For much of the 2015 season, many of the Chicago Fire's struggles stemmed from the inability to finish chances in front of goal.
But over the past month, Frank Yallop's primary concerns have shifted to the other end of the pitch. The Fire have been scoring goals, but now they’re conceding them at a frustrating rate. A 4-3 loss at Montreal on Sept. 5 marked the first time since May 2014 that the Men In Red lost a game in which they scored at least three goals. Six days later, an early 2-0 lead gave way to a 3-2 loss on the road against the New York Red Bulls.
Yallop has tinkered with his personnel in search of the right combination; eight players have appeared on the back line over the last three games, and eight goals were conceded in those games. Yallop said it’s less about who’s in the game and more about awareness and concentration.
“Out of the whole group, everyone’s had a chance to play,” Yallop said Monday via teleconference. “It is what it is. We’re conceding goals. It’s not just always the back four, but they’re obviously the last line of defense, so they tend to get the criticism. The goals we’ve conceded are quite soft where we could just do better mentally and get into good spots and be nice and strong with that. All we can do is just keep working at it and trying different combinations and keep going.”
Rust may have played a part Friday. Daneil Cyrus and Ty Harden were both making their first appearances for the club, and Harden had not played in an MLS match since starting for San Jose on March 22 against the Fire. Yallop hopes that tandem be sharper in future matches.
Their next opportunity may come Saturday, when Chicago faces Orlando City SC for the fourth time this season and the third time in league play. Orlando enters coming off an impressive 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City -- which brought an end to a six-match winless spell -- while the Fire look to right the ship after a pair of shootout losses that left them wondering what might have been.
"We’re at home; we’ve got to win the game,” Yallop said. “There’s no added pressure. We’ve been in this spot all season. We started with three losses [to begin the season], so pressure was on then. It hasn’t really stopped all year. Nothing different to this game. We’ve got to win it. We’ll go out there and try our best to do that.”
Improvement on defense is imperative, while the Fire will look to simply maintain their recent offensive form. They scored three goals twice in the first 22 games of the season, and now they’ve done so three times in the past six.
Gilberto and Kennedy Igboananike have been nursing injuries and will be questionable for the match, but Mike Magee and David Accam continue to near full match fitness from previous ailments. Accam in particular has been on fire lately, with two goals and an assist in the last three matches.
“It’s so exciting to watch and coach,” Yallop said of Accam. “He does stuff that just kind of takes your breath away. It’s just a shame that he didn’t get the winning goal for us on the weekend, but he’s doing everything he can.”