Fire

Notes from the rewatch: The Fire's second half defensive issues

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: The Fire's second half defensive issues

The Fire headed to Philadelphia on Saturday with a good chance to get some points on the road against a team out of the playoff race.

However, things rarely come easy on the road in MLS and the Fire got another lesson in that. Despite having the run of play and creating more quality chances in the first half, the Fire stared at a halftime deficit after conceding soon after a set piece.

The surprising part was the second half, where the Fire's defense gave up a number of chances and two early goals to put the game away. Here's a look at what happened to the Fire's defense and how the shorthanded midfield is coping.

Philadelphia's fullbacks play key role

The recent injuries to Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster showed how key the play of the outside backs are in the Fire's system. The Fire's inability to create through the middle of the field and the quality Vincent and Polster (and Patrick Doody when he played for Vincent and provided four assists in seven starts) have shown in the attack has made those two very important to the Fire.

Philadelphia used fullbacks to great effect as well on Saturday, and the Union's pair of Fabinho and Keegan Rosenberry ultimately outshined Vincent and Polster. Both Union fullbacks had assists, created multiple other chances and overloaded the Fire's defense by adding numbers to the attack.

Rosenberry's assist came after a corner kick was only partially cleared, but he did make a nice move to give himself space for the cross and put in a good ball. Fabinho went for the long ball a lot and had some bad turnovers, but he got forward enough to be a nightmare for the Fire's defense. Check out this look at the third goal:

Fabinho actually played a role in two goals. His low cross in the ninth minute, which was the only decent chance Philly created from the run of play in the first half, was cleared for a corner. That corner led to the first goal.

Philadelphia lost the midfield battle to the Fire, but got numbers forward when they had the opportunity to overwhelm the Fire's defense and did so with much better effect after halftime.

Philly's second-half surge

In the first half it appeared the only way Philadelphia was going to score was through a set piece. The Union created a decent number of them, but didn't create anything from the run of play.

Things changed in the second half with the two goals and a pair of missed headers that came from crosses all coming from open play in the second half. The Fire were being more aggressive while trailing and conceded chances on the counter, but also had some key turnovers. Without Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Fire's defense seemed to get exposed more often.

Philadelphia ended up outshooting the Fire 15-11 and had a 6-5 edge in shots on target. The Union also had more corners (6-3) and crosses (23-14). It ended up being a resounding win for the Union.

Fire display "patience" for only goal

In the first half Fire coach Veljko Paunovic was seen and heard yelling "Patience, patience!" to his players, even while the team was trailing 1-0. When things were going good for the Fire, it was often with methodical, deliberate buildups that were from strings of 10 or more passes in a row.

There probably wasn't as much of that as Paunovic or the Fire would like, thus him yelling it to his team, but the team's only goal of the game came after a 21-pass buildup. Polster crossed to Nemanja Nikolic, who made an impressive flick in the general direction of Luis Solignac. Solignac, who had subbed into the game fewer than 10 minutes before, got inside position on Rosenberry and buried it.

At this point, the Fire will not suddenly become a team which can build through the middle of the field. The Fire rely on good service from the fullbacks and on this occasion Polster provided a good ball and Nikolic and Solignac made plays to turn it into a goal.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

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.