Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

it's easy to blame injuries for the Chicago Fire's recent slide. It might even be justifiable.

However, a theme has begun to emerge in the team's recent defeats beyond the fact that they've all been on the road. It started when Orlando was able to hold off the Fire despite only playing with nine men in Florida back on June 4. It continued when FC Cincinnati shut out the Fire and won in penalties in the U.S. Open Cup. New York City FC pulled off a win despite playing down a man for a majority of the game.

It seems the problems that burned the Fire in the middle part of the season have cropped up more frequently as teams have evolved the tactics to bother them. MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle had his own take on the Fire's recent struggles:

Given that the Fire are going to win possession in most games as long as Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are playing, teams have put less emphasis on trying to win the midfield battle and more emphasis on limiting the ways the Fire can hurt them. Before Wednesday's 3-0 loss at Montreal, a team built to play on the counter, the 3-1 loss in Columbus came as a result of turnovers and counters from the Crew. The Crew typically emphasize possession, but conceded it to the Fire and burned them on the break. Montreal did the same.

Here's a look at how the Fire's makeshift defense coped with Montreal's attack and where on earth Nemanja Nikolic has gone to.

New-look back line

There may not have been a good solution to being so shorthanded defensively, but it didn't look like Veljko Paunovic found one. With Brandon Vincent already out, Matt Polster going down a day before the game and Joao Meira going down with an injury five minutes into the game, it was an emergency situation for the defenders.

Johan Kappelhof slid to right back and Jonathan Campbell stepped into the starting lineup at center back. That meant when Christian Dean subbed in for Meira, none of the Fire's regular defenders were in their regular positions. Kappelhof was the only regular starter and he was playing at a different spot. That's basically a disaster scenario for Dean, who joined the Fire officially a week before the game. He stepped into a game five minutes after he started when he wasn't expecting to play that early and did so when the rest of the Fire's defense was out of sorts as well.

So naturally, Dean's first touch as a Fire player led to a Montreal goal. His attempted clearance isn't really that bad. It wasn't a scuff or a whiff, but it wasn't clean. Ignacio Piatti was in position to take advantage of the lucky break when it bounced off his chest. That's not good for Dean's confidence, but he did have some positive moments to go with some shaky ones.

Dean was credited with eight ball recoveries, second most on the team to McCarty. He did get burned by Matteo Mancosu in a one-on-one situation in the 28th minute, but Matt Lampson came up with a big save. Dean finished with 65 out of 77 passes completed and showed he can use size well in aerial challenges and has decent speed. Him and Campbell both had trouble with Ignacio Piatti and Mancosu on the break. In short, Dean wasn't put in a spot to succeed given the circumstanecs, but showed both why he has potential and why he wasn't able to break in as a regular for Vancouver.

Djordje Mihailovic's first start

One of the things that has been brought up as the Fire's weaknesses continue to show themselves is that the team doesn't have an central attacking midfielder. Michael de Leeuw has occupied this role, but is more of a forward than a playmaker.

Mihailovic, 18, has flashed his talent in substitute appearances, but was given a chance to be the solution to the Fire's problems in Montreal. No pressure, kid.

The Fire's midfield is built around deep-lying midfielders in McCarty and Schweinsteiger and Mihailovic seemed to struggle to get involved. He drifted all over the field, but didn't really make his mark on the game. He was active in pressing Montreal when needed.

Mihailovic completed 16 of 18 passes in the first half, but only three of the completed passes were forward and none were near the box. This isn't the impact a player in that position is supposed to have on a game. In the second half he moved wide right and completed eight of 15 passes.

It wasn't a memorable first start, but the good news is Mihailovic didn't have any glaring mistakes on the ball. He has the talent. Getting experience like he did on Wednesday will help him be more assertive in the future.

Nemanja Nikolic's goal drought

Speaking of players having trouble getting involved in the game, Nemanja Nikolic has had his fair share of relative inactivity during his now six-game goal drought.

Nikolic had led the league in shots and goals, but has fallen off in both categories. David Villa is now two goals ahead of Nikolic for the league lead with 18. Villa (103) and Giovinco (97) have surpassed Nikolic in shots (80).

The Hungarian striker has started every MLS game for the Fire this year. In 12 of the first 18 matches he had multiple shots on target. In the last six matches he hasn't done that once, with a total of four shots on target in those six matches and none in the last two.

Even when the Fire scored four against New England two games ago, Nikolic wasn't a big factor in the match. So how much of that is Nikolic and how much of that is the Fire's recent slump?

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave his view on that topic on Tuesday.

 

"This is no secret, Nemanja does his best work in the box," Rodriguez said. "So one thing that has not been as consistent or as much quality is our delivery of the ball to Nemanja in and around the area. That is a phase of the game that we have definitely not recovered since the (Gold Cup) break. Now, having said that, our goal against Columbus, if Michael doesn’t score, Nemanja does. He’s making the same run, he’s right in position. I think that’s more incumbent upon how we’re playing and what we’re doing than it is Nemanja himself.

"We have to better support him in and around the box for him to regain his form.”

Nikolic had one shot. It was a difficult header from just inside the penalty box when he was tightly marked. It barely registered as a scoring chance. That was one of two touches Nikolic had in the box against Montreal.

Nikolic dropped into midfield at times and completed 15 of 17 passes for the match. Five of those passes were in his own half. He had just two touches after halftime until he was subbed out in the 63rd minute. The service wasn't there and Nikolic isn't the kind of forward to go on a long run to create a chance or score on his own.

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

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 New York 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.”