Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Why were the Fire satisfied with a home draw?

Notes from the rewatch: Why were the Fire satisfied with a home draw?

Saturday's Fire-Red Bulls contest won't win any awards for entertainment or aesthestic quality. Neither team completed passes at a high rate nor was able to pepper the opposing goal.

So when the match finished a 1-1 draw it was probably a fair result. Neither attack can feel like it created a ton of chances nor was really threatening to the opposition and neither defense can come away feeling great after failing to come up with a clean sheet. The Fire completed 66 percent of passes while the Red Bulls came in just slightly better at 72 percent. Both of those are well below a satisfactory rate for two teams which put effort into controlling possession.

Performance aside, coach Veljko Paunovic and his players said they were happy to get a point at home against a team below them in the standings. Here's a look at that, along with the Red Bulls' dominant start.

Red Bulls owned the first 10 minutes

Bradley Wright-Phillips' goal in the seventh minute came soon after a corner kick and the way the opening minutes were going, it seemed to be coming. The Fire couldn't keep the ball out of the defensive half for the first 10 minutes.

In the seven minutes before the Red Bulls goal, the Fire completed more than two passes in a row on one occasion, all of which were in the defensive half. The Fire completed 16 of 33 passes in the first 10 minutes.

Whether the Fire was surprised by the Red Bulls' pressure, which shouldn't have happened, or was simply just slow out of the gate, it proved costly. The Red Bulls managed to close down passing lanes and had a huge territorial advantage in the opening part of the match.

New York came out in an unsual formation, which was tough to get a read on. There is a lot of fluidity in Jesse Marsch's system and to try to explain what they were doing would be beyond my knowledge of soccer tactics. I asked Frank Klopas about it when I saw him at halftime in the press box and he said it was basically a 5-4-1, but it shifted depending on what the wing backs were doing.

Either way, the Red Bulls caught the Fire off guard from the start.

Then the Fire improved

After Wright-Phillips' goal, the Red Bulls didn't have another shot the rest of the half. The Fire's first shot didn't come until 25 minutes into the game, but the improvement was evident.

The problem was the only shot that came close was a Michael de Leeuw effort which looked like it was going off target until getting deflected by a defender and hitting the crossbar. It was a good show of skill from de Leeuw, but that was pretty much it for the first half.

The Fire picked up the pressure in the second half and that led to the goal, which also came from an impressive show of skill from de Leeuw on the assist.

But what about those last 20 minutes?

After the game, Paunovic said the Fire had the better of the chances and were pushing for the win. The first part was definitely true on the whole. The shot total favored the Fire 14-5.

“I think as I remember we had more opportunities in this game, as I can remember it," Paunovic said during his fiery postgame press conference. "I think we were the team that was pushing hard to get that tie and then we were still pushing to win the game."

The pushing for the win part didn't show up on the field. With neither team playing particularly well, neither one put another shot on goal in the final 20 minutes. In fact, the Red Bulls didn't have another shot on target after scoring in the seventh minute.

However, a simple look at the passing charts for both teams show where the ball was (the Fire's defensive third) and where it wasn't (the Red Bulls' defensive third). Here's the Fire's passing chart for the final 20 minutes (attacking from bottom to top, green passes are completed, yellow passes led to shots and red passes were not completed):

Note the lack of passes in and near the box and the lack of completed passes beyond midfield. Now look at the Red Bulls' passing chart for the final 20 minutes:

The obvious relative density of passes shows the territorial advantage the Red Bulls had down the stretch. So no, the Fire did not push for the win. That's not to say the team was necessarily playing for the draw, but New York was certainly the aggressor late.

There are practical reasons why the Fire said they were happy with the draw. The Fire didn't allow the Red Bulls to gain ground in the standings and remained four points ahead of New York, although the Red Bulls have a game in hand. The Fire's closing schedule includes just two playoff teams out of the final six matches so this could have been a case of trying to fight another day. Is that good enough though?

However, this isn't what Paunovic has been preaching since he took over. Paunovic talks about trying to control and win every game, even on the road. That's why it was jarring to see him and the team not only satisfied with the home draw, but "happy with it" as de Leeuw said after the game.

USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

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USL expansion team with proposed 20,000-seat stadium on North Side could be significant for soccer in Chicago

Stadium talk is always circling around Major League Soccer and that goes double for the Chicago Fire, which has been criticized for playing in suburban Bridgeview since Toyota Park opened in 2006.

That's why the Chicago Tribune's story about a United Soccer League expansion team playing at a proposed 20,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof in Chicago is such a big deal. According to the report and confirmed by a USL spokesperson, real estate developer Sterling Bay has purchased the rights to a USL expansion team. The stated goal is to begin play in 2020.

The details of the stadium are not finalized so the features and capacity could still change.

The proposed location of the stadium is along the North Branch of the Chicago River between the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the Kennedy Expressway. The stadium was previously mentioned as part of Sterling Bay's bid to bring Amazon's second headquarters to Chicago. A spokesperson for Sterling Bay confirmed that the stadium being built is not contingent on Amazon coming to Chicago, it will happen regardless.

Further information from Sterling Bay said that "announcements on ownership and team structure will come at a later date." The team does not yet have a name, but fans will be included in the naming process.

A 20,000-seat stadium and a retractable roof will make for a fancy and impressive, but also expensive venue and a USL team as a primary tenant may prove difficult to justify the cost. The location itself would be an easier sell to draw in fans than Toyota Park out in Bridgeview. However, minor league soccer may not excite local residents in large number.

The USL had 30 teams in 2017 with eight more teams planned to join by 2019. This past season, only two USL teams averaged above 10,000 in attendance: FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC. Both of those are prime MLS expansion candidates and Cincinnati beat the Fire in the U.S. Open Cup in front of 32,287 fans in June.

Many USL clubs are either owned/operated by MLS teams or are affiliated with an MLS team. The Fire switched from Saint Louis FC to the Tulsa Roughnecks as its affiliated club in 2017, sending players to Tulsa to gain playing time as opposed to sitting on the bench with the Fire.

According to the Tribune's story, the stadium would also try to attract other events such as international soccer matches, college football, college basketball and concerts. Rugby and lacrosse were also named in documentation sent by Sterling Bay. Sterling Bay has also yet to present formal plans and still needs to gain zoning approval.

At the Fire's end of the season media availability on Nov. 7, general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked about the proposed stadium and if he or MLS had been contacted about it.

“I can’t speak about MLS," Rodriguez said. "I don’t know if they have or have not. I have not. I haven’t spoken, been approached by anyone. I’m not sure I would be the person they approach or speak to, but I’m not aware of any conversations.”

The Fire moving to this stadium could be an ideal solution for both parties. An MLS team with an existing fan base would have an easier time drawing big crowds. Boosted by the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Fire drew crowds of 20,000 or more six times in 2017. The regular season average of 17,383 was the highest since moving to Toyota Park and highest since the club's inaugural, championship-winning season in 1998.

However, things aren't that simple. The Fire are locked into a 30-year lease with Bridgeview and Toyota Park, which the Fire have played in since 2006. Getting out of that would require a significant buyout or a breach of contract.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.