The big stories of Friday night’s win at DC United have to be the Fire staying in the playoff hunt (now two points behind Philly for the East’s fifth and final spot) and Sean Johnson’s saves that helped procure an invaluable clean sheet. But a closer look finds a Fire team with an ignominious away record finally succeeding away from Toyota Park with the help of a new approach that could propel them into the playoffs: a high defensive line.
To get the qualifiers out of the way, yes, DCU was playing a little hungover after their incredible U.S. Open Cup win at Salt Lake on Tuesday night, and yes, they were playing some young guns. But these are professionals playing for their jobs and for their pride. With some better finishing they could have made this night super awkward.
But that said, the Fire managed to not only keep a clean sheet en route to a comfortable seeming 3-0 win, they did so with a super high defensive line. It had some hiccups but, like the Fire coaches have been clamoring for the past few weeks, they finally found themselves with an advantage of at least two goals. It gave them a little bit of emotional space to play in, a little bit of confidence, and those are the things that the Fire need to succeed away from home.
It’s important to acknowledge that the Fire’s three goals came for the most part against the run of play. DCU held a lot of possession, something the Fire are OK with, but they soaked up the pressure and hit DCU back efficiently, repeatedly, and without mercy, exactly what Frank Klopas envisioned for a tricky away game.
They did so by pushing Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry way up the field. Along with Jeff Larentowicz and Arevalo Rios scrambling in midfield, that scrunched the amount of space DCU’s midfielders had to play in. With less room to play, they were more likely to lose the ball gifted the Fire playmakers with chances here and there throughout the game. It was Patrick Nyarko stepping up in the sixth minute which led to Mike Magee’s shot that was saved by Joe Willis. The foul that led to the Fire’s second goal came after another giveaway gave the Fire possession in the 25th…
With two more away games left, it’s enticing to think that this high line and high pressure approach is the Fire’s ticket to the playoffs, but we saw on Friday how the high line invites its own risks. Leaving so much space behind the defense means that balls between or around the defenders can pose serious threats to a backpedaling line. The best way to counter that is to constantly pressure the ball so that whoever’s on it never has the time to look up and find the pass behind the defenders. There was a 10 minute period after the Fire’s first two goals when DCU was creating chances and Klopas appeared on the bottom of the TV feed, screaming at his midfielders to apply more pressure on the ball.
It’s reassuring to see Klopas continually tweaking the tactics, even so late in the season, because we’ve seen that this team needs those sort of adjustments to continue gelling into this final phase. But considering his allegiance to the traditional 4-4-2, it’s also interesting to see Klopas take on the trendy defensive high line. It’s the high line that Pep Guardiola has rode at Barcelona and now Bayern Munich, and the Fire share with Guardiola’s teams the characteristic of being most dangerous on the counterattack, right after the high line wins the ball.
But with so much space behind the defenders, any mistake can be costly. A quick jaunt through tactics guru Michael Cox’s articles shows exactly how scary it can be. It’s a high risk sort of approach, one that requires the entire team defending as one unit, always pressuring the ball, always keeping neat straight lines in the back, and always having faith that your teammates are pressuring as hard as you are.
The Fire came out needing three points to stay in the playoff race and they managed to put a solid game together that was marked more by game management and efficiency than halftime adjustments and inconsistent focus. With just nine regular season points left to play for, it was refreshing, and much needed. The Fire will take those risks in the next three games. The only question is whether when Philly slip up, they can keep the focus and confidence and squeeze into the playoffs.