Fire

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

The Chicago Fire's unbeaten run at Toyota Park is now a thing of the past.

The Fire couldn't hold off league-leading Toronto FC and are now nine points below TFC in the standings. If the two teams are to meet in the playoffs, the Fire will have to improve on some things, but there were positives from the Fire's perspective.

Here's a look at some of the key match ups on the field from Saturday's 3-1 win for the Reds.

Jozy Altidore vs. Christian Dean

On the surface, Jozy Altidore had a quiet game for Toronto. He only had one shot and it was blocked.

However, Altidore put on a clinic on how a forward can be effective without being involved directly in scoring opportunities. His hold up and back-to-goal play were key to reliever pressure for Toronto and he allowed his teammates to play off of him.

Altidore’s ability to win aerial duels and 50-50 balls meant Toronto didn’t have to play out of the back if it didn’t want to. If the defense was under too much pressure, Toronto still had a good opportunity to keep the ball and have something positive happen with a decently directed clearance towards Altidore.

Beyond that, his back-to-the-goal play in and near the penalty box was killer. He was credited with three key passes, which was best on Toronto and only matched on the Fire by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Patrick Doody, and had three more passes that were either completed from or into the box.

Toronto is paying Altidore the big bucks to score goals and he didn't do that Saturday, but because the team is so deep, just giving other players on the team better chances can be good enough for TFC to win big games.

The Fire had to adjust to Altidore's presence and that was Christian Dean's assignment. The recently acquired defender is another big body like Altidore. There's a reason why all of the photos of Dean from the set of USA Today wire photos are with him within reach, or actually touching, Altidore. For the most part, Dean succeeded is keeping Altidore out of scoring chances, but Altidore still won most of the physical battles.

Drew Conner vs. Justin Morrow

Whether it was by design or whether it was just what was available, Drew Conner seemed to be a focal point of the Fire's attack for much of Saturday's match. Conner played right back with Matt Polster still out injured. It was a tough assignment for him as well, going up against Toronto's left wing back Justin Morrow, who was called into the U.S. national team during the team's victorious Gold Cup run.

Morrow has scored five goals this year and can be a dangerous part of the attack coming from overlapping positions. He wasn't a major factor on Saturday although he did have a few dangerous moments in the first half.

This may have been because Conner was so aggressive in the Fire's attack. He was dribbling at his defenders on a regular basis, though not always successfully. Conner was credited with nine crosses, three of which were completed.

The Fire's reliance on crosses continued with 26 attempted in the match to Toronto's 12. Consider those numbers with the fact that Toronto outshot the Fire 18-15.

Conner's aggression may have kept Morrow more honest defensively, but it didn't result in many chances for the Fire. A near post header from Michael de Leeuw in the 24th minute off a Conner cross was a good one, but de Leeuw wasn't able to put the header on target.

It's getting repetitive, but the Fire need to find ways to attack from central positions. That will help Nemanja Nikolic in his current goal drought and give defenses multiple things to worry about as opposed to just defending crosses all the time.

Schweinsteiger's 'I'm not in Europe anymore' moment

Watch big name stars with plenty of high-level experience in MLS and inevitably there will be a play every so often that said player will be frustrated by the lack of ability and/or understanding of his teammates. MLS isn't anywhere near as good as the best European leagues so these things happen when these star players are used to playing with the best of the best. Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry were among the most amusing in these instances.

Schweinsteiger had a play like that on Saturday that had to be shared. It isn't the harshest indictment of his teammate, in this case it's Conner, but it's still somewhat amusing.

Schweinsteiger is open in the middle of the field and puts his arms up to call for the ball and show that he's open. However, there's probably not a right back in MLS who can reliably make this pass with two players in between Conner and Schweinsteiger. To his credit, Conner kept pushing forward on the dribble and the Fire got into the attacking third anyway.

Either way, soak it in: a World Cup and Champions League winner calls for a ball in MLS and gets ignored.

It doesn't stop there. In the 71st minute there's a longer version of Schweinsteiger being wide open clapping for the ball. This goes on for several seconds (eight if you count).

The Fire were constantly attacking from wide areas. Here's a world class player wanting the ball in a central area and he's wide open. He probably should get the ball here. The resulting cross at the end of this gif is headed harmlessly away.

Feel free to add your own caption of what's going through Schweinsteiger's head here.

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”