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.”
[SHOP FIRE: Get your Fire gear right here]
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|
|Sporting Kansas City||59.03|
|New York Red Bulls||57.13|
|Real Salt Lake||42.90|
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.”
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.