Fire

Notes from the rewatch: David Accam turns into playmaker against Red Bulls

Notes from the rewatch: David Accam turns into playmaker against Red Bulls

The Chicago Fire lost another game away from home on Saturday, but despite the result it wasn’t like so many of the other road defeats in coach Veljko Paunovic’s tenure.

The Fire had a slight edge in possession against the New York Red Bulls (51-49 percent), which is especially impressive considering the Red Bulls are one of the few teams in MLS which prioritizes possession. In addition, the Fire had more shots (14) and shots on target (6) than the Red Bulls, which had 10 shots and three on target.

Missed chances doomed the Fire to a second straight loss, but the Red Bulls missed some quality scoring opportunities as well. Here’s a look at those and a couple other things from Dax McCarty’s return to Red Bull Arena.

David Accam’s passing

Accam has been the focal point of the team’s attack for the past two years, but the addition of Nemanja Nikolic, along with Michael de Leeuw joining in the latter part of last season, has made the Fire’s attack more balanced.

The Fire can build through the midfield with the newcomers in that area as well, meaning Accam isn’t chasing down as many long balls and has needed to find other ways to contribute. Accam, often questioned about his decision-making and passing ability, has a pair of assists this season from quality passes and had even more of that in New Jersey.

Against the Red Bulls, Accam was credited with five key passes and could have easily had an assist or two from them. His through ball set up the Nikolic shot in the 30th minute that resulted in a shot on goal. Five minutes later he lofted a ball over the top to Luis Solignac, who was then free on the right wing. The Fire could have had a penalty when Solignac’s first effort hit the arm of a defender, but the chance probably should have been converted regardless.

Two more Accam crosses were completed in the second half that gave Nikolic and Solignac each an open chance in the box, but neither was put on frame.

Accam was the Fire’s best playmaker on Saturday, which is something different from the Ghanaian winger, but the Fire’s finishers didn’t reward him with any assists.

Missed chances

This is the area many Fire fans focused on after the loss. The Fire coulda, shoulda, woulda won this game with more clinical finishing.

This is definitely arguable. As mentioned above, Accam created most of those chances and they couldn’t finish those.

The Fire had at least four solid chances that either resulted in a missed shot or an easy save for Luis Robles.

When Nikolic cut back on a defender following Accam’s through ball in the 30th minute, he may have had a chance to square the ball to Solignac for an open shot. Nikolic did put a solid shot on target, but Robles was able to make the save.

There’s the Solignac chance in the 35th minute when he loses control of the ball before firing a last ditch shot that gets blocked.

Solignac and Nikolic each had open shots from Accam crosses in the second half, but didn’t make clean contact when they were open in the box. Solignac’s was especially tempting.

However, the Red Bulls had some missed opportunities as well. Before scoring the game-winning goal, Kemar Lawrence sliced an open shot from 12 yards out over the bar. Later, Tyler Adams ran onto a ball in the box and had time to set himself up for an open shot, but skied it. The best chance was when Fire goalkeeper Jorge Bava left a big rebound on a long shot from Sacha Kljestan and somehow Felipe couldn’t corral it to score into a mostly open net.

The point is, yes, the Fire could have scored more goals, but the Red Bulls also had some good chances they missed.

McCarty’s return to Red Bull Arena

In the buildup to Saturday’s game McCarty said he wanted to say goodbye to his former teammates and fans.

This isn’t really related to the game itself, but McCarty did take the time to say something to many Red Bulls players, even joking with Lawrence about the game-winning goal. He also spent time signing autographs and taking pictures with fans who stayed after the game. Things like this are why McCarty was popular with Red Bulls fans.

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.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”