Notes from the rewatch: Why couldn't the Fire break down Orlando?

Notes from the rewatch: Why couldn't the Fire break down Orlando?

Sunday's goalless draw between the Chicago Fire and Orlando City was a weird one.

The Fire played with a man advantage for more than an hour and were up two men for nearly a half hour. So why couldn't the Fire get the goal needed to get the victory?

Orlando's resolute defending and organization was obviously essential to that, but what could the Fire have done differently?

Here are some notes on the Fire playing against a deep defensive line and how the team looked for the 25 minutes of even strength play.

The game before the red cards

From an outside perspective, the downside to Orlando receiving two red cards in the match was that it took away the chance to evaluate the Fire against a good team. The Fire have played good teams this year, but the team's current unbeaten run implies the Fire have improved.

Orlando is in the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference and has a strong home record. If the Fire were able to get a result against Orlando when it had 11 men, that would have been a significant milestone.

Instead, there was only 25 minutes of solid evaluation. The Fire did have a majority of the possession in the first 25 minutes and did create a pair of good chances. David Accam got free after a defender fell and had a hard shot saved in the 14th minute. In the 20th minute, Accam and Nikolic combined in the box, but Nikolic could only get a soft shot on target.

Orlando was letting the Fire have possession, but was also pressing high up the field and did create a few dangerous turnovers. Over 90 minutes it would have been interesting to see the dynamic play out of the Fire controlling the ball, but Orlando pressing to create chances off turnovers in the Fire's half.

After the first red card

After Rafael Ramos was sent off, Orlando obviously stopped the high-press. The Lions still had moments of extended possession, but there weren't many.

For the most part, Orlando was looking to launch long balls to Cyle Larin and Carlos Rivas. Larin got a shot off of one of them, but that was Orlando's only shot the rest of the match.

After the second red card

Once Antonio Nocerino was sent off, it was all-out defense for Orlando. A tired Rivas got subbed off for Kaka just before the red card and Larin was subbed off a few minutes after it.

The long ball threat was gone and the Fire now had to break down eight defenders staying tight to the box. This wasn't a good matchup for what the Fire like to do in the attack.

While David Accam likes to dribble at defenders in 1v1 situations, his speed was mostly negated by the tight space. Nikolic's desire to stretch a defense's offside line and his movement and runs in the box also don't apply against a team sitting that deep.

The Fire's lack of aerial threats was also a problem. David Arshakyan replaced Accam in the 76th minute to provide that size in the box.

On top of that, the Fire were without Juninho, whose ability to take shots from distance could have come in handy when the Fire needed someone to try something other than a cross into the box.

Arturo Alvarez subbed on as someone who can shoot from distance and create his own shot. He had a few shots, but none were on target.

Matt Polster's sliding shot that went off the bottom of the crossbar in added time was the only shot taken from inside the box that came from a decent angle and wasn't blocked.

After the second red, the Fire totaled 19 balls sent into the box, either a cross, a corner or a low centering ball. That was what Orlando gave the Fire and it showed why. None of those low percentage chances led to goals or even shots on target.

Bastian Schweinsteiger's role without Dax McCarty

With McCarty away with the national team, Schweinsteiger filled in as the point man to build possession for the Fire. Typically, McCarty drops between the two centerbacks and will make the first or one of the first passes as the Fire build out of the back.

Schweinsteiger took that role on Sunday. He dropped deeper, but wasn't pressed defensively because of the red cards. This meant some of his passes were further from goal.

Perhaps having Schweinsteiger try to make the assisting pass instead of setting up players to make assisting passes would have helped break down Orlando. Either way, look for Schweinsteiger to take a similar role Saturday against Atlanta with McCarty still gone.

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


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.”