After two dropped points due to a poor refereeing decision, the Fire must pick themselves up for the visit to San Jose Wednesday night (9:30pm CT on NBC Sports Network). The Quakes are lounging in last place in the West but pulled off a surprise 1-1 draw last weekend in New York. Here are a few things to look out from a tactical perspective tonight.
Dealing with Steven Lenhart – Hurtado/Soumare need another big game
As expected against Philly last weekend, Conor Casey was used as the target striker and the Union tried to play off of him as much as possible. In response, the Fire’s center backs put in a brilliant performance, with Baky Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado not giving the big man time or room to operate.
Soumare in particular had a standout game and after more than a few consistent performances together, it appears the Fire finally have their back four well established.
Wednesday night, Steven Lenhart poses a similar challenge to Casey in terms of physicality, but tactically it’s a different story. Instead of dropping deep and linking with the attacking mids behind him, Lenhart brings people into the fray by knocking balls down in the box for his teammates.
San Jose’s direct style of play can be difficult to deal with, because it not only requires winning the balls in the air against Lenhart, but also keeping an eye on the runners he is trying to find with flick-ons.
After San Jose’s match against New York last weekend, many of the Quakes players criticized the Red Bulls for their perceived overly-physical treatment of Lenhart. This clearly got under Lenhart’s skin and he picked up a yellow for dissent in the process.
Against Casey, both Soumare and Hurtado were very physical and I expect to see the same against Lenhart tonight. The Quakes also have the ability to bring a very similar player in Alan Gordon off the bench, so there will be little respite for the Fire defense.
Taking advantage in transition – getting behind the Quakes central midfield pairing
In recent matches, the Earthquakes have looked very vulnerable in transition, especially when teams can get men behind their central midfield pairing. Two weeks ago against D.C. United, Khari Stephenson and right midfielder Atiba Harris failed to track back on numerous occasions, leaving massive gaps for the D.C. midfield to run into.
Predictably, coach Mark Watson dropped both Harris and Stephenson for the Red Bulls game, but in that match, the Quakes players gave up possession far too often and were caught out by New York’s quick transitions.
In the second half, the Quakes started to push more and more players forward in an effort to get an equalizer which left them even more exposed.
In the Fire’s last match, Matt Watson was a lot more adventurous than we have seen in the past from his center mid position and I look for him and Jeff Larentowicz to try and take advantage of possible gaps in the Quakes midfield by either getting forward or playing the ball to players like Alex, Harry Shipp and Mike Magee in space.
Oftentimes, Sam Cronin is left trying to contain multiple players on a quick transition from the opposition and the Fire must try and force the same this evening. If the Fire can get into the lead, this will force San Jose to be more adventurous and this could result in the Fire finishing the Quakes off, something the Men in Red unfortunately couldn’t do with the Union on Saturday night.
Keeping tabs on Yannick Djaló - but also taking advantage of his defensive frailties
I have had a soft spot for Yannick Djaló since his early days at Sporting Lisbon. He is in the mold of many more accomplished Portuguese wingers such as Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, very unpredictable but only able to show flashes of talent.
If Djaló was able to perform well for the Quakes on a more consistent basis, they would not be propping up the Western Conference.
He is best when he gets the ball in space at the top of the box, where he looks to play teammates in behind. Against the Red Bulls last weekend, he showed that he can pose a threat when getting into these positions.
Projected left midfielder Harry Shipp must be careful not to allow Djaló too much space on the right wing. The reverse of this is that Djaló is not a big fan of tracking back, meaning Shipp and Gonzalo Segares could have some joy down the left Fire left tonight.
Djaló’s willingness to take players on and his constant attacking mindset results in many needless giveaways.
As I said earlier in the preview, the Quakes are not the best defensive team in transition and mistakes from Djaló could play to the Fire’s advantage. That being said, playing the Portuguese tight defensively is also a priority.
Prediction: The Fire banish the ghosts of last Saturday and get a comfortable 2-0 away win. Goals from Amarikwa and Shipp.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter at Irish_Steve.