Fresh off a pair of clean sheets at home, it’s fair to say that the Chicago Fire defense is enjoying a string of early season cohesion.
While pulling out positives from a stout run of form of is a fun exercise, head coach Veljko Paunovic and his players know that keeping this level of play consistent over a long season is ultimately what matters. There are still fresh memories of 2016, when the Fire established a club-record shutout streak of 411 minutes early in the year but ultimately conceded 58 goals, tied for second-most in MLS.
“We know that we have to keep that consistency throughout the whole year,” he said. “The season just started. We need the guys to be aware of that. It’s not just about one game, it’s about consistency in every game and the whole season.”
Match Info: Fire at Toronto FC
For the time being, the Fire defense can feel good knowing their seven goals conceded through their opening six matches is a number bested by only five other teams around the league. Consider that four of those goals were allowed during a single match in Atlanta -- when the team played with 10-men for 79 minutes -- and those numbers pop a little bit more.
“We’re training hard,” defender Johan Kappelhof said. “We work on our concepts and we just understand each other better and better. Last year we were new players in a new team. This year, we’ve got experience from last year and we can take it into this season.”
As Kappelhof mentioned, a big factor in the Fire’s defensive solidity so far is simply time spent together. Paunovic’s regular defensive starters -- Kappelhof, Joao Meira, Jonathan Campbell, Michael Harrington, and Brandon Vincent -- now have a full MLS season, offseason regimen, and preseason behind them of working with one another and developing chemistry. Another big factor has been the insertion of midfield shield Dax McCarty, whose work rate and positioning help stamp out many potential chances.
“This year we are better,” Meira said. “It’s one more year, you know? It’s the same with Johan, with Campbell, it’s the same. We are working for the same game: to win and don’t concede a goal. Now, we have more partnership. It’s like a brotherhood.”
Despite the goose eggs on the score sheet -- the latest coming against the 10-man Revolution -- it hasn’t all come easy for the group. As teams have mostly tried to play into wide channels and work around the centrally-based Meira/Kappelhof/Campbell/McCarty, the Fire have in turn faced 108 crosses from the run of play, more than any other team in the league. As a result, their average of 27 defensive clearances per 90 minutes trails only Vancouver in the category. And while they’ve been good in emergency situations like that, they’ve been equally solid in limiting opportunities otherwise. The Fire are allowing only 3.2 shots on target per 90 minutes, the league’s third-lowest total.
So, while you generally take defensive statistics with a grain of salt, they at least provide a sliver of clarity into the amount of work put in by the guys in back to keep things tidy through six games. For Paunovic -- who regularly stresses that successful defending is an 11-man operation -- sustaining that level of play must then remain the emphasis moving forward.
“I think we are doing great so far,” Meira said. “We can improve always. These last games we didn’t concede and that’s good, but we can work better. We can score more goals. We can manage the game better. This is part of the process. We are in the start of the league. We cannot get too high, because tomorrow we could lose. We’ll work day by day and we will reach our goals.”
Meira and the group will be put to the test against a dynamic Toronto FC attack Friday night, with kickoff set for 6:30 pm CT (Click Here for Match Coverage Details).