Fire

Notes from the rewatch: David Accam against a high defensive line and MIchael de Leeuw's little things

Notes from the rewatch: David Accam against a high defensive line and MIchael de Leeuw's little things

The Chicago Fire won a sixth straight game at Toyota Park on Saturday, beating Atlanta 2-0.

The consensus from the Fire was that it wasn't the prettiest game or performance, but the Fire made some adjustments to Atlanta's style. The Fire limited Atlanta's chances in possession despite giving the visitors most of the time on the ball, and were able to create chances on the counter by beating Atlanta's high defensive line.

Here's a look at how David Accam created those chances against the high line, and what happened after, and a deeper look at Michael de Leeuw's willingness to do the little things.

Playing against Atlanta’s high line

As expected, the Fire were unable to win the midfield battle against Atlanta. The visitors controlled possession throughout, but didn’t have the killer instinct in front of goal with the team’s top two scorers, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, coming off the bench.

Atlanta’s possession style also includes a high defensive line. Playing a high defensive line against a team featuring David Accam is a risky move, and it burned Atlanta.

Accam got behind Atlanta’s defense on a number of occasions. After have a majority of the possession in the last four matches and seven of the last nine, Saturday’s game showed the Fire have multiple ways to beat teams.

David Accam’s chances

Once Accam got behind Atlanta’s defense it was a bit of a mixed bag. The Ghanaian had four quality counterattack chances and only one of them led to a shot on goal. The one that did lead to a shot was the opening goal.

In the 24th minute he passed to Nemanja Nikolic in the box when it appeared he should have shot it himself, which was the first of some questionable decisions. Five minutes later, though, he got it right.

The goal was a bizarre sequence because it looked like the opportunity had passed once Atlanta’s defense recovered, but Accam did well to not force something and wound up with a very high percentage shot for Luis Solignac.

In the second half, Accam just missed connecting with Nikolic with a centering ball when the Hungarian couldn’t reach the pass after sliding for it. Accam could have played it earlier and let Nikolic do the heavy lifting in the finish. Instead Accam tried to do the work for him and give Nikolic a tap in. Nikolic wasn’t in position for the centering ball that Accam played.

In the final 10 minutes of the match Accam had another 2v2 situation with Nikolic. He tried to pass this one, but maybe could have been more aggressive off the dribble.

Other than the goal, it seemed no matter what Accam decided it wasn’t working. Still, he was able to create four quality chances and converted one. On another day, the Fire will need him to be more efficient, but the upside for the Fire is that he was in position to create those chances.

Michael de Leeuw getting credit for the little things

How does a forward win man of the match without a goal, an assist or even a shot on target? Michael de Leeuw showed how on Saturday.

The Dutch forward wasn’t involved in either Fire goal and didn’t have many scoring chances. However, he did a lot of dirty work.

Bastian Schweinsteiger and coach Veljko Paunovic both said it wasn’t a pretty performance from the Fire. In order to win a game without a pretty performance, players will have do the little things well.

De Leeuw did a lot of those little things and got some recognition for it.

After moving from an attacking role to more of a midfield role, including some time on the right side as opposed to his more familiar central position, de Leeuw has played better.

“It’s a different role and of course I have to adjust,” de Leeuw said after the match. “In the beginning I was not playing very well. I think I’m playing very well now.”

De Leeuw completed 15 out of 21 passes and none of them created chances, but he was credited with five ball recoveries, two clearances and an interception. It probably wasn’t a man of the match worthy performance, but perhaps it was along the lines of a lifetime achievement award from the voting fans who have appreciated the little things de Leeuw does.

He wasn't one of the four Fire players named to the MLS Team of the Week, a week which featured only three matches to pick that team from. Nikolic, Accam, Schweinsteiger and Joao Meira were given credit along with Paunovic as the coach.

With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

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With Bastian Schweinsteiger returning, Fire get more than a star on the field

Due to a calf injury, Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived at the training field later than the rest of his Fire teammates on a Tuesday in September. He sat down on a bench by himself and started singing a song in a foreign language.

It turned out to be a Serbian folk song he learned thanks to his wife, Serbian former tennis pro Anna Ivanovic.

During games Schweinsteiger is ultra competitive and always very serious. During practice and off the field, he is a bit of a goofball. Always cracking jokes and keeping things loose.

“I think that helps a lot because you see how he is on the field, he’s very serious, and he expects a lot of himself and of his teammates, but then off the field he’s very easy going,” Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said.

Schweinsteiger's return via a one-year deal was announced on Wednesday via reports from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and German outlet Bild. It's obviously a big deal for on-field reasons after Schweinsteiger helped revitalize the franchise in 2017. He also brings plenty of attention to the club in the form of fans from around the world and more media coverage of him and, by proxy, the team. However, his value goes beyond even that in a way that not everyone gets to see.

On the day he sang the Serbian folk song, Sept. 12, Schweinsteiger had missed the previous match due to the injury and was kept away from the training field that week. Even if he only stretched and jogged on that Tuesday, Schweinsteiger still seemed excited to return to the field.

He wasn’t able to play with his teammates so he turned to the few spectators, a few Fire staffers and myself, for his entertainment while he stretched in anticipation of his run. He asked each person their second favorite club team, the implication being the Fire would be the favorite team. Schweinsteiger said his was Partizan Belgrade “for family reasons,” another nod to Ivanovic.

“He’s got a really easy going, goofy demeanor about him,” McCarty said. “That helps the guys and that helps him relate to the guys.”

If Schweinsteiger isn’t the team’s class clown, it would be Matt Lampson. The goalkeeper is willing to make a joke out of just about anything. The two even sparred on an occasion after a training session.

In May, Lampson was being interviewed by two reporters and had his back to the training field. Schweinsteiger decided to kick balls at Lampson to distract him and hit him in the calf on the second try from about 20 yards away. As Lampson turned to see what happened, Schweinsteiger growled as a show of pride in his accomplishment.

Naturally, when it was Schweinsteiger’s turn to be interviewed, Lampson got even. He hit Schweinsteiger with a ball and the German stopped, yelled “Matt Lampson!” (sidenote: hearing Schweinsteiger’s German accent exclaim an Anglo name was very amusing) and then proceeded to blame Lampson in jest to the reporters for giving up two goals in the previous game.

“He certainly likes to have a good time and it’s nice that he doesn’t take himself too seriously because when you have a guy that’s won everything in the world of soccer it would be easy for him to be a prick,” Lampson said. “But he’s awesome. Not only when it comes to the locker room, but also just in terms of me learning from him. The time that he takes to teach and provide me with knowledge and the rest of the guys with knowledge is pretty remarkable of him because he doesn’t have to do that. He wants to win and he wants to help everybody else. He wants to help us become better players.”

As for who’s the team’s class clown?

“He’s a clown,” Lampson said. “I’ll let him have the title.”

Schweinsteiger has shown his willingness to be loose with the media as well, even though he did on one occasion after a loss decline to talk to reporters. He will give a thoughtful answer, but isn’t afraid to make fun of a question or joke with reporter.

As an in-season addition, his locker is at the end of the Fire locker room inside Toyota Park. Last season, his was next to Joao Meira. After one game Schweinsteiger, who is typically one of the first out of the shower, already had a crowd of reporters around him. The semi-circle crowd around Schweinsteiger meant Meira, who was in only his towel and shower sandals, couldn’t get to his locker. Schweinsteiger laughed and pointed to Meira’s locker and says, “Here’s your seat, Joao.”

It’s not all just laughs with Schweinsteiger. Another locker room occurence that stood out was when he decided to take control over reporter etiquette.

After Schweinsteiger’s first few matches with the Fire, the crowd of reporters was especially large. A woman reporter asked a question, but got talked over by another reporter. Schweinsteiger stopped and said “No, she was asking.” The woman laughed it off, called Schweinsteiger a gentleman, and then asked her question.

Schweinsteiger has also had some positive interactions with the women of the Chicago Red Stars. The Red Stars use the same training field as the Fire and take the field after the Fire leave so there is often some overlap for Fire players who stay a bit late or are slow to leave the field.

In June, Schweinsteiger stayed late after practice and the Red Stars had already started warming up. He decided to start playing with the Red Stars, kicking back and forth with Stephanie McCaffrey.

He would talk to some of the other players and stayed to watch the Red Stars practice, seemingly mesmerized by it. Later in the season, he was wearing a Red Stars jacket while signing a series of autographs for team giveaways.

Schweinsteiger’s presence will always be a big deal on the field and from a marketing perspective, but his personality with the team has shown on several occasions to also be valuable to the Fire.

“It helps, just charisma in the locker room and everywhere, it’s very helpful and it helps the other guys to be in a good mood just to feed from that energy that is coming from him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “It gives the team a default mood, a positive mood, everyday and that’s what you need to work. That’s what you need to live together and spend time together.”

Schweinsteiger is back for 2018. Let’s see what kind of amusing interactions he will provide this year.

Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

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Fire's 2018 goalkeeper picture becoming clearer

When the Fire announced that three goalkeepers, Jorge Bava, Matt Lampson and Stefan Cleveland, all had their options picked up for 2018 and the team was negotiating a deal to bring back Richard Sanchez, something had to give.

It appears that has been sorted out with the news that Sanchez is in fact back with the Fire, but also that it appears Bava has left the team.

On Monday the Fire announced Sanchez signed a contract guaranteeing him for 2018 and 2019 with a club option for 2020. The 23-year-old made two starts with the Fire in 2017 after he was brought in on Aug. 11.

As is fairly common practice in MLS, the option on Sanchez's initial contract with the Fire was for more than what he signed for on this new deal, according to a source. This is similar to what happened with Razvan Cocis and Luis Solignac in the past two years. Those players both had their options declined only to be brought back for a lower salary number.

Sanchez had mixed results on the field, making one of the better goalkeeper performances the Fire had in 2017 in his debut in San Jose, but then struggled in the regular season finale in Houston. He's young enough to believe he can improve, especially at goalkeeper where players tend to hit their peak older than field players.

As for Bava, it seems all but official that he has joined Liverpool FC Montevideo in his home country of Uruguay. The team's official account tweeted out a welcome to Bava, although there has been no word from the Fire yet.

Bava, 36, made eight starts before being benched in favor of Lampson and missed the second half of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. Once Bava's exit is finalized the Fire will have three goalkeepers instead of the overloaded four.

When Bava was hurt and Sanchez was brought on as a late-season replacement, Lampson and Sanchez emerged as the two candidates for starting goalkeeper. It appears that battle will continue in 2018.

Lampson has far more professional experience with 51 MLS appearances while Sanchez only made sporadic starts in lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico before joining the Fire. Sanchez was a fairly well-regarded prospect having played with Mexico's Under-17 and U-20 teams at youth World Cups.

Not counting Bava, the Fire have 19 players under contract. Bastian Schweinsteiger's situation remains unofficial, although reports have said he is likely to return. The MLS combine has completed two of three rounds of matches with the draft taking place on Friday.