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.

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.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”