Johan Kappelhof

Veljko Paunovic after Fire's continued slide: 'It's the mental thing'

Veljko Paunovic after Fire's continued slide: 'It's the mental thing'

Entering Saturday, the Chicago Fire’s skid of five losses in six games featured disappointing results and performances, but nothing shocking or embarrassing.

That may have changed after the 2-1 loss to Minnesota at Toyota Park. The Fire entered with a 10-1-1 home record and the Loons came in winless on the road and tied for the fewest points in the league.

If nothing else, both the performance and the result proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the Fire are not playing as well as they were a couple months ago. Coach Veljko Paunovic doesn’t think it’s physical issues, but rather a drop in confidence and mentality within the team.

“I think it’s the mental thing,” Paunovic said. “We are now in a situation where we are actually running a lot, we are doing a lot, but we are not sharp, we are not efficient. Then it always goes back to the confidence. It always goes back to the mentality. When it’s difficult, you see how everyone behaves against adversity.”

The immediate reaction was a Fire locker room that was more upset than after any home game this season or last. Even last week’s home loss to Toronto there were positives the team could draw from the performance.

After losing to an expansion team that has struggled this season, walking into the locker room was more of a ‘if looks could kill’ situation.

“Right now, I think I’m happy to see that our team is reacting,” Paunovic said. “I’m sure with that mentality and with that mindset at one point we will get the good result that will bring the confidence back. We will have to stick together like I said and keep working until that moment comes.”

Midfielder Dax McCarty has gone on long-winded explanations about what the team needs to improve, and sometimes that came after wins. Even McCarty was short on words with the frustration from another loss fresh in his mind.

“Nobody likes losing so everyone is frustrated, but we’re going to try to stay positive and get out of this,” McCarty said.

McCarty agreed with Paunovic’s assessment that it’s the mental side that is hurting the team right now.

“Yeah, sure, I agree with that a little bit,” McCarty said. “You got to have confidence to score goals and we can’t score goals right now so that’s the frustration.

“If you give the other team breakaways and tap-ins, you’re going to concede goals. On the other end if it takes you 25 shots to score one goal, that’s not a recipe for winning many games.”

[RELATED: After another loss, Fire's sense of urgency 'needs to be ramped up to another level’]

The two issues McCarty pointed to, mistakes and turnovers leading to goals and failing to convert opportunities, have plagued the team in recent weeks. Defensively, none of the Fire’s three injured starters, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster and Joao Meira dressed for the game. On top of that, one of the replacements, Christian Dean, was subbed out at halftime with a left foot injury and was on crutches after the game. Dean has missed time each of the past two years with injuries to that foot.

Nemanja Nikolic’s goal drought extended to eight games. David Accam scored to get the Fire back within a goal after the team trailed 2-0 at halftime and Accam is now two goals behind Nikolic with 14 on the season.

“It doesn’t go so easy like before,” defender Johan Kappelhof said. “Before the first chance was a goal and now we have to work hard for the chances and we don’t finish them and we give too easy (of) goals away. Now it’s a tough time, but we have to regroup and give everything we have to repair.”

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Have the Fire been figured out?

it's easy to blame injuries for the Chicago Fire's recent slide. It might even be justifiable.

However, a theme has begun to emerge in the team's recent defeats beyond the fact that they've all been on the road. It started when Orlando was able to hold off the Fire despite only playing with nine men in Florida back on June 4. It continued when FC Cincinnati shut out the Fire and won in penalties in the U.S. Open Cup. New York City FC pulled off a win despite playing down a man for a majority of the game.

It seems the problems that burned the Fire in the middle part of the season have cropped up more frequently as teams have evolved the tactics to bother them. MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle had his own take on the Fire's recent struggles:

Given that the Fire are going to win possession in most games as long as Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are playing, teams have put less emphasis on trying to win the midfield battle and more emphasis on limiting the ways the Fire can hurt them. Before Wednesday's 3-0 loss at Montreal, a team built to play on the counter, the 3-1 loss in Columbus came as a result of turnovers and counters from the Crew. The Crew typically emphasize possession, but conceded it to the Fire and burned them on the break. Montreal did the same.

Here's a look at how the Fire's makeshift defense coped with Montreal's attack and where on earth Nemanja Nikolic has gone to.

New-look back line

There may not have been a good solution to being so shorthanded defensively, but it didn't look like Veljko Paunovic found one. With Brandon Vincent already out, Matt Polster going down a day before the game and Joao Meira going down with an injury five minutes into the game, it was an emergency situation for the defenders.

Johan Kappelhof slid to right back and Jonathan Campbell stepped into the starting lineup at center back. That meant when Christian Dean subbed in for Meira, none of the Fire's regular defenders were in their regular positions. Kappelhof was the only regular starter and he was playing at a different spot. That's basically a disaster scenario for Dean, who joined the Fire officially a week before the game. He stepped into a game five minutes after he started when he wasn't expecting to play that early and did so when the rest of the Fire's defense was out of sorts as well.

So naturally, Dean's first touch as a Fire player led to a Montreal goal. His attempted clearance isn't really that bad. It wasn't a scuff or a whiff, but it wasn't clean. Ignacio Piatti was in position to take advantage of the lucky break when it bounced off his chest. That's not good for Dean's confidence, but he did have some positive moments to go with some shaky ones.

Dean was credited with eight ball recoveries, second most on the team to McCarty. He did get burned by Matteo Mancosu in a one-on-one situation in the 28th minute, but Matt Lampson came up with a big save. Dean finished with 65 out of 77 passes completed and showed he can use size well in aerial challenges and has decent speed. Him and Campbell both had trouble with Ignacio Piatti and Mancosu on the break. In short, Dean wasn't put in a spot to succeed given the circumstanecs, but showed both why he has potential and why he wasn't able to break in as a regular for Vancouver.

Djordje Mihailovic's first start

One of the things that has been brought up as the Fire's weaknesses continue to show themselves is that the team doesn't have an central attacking midfielder. Michael de Leeuw has occupied this role, but is more of a forward than a playmaker.

Mihailovic, 18, has flashed his talent in substitute appearances, but was given a chance to be the solution to the Fire's problems in Montreal. No pressure, kid.

The Fire's midfield is built around deep-lying midfielders in McCarty and Schweinsteiger and Mihailovic seemed to struggle to get involved. He drifted all over the field, but didn't really make his mark on the game. He was active in pressing Montreal when needed.

Mihailovic completed 16 of 18 passes in the first half, but only three of the completed passes were forward and none were near the box. This isn't the impact a player in that position is supposed to have on a game. In the second half he moved wide right and completed eight of 15 passes.

It wasn't a memorable first start, but the good news is Mihailovic didn't have any glaring mistakes on the ball. He has the talent. Getting experience like he did on Wednesday will help him be more assertive in the future.

Nemanja Nikolic's goal drought

Speaking of players having trouble getting involved in the game, Nemanja Nikolic has had his fair share of relative inactivity during his now six-game goal drought.

Nikolic had led the league in shots and goals, but has fallen off in both categories. David Villa is now two goals ahead of Nikolic for the league lead with 18. Villa (103) and Giovinco (97) have surpassed Nikolic in shots (80).

The Hungarian striker has started every MLS game for the Fire this year. In 12 of the first 18 matches he had multiple shots on target. In the last six matches he hasn't done that once, with a total of four shots on target in those six matches and none in the last two.

Even when the Fire scored four against New England two games ago, Nikolic wasn't a big factor in the match. So how much of that is Nikolic and how much of that is the Fire's recent slump?

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez gave his view on that topic on Tuesday.

 

"This is no secret, Nemanja does his best work in the box," Rodriguez said. "So one thing that has not been as consistent or as much quality is our delivery of the ball to Nemanja in and around the area. That is a phase of the game that we have definitely not recovered since the (Gold Cup) break. Now, having said that, our goal against Columbus, if Michael doesn’t score, Nemanja does. He’s making the same run, he’s right in position. I think that’s more incumbent upon how we’re playing and what we’re doing than it is Nemanja himself.

"We have to better support him in and around the box for him to regain his form.”

Nikolic had one shot. It was a difficult header from just inside the penalty box when he was tightly marked. It barely registered as a scoring chance. That was one of two touches Nikolic had in the box against Montreal.

Nikolic dropped into midfield at times and completed 15 of 17 passes for the match. Five of those passes were in his own half. He had just two touches after halftime until he was subbed out in the 63rd minute. The service wasn't there and Nikolic isn't the kind of forward to go on a long run to create a chance or score on his own.

MLS All-Star Game was a big event, but it's up to the Fire to turn Chicago into a soccer city

MLS All-Star Game was a big event, but it's up to the Fire to turn Chicago into a soccer city

The MLS All-Star Game was the marquee event of a multiple day onslaught of soccer in Chicago.

The league sent all of its marketing, promotional and financial muscle behind making it an extravaganza with the idea of boosting the profile of the sport, and by proxy the Chicago Fire, within the city. Ultimately, the game and the result were insignificant towards that goal.

While the All-Star Game won’t single handedly turn around the visibility and public perception of soccer and the Fire in Chicago, it was a marquee event on a big stage with 61,428 fans at Soldier Field and the Fire got to play host.

Before the game Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez called it a once in a lifetime event. On top of that, the Fire had the player who turned into the face of the event, Bastian Schweinsteiger.

When it was announced that the game was coming to Soldier Field back in January, the Fire were still viewed as a laughing stock in the league. Back-to-back last place seasons will do that.

The Fire had already made some notable offseason additions in Dax McCarty, Juninho and Nemanja Nikolic, but by adding Schweinsteiger the team had someone capable of being a significant part of an event like this. The move had already been in the works, but wasn’t finalized until after the season began in March.

Schweinsteiger captained the MLS All-Stars and was one of two Fire players to start, alongside Johan Kappelhof. Only Toronto FC, with the trio of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, had more starters. McCarty and Nikolic entered after halftime and Schweinsteiger and Kappelhof exited. McCarty played a role in the MLS All-Stars’ lone goal.

The Fire had more players than any other MLS team on the roster, including the fan-voted captain. That the team is having a good season and had so many players worthy of All-Star selection is more valuable than the game itself being in Chicago. Having those two things at the same time is a bonus.

“I think we are putting the pieces together in our club,” Fire and MLS All-Star coach Veljko Paunovic said. “I think it’s very important to represent the community, starting with our club in the MLS. We had some progression. I think that also helps. Obviously the team is doing well, but being on the right path doesn’t mean you did it all. We have to continue with our process, with everything we have done so far. Improve our team, our results. From there in the coming years I believe we can light up the rest of the critical mass that is needed in order to not only have Chicago as one of the best sports cities in the United States, but we are missing soccer. We want soccer to be important in this city and in this community and obviously in this country.”

The MLS All-Star Game was a showcase for the league and the Fire in Chicago, with Real Madrid drawing in more spectators and eyeballs. It gave more attention to the winning season the Fire are enjoying, but the more significant events for soccer in Chicago occurred when Nikolic, McCarty and especially Schweinsteiger joined the team.

“I think that it was great,” Nikolic said. “The city deserved this game played here and Chicago is a city of sport. People like sports a lot here and they deserve to see these kinds of games.”

The All-Star Game is a glorified exhibition between a team that is in its preseason and a collection of players that had less than three days to turn into a team. It won't change soccer's standing in the city. There are already plenty of fans of the sport in the city, but that critical mass that Paunovic spoke of is likely only something that the Fire can chip away at over time.

Oh, by the way, Real Madrid won in penalty kicks after a 1-1 game.