As Major League Soccer gets set to pause for the upcoming Copa America Centenario, the Chicago Fire's week away from training and competition presents a natural time to look back on the first third of the 2016 Chicago Fire season and break down their recent run of form. Here's a quick look at what we've seen on the pitch 12 games (2-5-5, 11 points) into Veljko Paunovic's head coaching tenure and what may look a little different in the remaining months of the season:
The defense has made major strides in the first third of the 2016 season, coming off a 2015 campaign that saw the Fire finish with a league-worst minus-15 goal differential and an average goals allowed per game of just over 1.7. The turnaround is thanks in large part to the consistent performances of central tandem Johan Kappelhof and Jonathan Campbell. The pair represent two of only three Fire players (the other being forward Kennedy Igboananike) to have appeared in all 12 matches this season and performed well in partnership with both Matt Lampson and Sean Johnson in net.
The reliability of the defense as a whole was one of the major storylines of the early part of 2016. The unit underwent a complete overhaul under Paunovic, and there was justifiable speculation heading into 2016 with a host of newcomers both to the Fire and MLS. After getting their feet wet in a 4-3 season opening loss to NYCFC, the defense regrouped and strung together a scoreless streak that began after Orlando City’s Cyle Larin opened scoring in the fourth minute of the March 11th match and ended with a Didier Drogba goal in the team’s April 16th home contest against Montreal. The 412 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal represented a club record.
The defense has remained steady since their streak ended, having allowed only a single goal or less in four of the team’s six games since the aforementioned Montreal game and have done so in eight of their 12 matches overall. The Fire’s goal differential (-2) is consistent with where they ranked through this time last season, but they’ve worked their goals against average down to just over 1.1 per game and are tied for the second-fewest goals allowed in MLS this season (14).
It’s no secret that Paunovic is still working on getting the most out of his offense in his first season in charge. After the Fire put up three goals in the 2016 season opener against New York City, the Men In Red have yet to put up more than one goal in any game since.
However, while the floodgates have yet to open from a scoring standpoint, there is something to be said for the chances created in the last three games leading up to their June break for Copa America Centenario. The Fire were able to put consistent pressure against Portland in the final third during Saturday’s 1-1 home draw against the reigning MLS Cup champs, having forced a handful of first-class saves from goalkeeper Jake Gleeson and earning some high praise from Portland head coach Caleb Porter after the match.
“I’m not sure we deserved three (points),” Porter said. “When you look at that second half, I thought Chicago was the better team. They put us under pressure...Chicago has been very organized defensively. Clearly they prioritize that side of the ball in game-planning and looking to stop the opponent first and then looking for counters, trying to generate them however they can generate them in the attack. They game-planned to stop us and for the most part they did."
The Fire outshot Portland 18-9 (6-2 shots on goal), and have doubled up their opponents 52-26 in total shots in the in last three games. That mark is no doubt aided by the return of previously injured forward David Accam, who netted the equalizer against Portland Saturday following positive on-the-ball work by Kennedy Igboananike. Getting more shots into the back of the net will be an emphasis heading into the summer months, as the Fire surely will not rest on the 1-1-1 record for their efforts over that time.
A big part of the offense’s elevated offensive pressure has been the team’s transition into a 4-3-3 lineup in the last three games. Paunovic had experimented with a number of formations and lineup combinations during the first couple months of the Fire’s 2016 season, generally favoring a 3-5-2 that protected the central channels and allowed coverage for fullbacks Michael Harrington, Rodrigo Ramos, and Brandon Vincent when going forward into the attack.
However, beginning with the Fire’s May 18th match at Red Bull Arena, Paunovic trotted out a 4-3-3 focused on remaining compact in the midfield and opening space to utilize the club's speed up front. His backline selections have been consistent in that span -- employing a left-to-right combination Ramos-Kappelhof-Campbell-Vincent while Harrington recovers from an adductor strain -- yet he’s been able to plug in different players in both the midfield and attack and still generate chances.
"I think the team feels very comfortable in the 4-3-3 system,” Paunovic said in a conference call last week. “We used variations of that system, especially in attack. I believe the team feels very comfortable especially playing with three midfielders in the line and then having a guy like Arturo (Alvarez), like David (Accam), like (John) Goossens when he's back. Guys who can play beneath the strikers or who can find those spots in between the lines in order to be a link up player and connect with our attackers.”
As previously mentioned, the Fire are 1-1-1 in the new system. While progress is being made from an offensive standpoint, the Fire’s run of form in the last three games and the impending arrival of Michael de Leeuw gives Paunovic and the rest of his staff plenty to evaluate as they chart their plan for a move up the table. Following this week's respite, the Fire get back to work with a June 15 U.S. Open Cup match vs. Indy Eleven, followed by a return to MLS action with a trip to current Supporters' Shield frontrunner Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday, June 18.