After dropping their last two games, the Fire travel to New York Saturday afternoon to face a Red Bulls team that has only lost at home once this season (LIVE at 2:30pm CT on NBC 5 Chicago). The Fire had their worst performance of the season on Wednesday night against Philadelphia while New York demolished Toronto FC last time out. That being said, both teams are level in the standings with 53 points and will be looking for a win in an effort to catch Sporting KC at the summit of the Eastern Conference. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical standpoint.
When you have it, keep it: ball retention
In the Fire's last two games, the team failed to keep hold of the ball for long stretches, often gifting it back to their opponents. Against the better teams, this can be a nightmare because it means that you have to defend wave after wave of attacks. Against Philly on Wednesday night, players were making misplaced passes all over the field and it prevented the team from getting into any sort of offensive rhythm.
Maintaining possession is important in any game but especially in matches away from home. The Fire could deploy a similar tactic to the one used in Kansas City last week, namely, getting the ball to Sherjill MacDonald and relying on him to hold the ball up and wait for support. Against KC though, the team were unable to get MacDonald the ball enough and on many occasions gave it away in the process.
If the Fire play the same way against New York, they must get the ball in to MacDonald's feet because not doing so will only hand the possession to Red Bull.
Center backs: beware of getting stretched
Fire color commentator and former defender Evan Whitfield made an excellent point in Wednesday night's game after the Union's first goal. He noted that center backs Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry were not close enough together, leaving a gap between them which Jack McInerney exploited to perfection on the first goal. The same thing happened against the Montreal Impact a few weeks back when Marco Di Vaio got in between the center backs to score.
Unfortunately, these are not the only two instances of this happening this season and its something the team needs to address. There is no one explanation as to why this is happening but there are some ways of limiting its negative effects.
We all know that Arne Friedrich likes to roam forward from time to time in an effort to help the attack. When this happens, the Fire need to be wary and drop one of the defensive midfielders into the back line if they lose possession. Also, when a ball is played in behind the outside defenders, it forces Berry or Friedrich to go wide to pick up the runner, leaving a space in the middle. When this happens, the outside back or someone else has to drop into the space left vacated.
Thierry Henry: picking him up when he drops deep
It may sound cliche, but the Red Bulls are a much, much better team when Thierry Henry is in the starting eleven. He single handidly tore Toronto FC apart last weekend, tallying a goal and three assists in a 4-1 victory.
Henry is a converted winger and still loves to move out wide, pick the ball up, and run at defenders. He did this on countless occasions against Toronto and was not dealt with. When he goes wide, the Fire must not drop back and allow him to run at defenders.
Henry also likes to play the "false 9" role, dropping into the middle of the field, to pick up the ball and then either take players on or look for a killer pass into the space he just vacated. This is a role that Chris Rolfe often plays for the Fire.
The other problem that Henry gives teams is that he draws so much attention away from his teammates, often leaving them with acres of space. Its a very tough balancing act, but the Fire must find a way to limit Frenchman's effectiveness while at the same time not allowing players like Tim Cahill and Kenny Cooper to go undetected.
Set pieces - the fewer the better
One of the things not mentioned in the last paragraph about Henry is that he takes almost all of New York's set pieces and is especially good at corners, often putting the ball into very dangerous areas.
Though the Red Bulls have many smaller players in their starting eleven such as Dax McCarty and Connor Lade, they also possess some who are genuinely dangerous in the air in Wilman Conde, Kenny Cooper and Markus Holgersson. Another player famous for his aerial ability Tim Cahill. The Aussie scored countless headed goals for Everton before signing for the Red Bulls earlier this season.
Though he hasn't made as big of an impact as most were predicting, the Fire coaching staff will be very disappointed if the teams allows the Red Bulls' biggest threat to hurt them on Saturday afternoon.
Limiting New York to only a handful of set pieces will be crucial for a positive Fire result
Prediction: Fire improve tenfold from Wednesday night to earn a deserved point with a goal from Sherjill MacDonald.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.