the Fire let their guard down for a crucial period and relinquished a few points at home. It’s not the result of a dominant team, but then, that’s not what this Fire team is. It’s a team still trying to lock down its identity and self-expectations and the good news is that there’s still some time to do it.
One thing the team has to get used to is Frank Klopas’ efficiency approach. “They had possession,” he said after the game, “but we are the ones that created the better chances.” This is a common adage for Klopas this year. He’s proven time and again that he’s comfortable ceding to possession to the other team, letting them play with it and knock it around sideways as much as they want - as long as, when the Fire have the ball, they make use of it to be dangerous.
Before you scoff, remember that it’s the same approach that Jose Mourinho used at Chelsea and Inter Milan to beat Barcelona. It means counter attacks, quick passing, explosive breaks, all of which we saw against Houston. But it also means taking the (potentially few) chances you’re given as well as long periods of focus and discipline to keep your cool and keep your shape as the other team knocks it around.
With the other team passing around, especially on a hot, sun burnt afternoon like Sunday’s, it can be easy to loosen up and sit back at times.
That causes two problems…
First, as the defense falls backward, it creates more space in front of them for the other team to move forward. While it was all good for Houston to pass around the Fire’s half 30-40 yards from goal, as the Fire’s defense moved too far back later in the game, Houston pushed closer and closer, and started finding space around the edge of the area (where the goal eventually came from). But as Gonzalo Segares said in his comments after the game, it’s not always just the defense’s fault for falling backwards, especially when they’re under attack for so many minutes.
The second challenge with sitting back is that the attackers have to hold the ball up front to let the lines move up, and they have to take the open counter attacking chances that come when the other team presses to equalize. Juan Luis Anangono was unusually ineffectual when he came on Sunday, but maybe the Fire were just unlucky. If Magee’s second half shot off the post had gone in, it’s hard to see Houston getting their draw.
The Fire have proven to be a tough team to beat when they score first this year, and much of that is down to Klopas’ efficiency approach as well as the focus and discipline of the defense. In that sense, Sunday’s gut punch was an outlier. But if there’s one thing for sure about the Fire this year, it’s that their previous games are not necessarily indicators of their future ones, and no matter how many times they successfully see out the tight ones, it’s the gut punch games that we remember.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
Select shots from the Fire's 1-1 draw with Houston.
CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire