Fire

Improving time of possession is next target for Fire

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Improving time of possession is next target for Fire

Throughout the offseason, Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke about how important revamping the defense was.

That defensive unit has shown improvement within the first three matches and even picked up a shutout in the Fire’s most recent match, a scoreless draw with Columbus at Toyota Park.

Now, a new problem seems to have shown itself. The Fire are struggling to keep possession of the ball and it has drawn the attention of coach Veljko Paunovic.

“You have to build your team with a good defense and then improve from that point,” Paunovic said after the Columbus game. “Our team in the last two games has improved defensively. If you remember my answers after the first game and I said we had to improve defensively. Now we are improving defensively. We improved defensively. Now the next step: possession and realization, scoring.”

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Though the Fire have sat back and tried to play on the counter at times, Paunovic has emphasized how important possession is to him.

“I personally value very much the possession and I think that every team that doesn’t control that is missing something very important so we will work on that,” Paunovic said. “It’s a process.”

Considering Paunovic talks about building out of the back as one of the focal points of his tactical strategy, it is a bit unexpected to see the Fire rank last in MLS in terms of possession so far. The Fire have had an average of 38.7 percent of the possession in the first three matches, according to the stats on MLSsoccer.com.

Team Average time of possession (percent)
New York City FC 61.93
Columbus 59.33
Sporting Kansas City 59.03
New York Red Bulls 57.13
Colorado 55.63
LA Galaxy 54.80
Seattle 51.07
Portland 50.77
Orlando 50.53
Dallas 50.50
New England 50.28
Montreal 48.87
Houston 48.30
D.C. United 46.00
Philadelphia 45.20
San Jose 43.77
Real Salt Lake 42.90
Toronto 42.87
Vancouver 42.53
Fire 38.73

 

There are a few things worth mentioning before making too much of how low that number is. First, it’s only been three matches and for 60 minutes of one of those matches the Fire had to play with 10 men on the road. It was natural in that match at Orlando for the Fire to concede possession and defend, which they did to hold on to a 1-1 draw.

Also, the team has a lot of new pieces which could be contributing to more turnovers while the team jells.

“I think one thing we do need to work on a little bit more is when we get into their half we need to possess and pin them in for longer stretches of possession,” midfielder Matt Polster said. “I think as the season goes on and as we get to know each other, that will happen. It’s only the third game in.”

[MORE: Polster starts, but U.S. misses out on Olympic berth]

The value of possession is debatable, but it’s hard to regularly win matches while losing the possession battle by a wide margin. So what do the Fire have to do to improve in this area?

“What we have to take advantage of is the width we create with this width of the field,” Paunovic said. “Then our fullbacks have to go a little bit higher. Then when we are in the opponent’s end we have to be more patient with the ball. That will be tactically what we have to improve in the game, but this is what we are working on.”

Being patient with the ball is something the Fire do need to do more of, but the most telling thing from Paunovic’s quote is what he says about width and the fullbacks. Since Paunovic has inserted Jonathan Campbell as a third center back, the role of the outside backs has changed.

The outside backs are playing like defenders, which isn’t surprising given their background, and it sounds like Paunovic wants them to play like true wide midfielders. Against Columbus, to most observers it appeared the Fire played with a five-man back line, and Polster even said so after the game. When Paunovic talked to media on the Monday following the match he called the formation a 3-5-2. Clearly he views the fullbacks as midfielders in that setup, even if they are natural defenders.

As the Fire continues to learn how Paunovic wants to play and he reacts to how the team is performing, this will be something to watch in the early portion of this season.

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

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USA TODAY

Bastian Schweinsteiger finally sees the field in Fire preseason

Coach Veljko Paunovic still went with a second-choice lineup to start the Fire's preseason match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Wednesday, but the second half featured the first preseason action for Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger came on for the second half, along with Nemanja Nikolic, Johan Kappelhof and a few other Fire regulars. The German sat out the first four preseason games, but looked sharp in his 45 minutes.

One of the highlights was this smooth move between two defenders:

Schweinsteiger also had an impressive switch pass to set up a shot for second-round pick Diego Campos in the final minutes of the game. Campos drilled the shot on target, but was unable to beat the goalkeeper.

The team did not say Schweinsteiger was injured despite the repeated absences in matches. The Fire have dealt with injuries to Matt Polster, Luis Solignac, Daniel Johnson and rookie Grant Lillard this preseason. None of those four, along with Dax McCarty, played in the 0-0 draw.

The Fire next play Saturday at Orlando in a final match in Florida before returning to Chicago. The Fire also play Tulsa, the team's USL affiliate, at Toyota Park on March 3 before taking on Sporting Kansas City in the season opener on March 10.

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

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USA TODAY

Injuries affecting Fire's preseason with season three weeks away

It may be a good thing that the Fire’s originally scheduled season opener March 3 at Colorado got moved back.

The Fire’s preseason has been riddled with injuries to key players and the extra week may end up being needed to get the team ready for the season. Four players (not counting the already known long-term injuries to Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic) sat out Saturday’s game against Florida Gulf Coast University due to injury: Daniel Johnson (a right ankle injury suffered in a game against Philadelphia on Feb. 8), Grant Lillard (left knee), Matt Polster (left knee) and Luis Solignac (left hip).

Polster’s injury is especially notable because he has had recurring left knee problems since first suffering a sprain in the 2016 season finale at Toronto. Polster missed the first nine games of 2017 due to the injury and missed three more in August due to a related injury.

The 24-year-old, who is now the longest tenured player on the team and the only player remaining from before general manager Nelson Rodriguez’s tenure began at the end of the 2015 season, arrived with the Fire after playing with the U.S. national team in January. He played all 90 minutes on Jan. 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bastian Schweinsteiger still hasn’t played in the preseason and the team hasn’t listed him as injured.

All the absences, combined with rest for some of the team’s regulars, resulted in a starting lineup against Florida Gulf Coast that featured two players who have appeared in an official match with the Fire. Three trialists and four draft picks started.

Four of the Fire’s seven scheduled preseason matches are in the books. The Fire lost 2-1 to Montreal on Feb. 14. One of the bright spots was a rare set piece goal after the Fire trailed the Impact 2-0. Dax McCarty headed in a free kick from Diego Campos. Campos has been dangerous on set pieces, hitting the post with a free kick and assisting a goal from a corner kick in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Florida Gulf Coast.

Next up is a match against USL expansion team Nashville SC on Feb. 21. Next Saturday the Fire play at Orlando to finish up play in Florida.

The Fire close out the preseason March 3 against the team’s USL affiliate, Tulsa, at Toyota Park before the season opener on March 10.