Fire

Fire hoping loss in Yankee Stadium will provide wake-up call

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USA TODAY

Fire hoping loss in Yankee Stadium will provide wake-up call

Coming off the first MLS loss for the Chicago Fire in more than two months, Tuesday’s practice seemed to have a bit more intensity.

After coming out a bit sloppy in a 2-1 loss to New York City FC following a two-and-a-half week break, the team is trying to get back the sharpness and consistency displayed during its 12-game unbeaten run.

“I think it’s the transfer from the bad sensations that we had in the last game,” Paunovic said. “You can lose the game and it’s not the end of the world, but not in the way we lost it.”

The Fire are again licking their wounds after failing to convert chances against a shorthanded team. As opposed to the scoreless draw in Orlando in June, when the Lions finished the game with nine players, this time the Fire were able to score, but actually lost.

This problem is something Paunovic has spoken about before, but is one the Fire still haven’t been able to solve.

“You see the same as in Orlando,” de Leeuw said. “If they play with 10 men and it looks like we’re playing with 10 men, then they deserve every point they had.

“I don’t know what it is. I think maybe when teams are sitting back we need to do something else. We are good at 11 against 11 with possession, the runs we make, but when they have 10 men and they’re going to sit back, you think you need to run less, but actually you need to run more. Because you are with 11 guys you need to create more space. The expectation is higher then from you and I think we lacked that and some other things in the game.”

The filter-free, outspoken de Leeuw said the team had no energy. He is hoping the loss will turn into a motivating factor for the Fire.

“It’s better that it happens now because everybody needs to wake up,” de Leeuw said. “The points we had, it’s not coming by itself. We have to work for it every game, against every opponent, if it’s 10 men, nine men, we have to work for it. It’s good everybody had a wake-up call Saturday I think. OK, we need to work for it, but also we don’t need to distract because we lost one game. We had 11 or 12 good games before that and we lost one, so OK it can happen, but it’s more s--- that it’s against 10 men.”

Teams having sometimes inexplicably bad games is a part of Major League Soccer. The fact that the Fire had gone so long without one was what made the team’s unbeaten run so impressive.

The players and Paunovic have talked about how important the break was. Bastian Schweinsteiger said it was more important for the mind than the body. However, is it possible that the break took the edge away from the Fire?

“We were not sharp, I don’t know, maybe from the break,” winger David Accam said. “We came back and not a single player was sharp. We gave sloppy passes and for us I don’t think it’s just about 10 men or teams staying back, it’s just about us. We were not sharp. We did not play well. It was like we were still training or something.”

Paunovic is trying to refocus his group for another tough road game at Sporting Kansas City coming up this weekend.

“The break was a good thing in terms of recovering from the tough first half of the season,” Paunovic said. “Every team needs that, especially when you’re at the top and did well like we did in the past, but also the break has some challenges and these challenges are losing the rhythm, getting back to the working suit and working atmosphere and mentality.

“It’s just different when you have the game, when you’re in the rhythm of the games and in the season and you’re going from game to game you kind of get that habit very, very simple and very fluent and then you just work towards the next game. That was maybe interrupted with the break, but we are going back, as I said that’s our goal now, to get that habit back again, that mentality that we had before.”

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.