Columbus Crew SC

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.

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

Things are getting tight for the Fire in the Eastern Conference

It may not be time to start ringing alarm bells, but the Eastern Conference race is not looking as pleasant for the Chicago Fire as it did a few weeks ago.

The Fire lost 3-1 in Columbus on Saturday. It was the Fire's third straight loss on the road.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Toronto FC erupted in the second half for a 4-1 win against Portland. TFC (13-3-8, 47 points) is now six points clear of the second-place Fire (12-6-5, 41 points). On top of that, New York City FC (12-7-4, 40 points) is just one point behind the Fire, and could move into second place with a win at LA later tonight, and the New York Red Bulls (12-9-2, 38 points) beat Orlando to move within three points of the Fire.

While Toronto has appeared to be the class of the league throughout the season and is likely to hold onto the top spot, securing the second spot at the minimum will be important for the Fire. The top two teams in each conference avoid having to play in a first-round playoff game and move straight into the conference semifinals.

Six of the Fire's final 11 regular season games will be at Toyota Park where the team has been unbeatable. The Fire are 10-0-1 at Toyota Park and the first team in the league to reach 10 wins at home.

Next up though is another road game. The Fire head to Montreal, which just beat Philadelphia for a second straight win, on Wednesday. The Impact (8-8-6, 30 points) still have some chasing to do, but are getting back in the playoff race.

After that, the Fire's home record will be put to the test with Toronto coming to town next weekend. A win at Montreal would mean a win against TFC would put the Fire back into a tie for the Supporters' Shield race. On the flipside, if the Fire don't win in Montreal, a Toronto win at Toyota Park could be a near-decisive blow for the Reds in that same race.

The Fire's playoff status isn't in doubt, but its position in the playoffs is. Despite Michael de Leeuw's early goal, his third in six games, the Fire allowed an equalizer five minutes later and couldn't regain the lead in the second half.

The Fire had a majority of the possession throughout the match and finished at 58 percent, but again struggled to create chances in the final third. The Fire had just three shots on target.

Columbus (11-12-2, 35 points) took the lead with a pretty Justin Meram outside-of-the-foot finish in the 73rd minute and the Fire collapsed after. The Crew had more chances for a third goal than the Fire did a second and eventually the third came when Ola Kamara was taken down in the box by goalkeeper Matt Lampson, making his first start in Columbus as an opposing player. Kamara converted the penalty in the 88th minute to essentially end the game.

After a number of injury scares earlier in the week, the only regular to not start was Juninho. Johan Kappelhof and Dax McCarty played the full 90 minutes after being limited in practice this week.

Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list

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Fire start busy stretch with a long injury list

Right before starting a stretch of three matches in eight days is not a good time to have a rash of injuries and illness.

The Chicago Fire start that stretch Saturday in Columbus, which will be aired on CSN+ with coverage starting at 6 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live (channel finder). On top of longer-term injuries to Brandon Vincent (still out with a quad injury) and Daniel Johnson (left MCL sprain), Arturo Alvarez (lower back), Juninho (left knee), Johan Kappelhof (groin), Dax McCarty (illness) and Michael Harrington (illness) are all listed as questionable.

Alvarez wasn’t on the bench in Kansas City two weeks ago. He was on the list of available substitutes last week against New England, but didn’t play. Alvarez was in training this week.

Juninho and Kappelhof both left practice early on Wednesday after picking up those injuries. After practice that day, coach Veljko Paunovic said he expects those players to be available in Columbus.

McCarty and Harrington were kept away from the team Wednesday after being sick.

“Obviously these guys need some adjustments in their workload,” Paunovic said on Wednesday. “We are aware of where we are right now in the season. Late in the season we have to start working on more individualized program for every player and depending on how they feel in everyday communication and chats with them before training, we determine how we’re going to proceed with each one of them.”

The good news for the Fire on the injury front is that Vincent and John Goossens, who has been out since suffering an ankle injury in the season opener at Columbus, were on the practice field getting workouts in while the team trained. That means those two are nearing returns, although neither are imminent.

Columbus has its own injury issues. Right back Harrison Afful (thigh) and playmaking midfielder Federico Higuain (knee) are both listed as questionable. Columbus Dispatch reporter Andrew Erickson had the latest on the status of Afful and Higuain.

Columbus has been busy in the past week by signing winger Pedro Santos from Portuguese club SC Braga and trading long-time winger Ethan Finlay to Minnesota. Santos is not expected to be available for Saturday’s game.

This will be the third of three meetings between the Fire and the Crew. The season began with a 1-1 draw in Ohio. Just over a month later the Fire picked up a 1-0 win at Toyota Park.

“I expect their same style,” Fire defender Jonathan Campbell said. “I don’t know the formation. I know they switched that some in the back with how many people they’re going with, but they’re at home, I expect them to play out of the back. Kind of the same thing as every time before.”

After playing in Columbus, the Fire play in Montreal on Wednesday and host Toronto in a big Eastern Conference clash three days after that.

The Fire are coming off a ninth straight home win, but have lost two straight on the road. Many teams in the league have drastically different records at home and on the road. The Fire are no exception.

“I think if you figure that out, you could be a pretty good coach,” Campbell said with a laugh. “I’m not quite sure. I think travel might have to do a decent amount with it. Playing in front of the fans has a huge impact, but I think just teams aren’t able to play their style consistently for 90 minutes where at home they’re used to the field, the conditions, the routine. So I just don’t think teams are able to do that consistently for 90 minutes. They might try to do that for the first half, but the second half you kind of get tired and start sitting back more and then it wears down.”

Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew

Where: Mapfre Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. (Fire Pregame Live)

Records: Fire (12-5-5, 41 points), Crew (10-12-2, 32 points)