Fire

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire played without Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire played without Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger

Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger have been the guiding forces of the Fire's turnaround this season, but neither were available for Wednesday's match in Portland.

McCarty missed his second straight game while with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup. Schweinsteiger didn't travel after suffering a hip injury in the previous game against Vancouver.

Coach Veljko Paunovic had to make some adjustments and the team survived a late flurry of chances in and around the box in the final half hour.

What the Fire look like without Dax and Basti

Given how important the Fire's typical midfield duo has been this season, it wasn't clear how the team would line up or play without either of them. Juninho has stepped in when one has been missing and the team has done fine, but with both gone things were going to be different.

Juninho was the lone defensive central midfielder. Nemanja Nikolic was joined up top by David Accam, who played as more of an outright forward than usual. Joining Juninho in the midfield was Luis Solignac, Michael de Leeuw and Arturo Alvarez, who all dropped back and defended more than usual. The formation was a 4-4-2, more specifically a 4-1-3-2 with how Juninho was the lone defensive mid and the other three attacking more.

Portland striker Fanendo Adi is a big body and one of the best at his position in the league. He gave the Fire problems in the middle, racking up seven shots. At New England on June 17, Paunovic used Schweinsteiger as a sweeper to mark another big striker in Kei Kamara. That worked fairly well on that day, but that option wasn't available to Paunovic.

Whether it's been McCarty or Schweinsteiger, one of those two has dropped between the two center backs to build possession from the back. Juninho is a sound passer, but that's not really his game. He is a shuttler, who moves the ball along simply, but he didn't have anyone to move the ball along to in the same way McCarty and Schweinsteiger would.

The Fire still tried to build out of the back, but had a few dangerous turnovers while trying to do so. Both the personnel and the formation made the Fire's typical style very difficult to play. Portland was aggressive in pressing and had a majority of the possession.

It didn't help that Matt Polster went down with an injury in the first half. Being forced to sub him out and bring on Drew Conner burned a sub, killing flexibility for later in the match, and meant another central midfield option (Conner) was now out of play because he was playing at right back.

Things changed when Jonathan Campbell was brought into the match in the second half and the formation shifted. More on that below.

Portland's second half assault

The match started fairly slowly with neither team creating many chances in the first 20 minutes. Portland had three shots, one on target, in the first 20 minutes. The Fire's first shot wasn't actually a shot. Alvarez's goal in the 34th minute was a cross that found the net thanks to Nikolic crashing in front to freeze goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.

With the match tied 1-1 after halftime, Portland didn't manage a shot in the first 10 minutes of the half. The Timbers quickly ramped things up, especially after Brandon Vincent gave the Fire the lead in the 61st minute.

When Campbell entered in the 65th minute, Paunovic was hoping to hold onto the 2-1 lead and get the win. Portland was controlling midfield and had turned up the pressure in the previous 10 minutes.

Campbell led the Fire in minutes in 2016, but has come on as a sub in his last nine league appearances. It's something that Paunovic has used regularly to help close out games, but it didn't work in Portland.

The Fire moved to a 5-3-2 formation with Campbell and then it changed to somewhat of a 5-4-1 with Accam dropping into midfield more often. Regardless of the nuance of how the players were positioned, the Fire were sitting way too deep and couldn't relieve pressure.

Portland's game-tying goal, which came five minutes after Campbell subbed on, was a combination of positioning errors and confusion with Joao Meira, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. Meira stepped up to close on the ball and Juninho and de Leeuw both closed on Diego Valeri, leaving Sebastian Blanco open in the box. In a four defender set Meira wouldn't have been in that position, but under normal circumstances de Leeuw wouldn't be asked to do this much defending anyway.

The Timbers racked up 11 shots in the 30-plus minutes after Vincent's goal gave the Fire the lead. The Fire were lucky to escape with a draw, and they may have known it. Nikolic put his arms in the air in a mild celebration after the final whistle blew.

Fun with gifs

De Leeuw was somewhat involved in Portland's second goal, but he did make a nice tackle late in the first half on Blanco. This is not your average striker's tackle.

Also here's Accam dribbling through and then burning four Portland players:

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.