Notes from the rewatch: Fire flip a switch in the final half hour against Seattle

Notes from the rewatch: Fire flip a switch in the final half hour against Seattle

The Chicago Fire picked up a big win against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday.

It wasn't a win against a rival, or even a conference foe jockeying for playoff position. It also wasn't against a full-strength team playing well.

It was big because of the way it happened (a three-goal margin with plenty of action both ways) and who it was in front of (a soldout crowd and a national TV audience).

Despite the temporary euphoria Fire fans left Toyota Park with on Saturday, the players and coaches on the team admitted it wasn't a complete performance. The Fire were largely outplayed in the first half and caught some breaks to go into halftime tied. Seattle hit the crossbar in the first five minutes and the Fire were fortunate to be given a retake on the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic eventually scored.

Coach Veljko Paunovic talked about adjustments the team made at halftime that made the difference. Here are some notes on that as well as Drew Conner's tough assignment against Joevin Jones.

Rotating up front

Paunovic said the halftime adjustment of moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 played a key role in turning things around from the first half to the second half. Seattle had more than 60 percent of the possession in the first half, but the Fire had the edge in possession after halftime.

The biggest difference between the two formations was having Dax McCarty line up as the lone defensive midfielder, meaning he takes a more central role. Clint Dempsey scored Seattle's goal by drifting a bit into midfield to receive the ball and had free space to step into a shot. That's the area the Fire were trying to cover with the subtle formation change. It also freed Schweinsteiger to play a big higher up the field in a more neutral midfield role as opposed to primarily positioning for defensive purposes.


That change helped clear things up defensively, but the attack remained similar. The Fire's four attacking players, Nikolic, David Accam, Luis Solignac and Michael de Leeuw, were swapping positions frequently throughout the match.

Accam was on the right wing the first 12 minutes and then went back to his usual spot on the left wing, swapping back with Solignac. Accam and Nikolic did shift around with Nikolic drifting wide and Accam moving into the center as well. Michael de Leeuw began centrally and moved more to the right wing in the second half before getting subbed out.

The combination of having four attackers and having them swap positions allowed them to cause some chaos in Seattle’s defense. Throw in McCarty and Schweinsteiger being able to quickly change the point of attack, something the Fire didn’t always do well last year under Paunovic, and the free-moving attackers were able to take advantage when there was an opening.

It’s also worth noting that Seattle was without stud centerback Roman Torres and was playing a regular starter in the central midfield, Cristian Roldan, at right back.

Maybe on another day Seattle’s defense could have coped better with what the Fire threw at them, but they were not able to do so on Saturday.

Tempo change after halftime

Another shift after halftime that came as a result of the Fire's adjustments was the tempo of the match. Both teams had nine total shots at halftime in a back-and-forth 45 minutes.

The Fire had extended periods of possession in the first 15 minutes of the second half, but the only shot of the second half before Accam's goal in the 60th minute was an off target effort from Clint Dempsey. This was a drastic change from the first half.

The Fire methodically picked Seattle apart on the second goal. Schweinsteiger started the play with a first-time lofted ball that hit Conner open on the right to switch the play. Conner, de Leeuw and Schweinsteiger combined well to unlock Seattle’s defense. This goal opened the tempo of the game right away.

In the next 20 minutes after the goal, the Fire had five more shots, including the third and fourth goals. Matt Polster and Jonathan Campbell subbed into the match and the Fire went to a 5-3-2 that was another tactical change.

"It made it a little easier to play out of the back and exploit some of the wide spaces, which made us get into their half a little bit easier and create chances,” Polster said.

Drew Conner vs. Joevin Jones

After a tough matchup in LA for his first career start, Conner went up against arguably the league's best left back going forward in former Fire player Joevin Jones. Jones toasted Conner twice in the first five minutes to create chances near the box and set up a shot for Nicolas Lodeiro in the ninth minute, which Lodeiro badly scuffed, when Conner backed off to respect Jones' speed. It was an ominous start, but Jones didn't get forward much after that.

It wasn't exactly Conner's doing as much as cover and adjustments. The Fire having more possession in the second half certainly helped.

In terms of 1v1 defending, it wasn't a bright spot for Conner, but most right backs in the league have trouble staying with Jones. The positive sign for the Fire was the ability to adjust and cover for Conner when the first 10 minutes showed that was needed.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.