The last time both teams met, Toronto were without a win all season and went on to break MLS records for all the wrong reasons. With a change in coach came a change in fortune and now TFC are looking a much better side - winning three of their last four. I will briefly examine what's changed with TFC under Paul Mariner before identifying some tactical points to look out for during tomorrow's match:
Changes Under Coach Mariner:
The major difference between Winter and Mariner is the change in formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 system with a few variations. The 4-4-2 has brought some major changes in player positions which has helped Toronto tremendously.
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on TFC
Starting at the back, youngster Adam Eckersley has moved to center back from his outside position under Winter. Against Houston last week, Eckersley had a brilliant game, making many last ditch tackles and stepping in to win the ball off the toes of the Houston strikers. He’s formed a good partnership at heart of the defense with rookie Logan Emory.
Eckersley's move to the middle has allowed veteran Torsten Frings to take up his more suited position in the center of midfield.
In attack, former Fire player Ryan Johnson has moved from his wide position into a more central role. Johnson plays very well with his back to goal and is a lot better suited to a physical battle with a center back rather than trying to take on a defender on the outside. Johnson's form has softened the loss of Danny Koevermans to an ACL tear and his potential partnership with new striker Eric Hassli has the potential to make TFC's attack one of the most feared in MLS.
Set Pieces: New Coach, Same Old Threat
For all the changes that Paul Mariner has brought to TFC, one stalwart is the team's reliance of set pieces to create scoring chances.
Every time a TFC player is fouled within 50 meters of the opponent’s goal, the same thing happens: Torsten Frings will pick up the ball while the big boys trudge up from the back to take up a position in the opponent’s box. Frings's deliveries can be hit or miss but more often than not, he puts it in a dangerous area.
Frings also takes all of TFC's corners which also have a habit of wrecking havoc in the six-yard box. In Toronto's 5-1 win over Aguila Wednesday night in the CONCACAF Champions League, they scored one goal from a corner kick and had another goal called offside from a Frings free kick that was put in on a rebound.
The Fire back line and Sean Johnson have been criticized in the past for not dealing well with set pieces and though they have been defensively sound for most of the season, Toronto’s skill in dead ball situations will remain a major threat Saturday night.
Lack of Pace in the Middle: Take Advantage
Similar to the Fire, TFC has two defensive-minded central midfielders in Frings and Terry Dunfield. Their job is to sit in front of the back four but also provide support in attack whenever they can.
As mentioned earlier, Frings is often dragged forward to take set-pieces and this can be where TFC are most vulnerable.
Against Houston last week, TFC were caught multiple times on the counter attack, either from giving the ball away in the midfield or after an attacking set piece. Dunfield and Frings make up for their lack of pace by reading the game expertly - (similar to what Pavel Pardo does for the Fire) but unlike Pardo and Logan Pause, Dunfield and Frings have a tendency to get too far apart from each other on the pitch - something the Fire could exploit on Saturday night.
Prediction: Chicago Fire 2, Toronto FC 0 with goals from Chris Rolfe and Patrick Nyarko
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
Here at Always on the Inside we get a ton of fan mail (feel free to send some over! – 7000 S. Harlem Ave. Bridgeview, IL 60455) with all sorts of content ideas and things we can do to improve our fair blog. We recently got this piece of fan mail from a Sandy Hannan in Denver, CO:
Love the blog. Long time listener and a huge fan of your work.
Thanks for always keeping us informed about everything happening in Chicago. I think of everyone who writes for Always on the Inside, you provide the most insight and really help us get to know the team.
I’m a big music fan and would love to know more about the players musical interest. What kind of stuff are they listening to right now? Can I find the tunes anywhere?
Hope all is well. I’ll send some snacks your way soon.
Wait? Was that a letter from my Mom? Since Jeff is busy with some #Fire15 stuff, I thought I’d take a crack at putting together a music series. Each week Always on the Inside is going to focus on three tracks/albums that a #cf97 player is listening to currently. Put the tracks between your headphones with Muve Music, if you’re so inclined. For the first addition we caught up with aspiring rap lyricist and resident beat-bopper Tony Walls. Without further ado, here’s Between the Headphones:
Always on the Inside: What type of stuff are you listening to right now?
Tony Walls: The first album is "Self Made Vol. 2" which is by Maybach Music Group which is headed by Rick Ross and two of his most popular artists -Meek Mill and Wale.
Overall, it's up tempo with really nice beats, something to bob your head to and stuff that you can play not only before training but also before games. They're really clever and good with wordplay.
Another track is "Take Care" by Drake, even though it is older. I would have to say Drake is one of my favorite artists right now. He does a really good job, I know it sounds corny, painting a mental picture and an image in your head when he's rapping. A lot of the situations he talks about, I can relate to actually. Not just with women, but with growing up.
He does a really good job of talking about his childhood and struggles he went through with his parents. I can relate to his music and he can sing. He has a really good voice.
I'm also listening to Meek Mill, who I mentioned before. His mixtape is called "Dreamchasers 2". I like Meek Mill because, similar to Drake, he raps about a lot of day-to-day situations. He's all about motivation and staying focused toward the goals you want reach in life, which is important to me and relevant to where I am right now.
That mixtape is one of my favorites right now. The lyrics are easy to listen to and he has a smooth flow.
AOTI: What do you get out of listening to music, especially these albums?
It's not necessarily to escape reality. It's something to get you amped up, pumped up before a game. I think that's why a lot of people listen to music. You do get lost in the music. A lot of music paints a mental image.
AOTI: What did you listen to growing up?
TW: I've always been into rap music. My neighbors, who were like older brothers to me got me listening to it. I've always liked Biggie, he's one of my favorite artists. I've always been surrounded by it growing up. I'm not close-minded to other music, though.
I listen to a little bit of Gavin DeGraw, a little bit of Lauryn Hill. My little sister is really musically diverse so she got me on a little Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber. So I try to stay open-minded, but rap is my first choice for sure.
When I think of Gonzalo Segares, the first thing that comes to mind is a tough tackle followed by a yellow card. The Costa Rican international has definitely done well to carry on the tradition of hard-nosed Fire defenders like C.J. Brown, Lubos Kubik and Francis Okaroh.
Deep down though, Gonzalo is one of the classiest guys on the team and one with a definite sweet tooth. In that spirit we took him on a field trip to Molly’s Cupcakes in Lincoln Park (2536 N. Clark) to get a feel for what it takes to make one of life’s fine delicacies.
Watch his escapade below and be sure to visit Molly’s this month to purchase the Chicago Fire Velvet Swirl cupcake. When you do, one dollar from every purchase goes to benefit the Chicago Fire Foundation!
As I’m sure you’ve come to realize the last week, picking a Top 15 list for this club is a daunting task. Weighing personal accomplishments along with how the team did during a players tenure and how that player represented the badge – let’s just say you can enter everything you want into an Excel Spreadsheet and you’ll still change your mind 43 different times.
Luckily for everyone else voting, your ballot is private, so you don’t have to worry about excluding someone very deserving, or even someone you see on a daily basis.
After much deliberation, here are my public picks for the Top 15 Fire players of all time.
DISCLAIMER – These are my own picks and do not necessarily reflect voting trends or the ballots of other voters.
#15 Frank Klopas (1998-99) – Though Frank played only two seasons for the Fire, he was part of the original group that wore the badge with pride. His “Golden Goal” in the 1998 U.S. Open Cup Final started the club’s tradition of success in the tournament and few players have meant as much to the club as Frank as reflected by being chosen second into the Ring of Fire back in 2004.
#14 Hristo Stoitchkov (2000-02) – Stoitchkov only won one trophy in Chicago, following up Frank’s ’98 Golden Goal with the game-winner in the 2000 U.S. Open Cup Final. A world renowned star, when the Mad Bulgarian came to Chicago, he reinforced the spirit of the hardworking, win-at-all cost teams that the Fire became known for early on in the league. With 24 goals and 22 assists in just 70 competitive matches, Stoitchkov was on the score sheet in some form 66% of the time during his Fire stay.
#13 Gonzalo Segares (2005-present) - Segares is one of the few true left backs the Fire have ever had and most of the reason for that is the fact that he's locked down the position for half the club's existence. One of only three players on the current roster to win a trophy with the club, Segares sits behind only Lubos Kubik for most offense produced by a defender and seems destined to become just the eighth player in club history to hit 200 competitive appearances before season's end.
#12 Logan Pause (2003-present) – The current club captain, Logan Pause stands as the club’s connection to the near treble winning year of 2003. A hard-working midfielder that’s modeled himself after the likes of Chris Armas and Jesse Marsch, Pause has been a constant in the Fire lineup the past 10 seasons, even going to play at right back when needed. Though lacking in offensive achievements, Pause has been a part of three title winning teams and sits second behind only C.J. Brown on the club’s all-time appearance list at 291 games played.
#11 Jesse Marsch (1998-05) – Like Gutierrez, Marsch combined with Armas, Pause and others throughout the years to make the Fire midfield an undesirable place for opponents. Never accuse of being the most skilled, Marsch was always smart on the ball while quietly tallying 23 goals (9th all-time) and 32 assists (6th all-time) on his way to winning five of six of the club’s domestic titles.
#10 Chris Rolfe (2005-09; 2012-present) – The highest on the list of the current Fire roster, Rolfe became the club’s second all-time leading goal scorer before leaving for Denmark at the end of 2009. That feat is even more impressive when you consider a lot of games saw him playing out of position on the right wing and he never tallied 10 goals in a season. The two goals since his return have him at 41 but it will take a while for him to catch Ante Razov at 95…
#9 DaMarcus Beasley (2000-04) – One of the most fouled players in MLS during four and a half seasons in Chicago, Beasley provided speed and constant danger to aid the likes of Razov, Peter Nowak, Josh Wolff and Damani Ralph. A winner of three domestic titles with the Fire, his stats (134 GP, 18 goals, 28 assists) would be much higher had he not left for PSV Eindhoven midway through 2004.
#8 Cuauhtemoc Blanco (2007-09) – The only player on my Top 15 list that never won a trophy in Chicago, Blanco proved those wrong that anticipated him viewing MLS as a retirement league. The legendary Mexican midfielder tallied 19 goals and 28 assists in his 77 appearances for the Fire (61% conversion rate) and led the team to three consecutive Eastern Conference finals as well as the 2009 SuperLiga championship match.
#7 Carlos Bocanegra (2000-03) – Boca’s case is very similar to that of Beasley’s in that his stats and accomplishments would likely be much greater if he hadn’t left for Fulham after 2003. Still, Boca was the 2000 Rookie of the Year, two-time MLS Defender of the Year and Best XI selections (2002-03) along with three domestic titles. There are few defenders all-time in MLS that have been quite as dominant as Carlos Bocanegra was in his time with the Fire.
#6 Lubos Kubik (1998-00) – The backbone of the 1998 double-winning team, Kubik won MLS Defender of the Year that season and was likely one of the few MLS defenders more dominant than Bocanegra during his three seasons in Chicago. The third inductee into the Ring of Fire, Kubik also holds the distinction of being the most offensive defender in club history, tallying 19 goals and 25 assists in 88 matches.
#5 Zach Thornton (1998-2006) – One of only three players to be part of all six domestic championship teams, Thornton beat out Jorge Campos to win the starting job during his first season in Chicago. He holds the distinction of holding most of the club’s goalkeeping records and is one of Major League Soccer’s top goalkeepers of all-time.
#3 Ante Razov (1998-2004) – What can you say about a guy that nearly scored 100 goals in a Fire uniform? Having tallied double-digit goals in five of his seven seasons in Chicago, Razov’s offensive achievements with the Fire (95 goals, 51 assists in 196 games) match up with anyone else’s in Major League Soccer. Despite his incredible scoring record, Razov was just once named to the MLS Best XI (2003) and All-Star Game (2000).
#2 Chris Armas (1998-2007) – A revelation of sorts when he joined Chicago via trade from LA in 1998, Armas epitomized the work ethic and attitude that would come to be known from Fire teams in years to come. His play in Chicago helped him carve out a place with the U.S. Men’s National Team and if not for a devastating injury, would have taken part in at least one FIFA World Cup. Despite being known as the ultimate destroyer in midfield, Armas quietly racked up 53 assists, good enough for second on the club’s all-time list. The club’s second captain, Armas was a five-time MLS Best XI selection, four-time all-star and is one of seven members of the Ring of Fire.
#1 Peter Nowak (1998-02) – I hope there was little doubt that Nowak would always be the number one choice. The first captain in club history, it was the former Polish international that often times put the team on his shoulders during the early seasons. The only player in Fire history that can claim an MLS Cup MVP award, Nowak is the club’s all-time leader in assists with 60, a three-time Chicago Fire MVP and MLS Best XI selection and the original inductee in the club’s Ring of Fire.
The Fire play the Supporters Shield leaders San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium. Here are a few things to look out for from a tactical standpoint…
COACH'S TAKE: Matko on Quakes
With six more goals scored than any other team in the league this season and two in-form strikers, San Jose just can’t stop scoring. That being said, the team’s 44 goals eclipse the fact that they have given up 27. Of the teams currently in playoff positions, only New York and the Galaxy have given up more.
Last week’s loss to Vancouver exposed one of San Jose’s biggest weaknesses which also happens to be one of Fire’s greatest strengths: speed. Though Morrow had a good game on the attacking side, he was punished time after time by Dane Richards whose goal came directly from a Morrow error.
On the right hand side, San Jose will be without Beitashour for the first time all season which could pay dividends for the Men in Red. The pace of the Fire’s Ghanaian duo of Nyarko and Oduro could cause San Jose some major problems on the outside. Because the outside backs push up so much, there is plenty of room behind them for Oduro to run into. When he does go wide however, it requires the other attack-minded players Rolfe, Alex and Nyarko to get into the box in support.
Wondo and Gordon: Stay Tight
A major reason San Jose is sitting at the top of MLS this season are the goals from Wondolowski (17), Gordon (9) and Lenhart (6). The Quakes don’t set up their strikes the traditional way, with one on the shoulder off the last defender looking for flick-ons from the target man. Wondolowski and Gordon/Lenhart are constantly switching positions; dropping back into midfield and drifting wide. The interchanging of positions causes major problems for defenders and is one reason why you see Wondolowski score so many simple goals (think Fire vs. San Jose last season) - even though he is the obvious danger man, his movement makes him so difficult to pick up.
The other reason is that San Jose attack in such great numbers that it allows Wondo to go undetected. It sounds simple to say “stay with your man” or “keep your eye on the man and not the ball” but that’s exactly what the Fire need to do.
Using last week’s game as an example again, Jay DeMerit didn't let him out of his sight for almost the entire match to great effect. The Fire's defensive performances have been stellar this season we and should expect nothing less from Austin Berry and co on Saturday night.
Soccer and fashion have long been intertwined.
TOUCHLINE TV: Daniel and Corben's Summer Style
Happy birthday to Fire midfielder Pavel Pardo who's still going strong in the middle of the park for the Chicago Fire. Today also happens to be the one-year anniversary of el Presidente joining the club.
Coming off the heels of the succesful canoli for Paolo Tornaghi's birthday last month, we at the Fire presented Pavel with a piñata before training this morning.
Always the professional, the longtime Mexican international looked at the gift, smiled and said, "I'll take it home for the kids."
Win-win for everyone!
¡Feliz cumpleaños Pavel!
In our third installment of the #Fire15 Memorable Matches countdown, we look back to the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinal vs. New England, the 2003 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final at the MetroStars and the 2001 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal at LA Galaxy.
#9 - Chicago Fire 2, New England Revolution 0 - November 7, 2009 - Eastern Conference Semifinals, Second Leg - Toyota Park, Bridgeview, IL
In the first leg of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Revolution defeated the Fire 2-1 at Gillette Stadium. In the 35th minute, Marco Pappa received the ball in the box, feinted past one defender, then laid the ball off to John Thorrington, who shot it low into the New England goal. The superb crowd of 21,528 roared in response to the aggregate equalizer. In the 82nd minute, Patrick Nyarko beat his marker near the corner flag and rushed parallel to the goal line toward the box. After drawing out the keeper, Nyarko nutmegged another defender and passed short to Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Blanco took a short step forward and lifted the ball up to the top right corner to push the Fire to the Eastern Conference Final.
#8 - Chicago Fire 1, MetroStars 0 - October 15, 2003 - US Open Cup Final - Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ
The 2003 US Open Cup Final took place at Giants Stadium, where the field was lined with football markings. In the 68th minute, Evan Whitfield broke in from the right sideline through the end zone, centering the ball to Damani Ralph. The Jamaican forward needed only one touch to slide the ball around MetroStars goalkeeper Jonny Walker. The Fire would only need one goal to be rewarded with the US Open Cup for the third time.
#7 - Chicago Fire 2, LA Galaxy 1 (aet) - August 23, 2000 - US Open Cup Semifinal - Titan Stadium, Fullerton, California
This physical match resulted in a total of 12 yellow cards between both sides. Fire defender Carlos Bocanegra earned a red card in the 51st minute, putting the Fire down a man. LA Galaxy icon Cobi Jones would score the opening goal in the 79th minute. Down to ten men and trailing by a goal, it surely seemed that the Fire’s run in this US Open Cup was extinguished. However, the Men in Red rallied through Fire legend Ante Razov, scoring in the 85th minute. With the score level, the match went into added time and in the extra frame the Fire would lose captain Peter Nowak after Luis Hernandez purposely stepped on his face but referee Sergio Vega only produced a yellow card. Still without Nowak the Fire strung together 10 passes before Josh Wolff buried a rebound to send the side to its second U.S. Open Cup final in three seasons.
Sometime shortly before kick-off when the Fire host Aston Villa this Saturday evening, the captains from the two sides will meet at midfield, shake hands, and exchange small pennants with each other. It's a routine we've seen countless times before when two teams from different nations meet in competition. But does anyone actually know what happens to the banners after their two seconds of fame?
Charlie Raycroft does.
Raycroft, the team's equipment manager since 2003, is also the Fire's unofficial keeper of the pennants. In his office (which doubles as the team's equipment room) hang dozens of club banners, ranging from England's Manchester United (from last year's friendly) to Mexico's Tigres UANL (2009 Superliga).
“Any international match we play, we usually do a captain’s banner for it,” said Raycroft, who also created the design for the Fire's banner. He added that it is similar for domestic Cup matches like the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and the exchange has been appearing more often even in regular season MLS matches, as more teams adopt the tradition.
However, Raycroft admitted that more work typically goes into the international ones, to “mark the occasion, have a little bit of history [and] make them more special.”
"It’s basically the same design for each match," he said. "[But] for matches like the Aston Villa match, or the Manchester United match, or the Open Cup we try to put the date, the location, the opponent. For MLS matches we have just a generic one with no date on it."
Another interesting note is that it's not always just one banner -- often times, teams will create duplicates for the same match. So in addition to those hanging in the equipment room, Raycroft said there are extras that are displayed around the club, or given to the team president or owner if they request one.
"[But if there are no duplicates] and if they come in and want any of these, I guess they can take them," he added with a laugh.
There is just one more part of the banner's story that is undisclosed: how does it get from the the captain to the equipment room? Surely it must be an epic journey, right?
Alas, Raycroft says it's pretty simple in reality.
“He just walks over, and I try to meet him part of the way, get it and just put it in the bag until they come inside.”
A midday, midweek match in mid-July Jersey humidity doesn’t seem like the greatest idea in the world but, that’s what will occur Wednesday afternoon as the Fire visit the New York Red Bulls in Harrison, New Jersey.
While the kickoff time gives the game a bit of a Chicago Cubs at Wrigley feel, I did a non-scientific survey of Fire players Monday to see if they’d ever played a game of significance in the middle of a week day.
Cory Gibbs: “No.”
Corben Bone: “No.”
Austin Berry: “No.”
Jalil Anibaba: “No.”
Though the topics couldn’t be more different, the responses put together began to sound like a certain Amy Winehouse song.
Fire captain Logan Pause came to the rescue with this answer, “Midweek, midday? Maybe in youth soccer. I don’t think in college we even played midweek games in the middle of the day so I'm sure Wednesday will be a first for most of the guys.”
Part of that is likely because playing in the middle of the day in summer heat doesn’t necessarily make for good soccer. For those wondering why the kickoff is set for 12pm CT (1pm local time), the Red Bulls are going back to experiment with a “Camp Day” looking to attract summer camps to Red Bull Arena Wednesday afternoon.
As this article from BigAppleSoccer.com’s Michael Lewis points out, it’s something the team’s precursor, the MetroStars, did in a match against Kansas City back in 2003. The result for the Wizards Jimmy Conrad and the Metros Edgar Bartholomeu weren’t great
Luckily for both sides Red Bull Arena’s grass field is not the Giant’s Stadium turf, which should make things a little bit cooler in a match that is absolutely considered a “swing game” with the Fire sitting just one point behind New York in the Eastern Conference standings.
“Wednesday is obviously an important game despite the weird time and whatever heat we have to deal with,” said Pause. “Either way, the way our schedule goes through the summer – midweek, weekend -- I honestly lose track of the days.”
PREVIEW: Fire vs. Red Bulls