Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Sloppy play leads to Fire loss

Notes from the rewatch: Sloppy play leads to Fire loss

The Chicago Fire entered Saturday's match in Columbus with a number of minor injury concerns and players who missed training time during the week.

The only one who didn't end up playing was Juninho, but the Fire showed signs of fatigue towards the end of the game. The Crew scored twice in the final 20 minutes and could have had more if they were more efficient in front of goal.

On top of that, sloppy mistakes killed the Fire in Ohio. All three Columbus goals were a direct result of turnovers by the Fire.

The Fire's sloppy play

After the loss, Michael de Leeuw had a pair of quotes which summed up why the Fire lost:

"I think we played well in certain parts of the game but most of all we were very sloppy. I think we had 20 unforced errors and at the end, the goals came from that, also the third goal was a mistake for me."

"We have to play better when we play possession. Just hold the ball and not make stupid mistakes beacuse Columbus profited big because of that."

Dax McCarty uncharacteristically had a pair of passes in the Fire's defensive half that were intercepted inside the first dozen minutes. Johan Kappelhof had a back header towards Matt Lampson that Artur got in the way of and had a free header on goal as a result in the fifth minute. That apparently was a sign of things to come.

Matt Polster had a pass intercepted in his own half, which led to Columbus playing in transition and scoring the first goal. The goal itself was a bit lucky with Artur's long shot being deflected right into the path of a wide open Kekuta Manneh in front of goal, but Artur's chance came from the turnover.

In the second half, Polster again was involved in a Columbus goal. His pass at midfield was intercepted, but his killer mistake was pressing the ball soon after and not winning it.

With Polster pressing, he left Columbus' left wing free to attack. That caused a chain reaction in the Fire's defense. Kappelhof had to move from his central position to close down Waylon Francis with the ball on the wing. Joao Meira slid a bit more towards the right to cover Kappelhof and mark striker Ola Kamara. Patrick Doody, the left back playing higher up the field than Kappelhof and Meira, had to track back to mark Justin Meram. Doody couldn't make up enough ground on Meram and he scored the goal.

The clip below starts right as Polster is stepping forward to pressure the ball after his turnover and fouls Cristian Martinez. To add insult to injury, Polster gets a yellow card for the foul on Martinez, a challenge he probably shouldn't have tried to make in the first place.

The third Crew goal, as de Leeuw admitted, was a result of his back pass that was intercepted. The turnover led to a breakaway for Kamara, which led to a penalty kick.

The Fire were able to win the possession battle on the road against a team in Columbus which is one of a handful of MLS teams that regularly try to hold a majority of the possession. That is a good sign that the Fire can impose their will on the game and control the tempo against even good possession teams. However, the Fire's numerous turnovers and inability to cover in transition was costly.

Lack of central attack

Nemanja Nikolic is one of the best finishers in MLS. That's why he has 16 goals so far this season.

However, he has not shown a regular ability to create his own chances. He is great at finding ways to get open near the goal, being in the right place at the right time and being efficient with the chances he gets. He is not great at much else.

So when Nikolic isn't scoring, and he hasn't in five matches, it's at least partially due to the lack of chances the team is creating for him. Nikolic hadn't gone more than two matches without scoring and hadn't gone consecutives games without scoring since Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived before this drought.

Teams are starting to learn the Fire's weakness in attack, which is to clog the central areas and force them wide. New England did that last week and Patrick Doody burned them with three assists. If Doody or Polster aren't going to create chances, the Fire's attack is suddenly in trouble.

Check out this chart, courtesy MLSsoccer.com, of the Fire's key passes, passes which led to shots. McCarty's assist is in blue. Passes were taken from the player's number and were received at the arrows.

Passes that led to Fire shots came from a corner, three crosses, two passes far from the goal, two backwards passes from outside the box and McCarty's chip into the box from distance, which was similar to a cross.

For comparison, check out the Crew's key passes. There are more forward passes from advanced central areas. Even the backward pass from Kamara (No. 11) comes from well inside the box.

This has become the Fire's weakness as more teams have seen how to successfully defend the Fire. Not every team in MLS can defend well enough to stop the Fire, even if they successfully force them wide. New England is a perfect example. The Revolution limited central chances but still gave up four goals to the Fire. The better defensive teams can pull it off though and it's up to Veljko Paunovic to find a way to adjust.

With all this said, everything could have been very different had de Leeuw buried this chance to tie the match in the 79th minute.

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.”

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.