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:

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

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USA TODAY

After five week wait, Michael de Leeuw finally has knee surgery

Due to an early playoff exit, the players of the 2017 Chicago Fire have begun to disperse around the country to see family and friends back home during the offseason.

It’s not hard to make an argument that injuries played a significant part in the team’s playoff defeat. Michael de Leeuw went down on Sept. 30 with a torn ACL, Bastian Schweinsteiger played only 19 minutes in the last seven games of the season and Juninho wasn’t quite back to 100 percent when the playoffs rolled around. De Leeuw’s absence especially seemed to change the way the team played.

“Michael is loved by everyone in the locker room,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That’s off the field, but on the field he also put his best always. His quality, his mentality, character, leadership. He’s a winner, he wanted to win. That piece maybe we missed.”

More than five weeks after suffering the knee injury against New York City FC on Sept. 30, de Leeuw had his surgery on Thursday morning. Teenager Djordje Mihailovic suffered an ACL tear in the playoff loss nearly a full month after de Leeuw’s, but still had his surgery a week before the Dutchman.

“It was also my MCL,” de Leeuw said the day before his surgery. “It was a little bit sprained so that’s why they had to wait a little bit longer. Djordje only had his ACL, that’s why he already got surgery. When I saw he already got surgery I was like ‘S***, when is my turn? When can I go to the table?’ My knee is fine. It was a couple weeks longer, but it’s good now. It’s calm.”

De Leeuw said he was “a little bit” nervous going into the surgery because it was his first surgery. He had already been building his muscles, specifically quad strength, in advance of the procedure. The 31-year-old, who shared the team lead in assists with eight, will stay in Chicago for the rehab process.

He is under contract through 2018 with a club option for 2019. When asked about his long-term future, de Leeuw is confident he can return to 100 percent next season.

“I know my body,” he said. “I will be back for sure and I will be back stronger because I can do a lot of stuff in the gym now. That’s one thing I’m sure about. I will be back and I will be back stronger.

“I’m not done with the club and things I want to do here and accomplish here.”

[RELATED: Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason]

His, and Mihailovic’s, absence for the first part of 2018 will also have an impact on how the Fire approach this offseason. De Leeuw established himself as a regular starter and Mihailovic was starting to become a regular in the lineup towards the end of the year, especially after de Leeuw’s injury.

“We, for a while, had believed we had good depth, we had emerging talent on the attacking side,” general manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “We could maybe disproportionately focus our attention in other areas, other lines of play, but we have to be realistic. They each could miss a large portion of the season so we have to reconsider our initial thoughts and revise our plan a little bit. For sure now, I think we’ll need to look to add some attacking piece because that’s a lot of minutes that we planned on that will need to be filled.”

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

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USA TODAY

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

It was locker clean out day for the Fire and while there was definitely a last day of school feel in the locker room, a number of the players left Toyota Park on Wednesday not knowing their immediate futures.

Just seven of the 30 players that finished 2017 on the roster have guaranteed contracts for 2018: Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean, Jorge Corrales, David Accam, Michael de Leeuw, Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac. A healthy number more can safely head into the winter knowing they will have their team options picked up (Dax McCarty, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster to name a few), but plenty more face uncertainty.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said the front office is “still discussing” which players will be brought back and which won’t. Rodriguez added that he is about halfway through exit interviews with the players and expects to finish them by the end of the week.

“The rules allow us to not to have to make that decision until late November, early December, the first day of December, so we won’t,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll take our time in doing that and we’ll explore internal options and options that may present themselves from the international market.”

The big question mark is German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 33-year-old is out of contract and is currently in Serbia with his Serbian wife, Ana Ivanovic.

“Our conversations I would characterize are going very well, very positively,” Rodriguez said. “We remain optimistic that Basti and we will reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

“I won’t put a timeline on it. I think Basti has proven his importance to our club and to our team and that remains a priority to bring him back.”

Along with Schweinsteiger, center back Joao Meira is the only other player not already guaranteed for 2018 that the Fire do not hold an option on.

Rodriguez admitted injuries will also play a part in the decision process. Accam had surgery to repair two hernias in his hip on Tuesday and is expected to be fully healthy by December, but de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic will miss a significant chunk of the 2018 season. Mihailovic already had his ACL surgery while de Leeuw's ACL surgery is scheduled for Thursday morning. The absence of those two players, who figured to be regulars next season, for what could be around half of the season alters Rodriguez's plan for 2018.

After a much-improved regular season, which saw the Fire finish with the third best record in the league, was followed up by a one-and-done playoff exit, the key this winter will be how much things should change.

“The arc of this offseason will be that delicate balance,” Rodriguez said. “We know we need to improve. We know we like our core, but change is inevitable. You can’t have both. We can’t fully retain this group and add pieces.”

While coach Veljko Paunovic, who denied any connection to the open Serbia national team job at the start of the press conference, has already been on a scouting trip and has others planned in Europe and South America, he said his first choice is to have the current players come back improved for next season.

“The guys that we decide to come back, they have to come back better than they left,” Paunovic said before calling adding other players Plan B.

So while there are only hints to go on for now, the first dominoes of the Fire’s offseason will take place in about three weeks time.