Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

Notes from the rewatch: Richard Sanchez's first start, Djordje Mihailovic's first goal

On paper, Wednesday's game in San Jose was going to be very hard for the Fire.

The team was coming off a bad road loss in Philadelphia three days earlier and rotated a lot of the starting lineup with a big game coming up against New York City FC. The Fire delivered one of the best performances of the season and two of the key performers were not regular starters.

Richard Sanchez made eight saves in his first Fire appearance and Djordje Mihailovic scored his first MLS goal to give the Fire an early lead. How good were the two young players?

Sanchez's oddly busy first start

The score said 4-1 and it was 4-0 until the final minutes of the game, but Sanchez was very busy between the posts in San Jose. He had to make eight saves, the most for a Fire goalkeeper since Matt Lampson made nine saves in Vancouver on May 11, 2016.

Sanchez had one tough save to make in the first half, a hammered free kick by Danny Hoesen that was right at Sanchez. He held his ground and did well to not give up a rebound on that, instead blocking it away from danger.

In the second half, after the Fire took a 3-0 lead in the 48th minute, San Jose put an onslaught on the Fire's goal. San Jose had 12 shots in the second half, 10 of which came in the final 25 minutes. This save below was Sanchez's best highlight.

The ball appeared to have smacked off his face, but it's his positioning that deserves credit. He was in the right spot and made himself big so he didn't have to make a reaction save. He was already where the ball was most likely to wind up.

Sanchez didn't show anything notable, good or bad, in his distribution. He came out well for crosses on occasion, although he did fail to get a strong fist to a corner he attempted to clear in the 70th minute. Overall, it was a strong first start for the 23-year-old, one worthy of starting a legitimate goalkeeper battle with Lampson.

Strange final numbers

As mentioned, the Fire dropped back with a three-goal lead early in the second half and allowed San Jose to dictate play. The Earthquakes ended up creating a lot of opportunities and on another day could have been in this match. The Fire dominated the first half and deserved to have a two-goal lead at the break, but a pair of mistakes by San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell made the game a blowout.

While Sanchez was having a solid game, Tarbell turned the ball over deep in his own end with a bad pass that led to the third goal. On the fourth goal, he came off his line to challenge Michael de Leeuw on a breakaway. De Leeuw chipped Tarbell, who froze on the shot. Nemanja Nikolic, like any good goal poacher, continued to chase after the shot and won the race for the rebound after the chip hit the bar and bounced back into play. A goalkeeper who can use his hands to punch away a ball should never lose a race to a ball with a player forced to used his head.

The Fire probably don't drop as deep without that third goal and maybe they can maintain the pressure of the first half, but it's reasonable to think that without Tarbell's two mistakes the game could have had a very close finish. San Jose outshot the Fire 20-14, although the Fire maintained a 10-9 edge in shots on target, and nearly got possession back to 50-50 after the Fire controlled the first half. It's crazy to think a three-goal game was decided by the goalkeepers, but Tarbell cost his team two goals and Sanchez might have saved the Fire one.

Mihailovic's positive performance in a new role

The Fire's teenage homegrown player had three MLS starts before Wednesday. All of them were in attacking roles, either centrally or out wide. In San Jose, Mihailovic played as one of the deep midfielders alongside Dax McCarty.

When Mihailovic had played in attacking midfield spots, he tended to get lost in the game. Maybe he didn't know where to be or maybe he was failing to be assertive enough to get involved. Either way, that wasn't a problem in the deeper role on Wednesday.

His skillset has led many to believe that he is somewhat of a classic playmaker, but he also seems to have the profile of a deeper midfielder. For one, his pressing ability is among the best on the team. That has shown whenever he is on the field. It's not traditional defensive play that is needed as a defensive midfielder, but it can be enough when a veteran like McCarty is next to him. He also is smooth enough on the ball to not turn the ball over too many times in traffic, something that Drew Conner struggled with the previous two games.

Mihailovic still made some mistakes, one turnover in the 32nd minute which resulted in San Jose getting a free kick just outside the box. He also showed good connecting play going forward. Check out this give-and-go with Nikolic.

Mihailovic completed 56 out of 64 passes, including 39 out of 42 in the first half, and scored his first MLS goal.

Here's a deeper look at his goal, which featured a nice job of filling the space up top as de Leeuw dropped deep to play a pass.

A goal worth a special mention

The Fire have had a few goals with extended strings of passes this season and added another Wednesday. The second goal was a 17-pass sequence that resulted in a crazy volley cross assist from de Leeuw.

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.

Notes from the rewatch: What stood out about the goals in Fire's win against Union

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: What stood out about the goals in Fire's win against Union

Normally when revisiting games there are trends or performances that stick out, but the most notable plays from Sunday's Fire win against Philadelphia were the goals.

Here's what stood out from the four goals that were scored from open play in the Fire's 3-2 victory.

Nikolic gives Fire early lead on long ball

Believe it or not this pass was a direct assist on the first goal of the game:

Brandon Vincent is barely beyond his own penalty box when he launches one for Nemanja Nikolic. The ball bounces three times before Nikolic gets his first touch on it. His second touch is a goal.

The pass itself is nothing special and a defensive error plays a part, but it's hard to believe a pass from that far back can result in an assist.

Philly’s first goal is a chain reaction

On the first goal for Philly, the play begins when Matt Polster is caught way too high in press. Philly was building out of back and Polster, the Fire's right back, pressed well past midfield to win a ball and didn't.

When he doesn’t win it, the ball falls to Fafa Picault behind him on the left wing. Next it's off to the races for the Union.

Center back Johan Kappelhof moves wide to cover for Polster and defend Picault, who makes a nice switch to Chris Pontius after the Fire appeared to be getting back in position. C.J. Sapong beats Joao Meira, who a minute before shook off a leg injury that forced him to have a significant limp after the match. Sapong probably had the edge in the first-step department at that point to get some separation. Kappelhof had to try to slide it away because Picault was waiting at the back post for a tap-in.


The Fire had a chance to recover, but it all started with Polster getting caught too high up the field.

Union string passes together to take lead

A Dax McCarty turnover gave Philadelphia possession and the Union combined passes for an impressive team goal. First it was eight straight passes before one was broken up, but Philadelphia immediately regained possession and connected 12 more passes. After an initial cross is headed away, the second pass after that is Haris Medunjanin chipping a pass to Alejandro Bedoya for the goal. Just an impressive team goal from the Union, even if goalkeeper Matt Lampson made things easier for Bedoya on the finish by coming off his line too early.

Nikolic shows his instincts for game-winner

As for the Fire’s third goal, just watch Landon Donovan and recently-fired New England Revolution coach Jay Heaps explain what happened:

(Note: The video appears to be down for some reason even though it's still linked on the homepage of MLSsoccer.com. The gist of it is that Nikolic did a great job delaying his run to find the space that set him up for the goal as opposed to crashing the six-yard box and being more tightly marked.)