Costly errors and soft goals. For a refurbished Chicago Fire outfit marred by injuries to key players during key stretches of the current MLS campaign, individual and collective blunders in recent times have left bitter tastes in the mouths of many – from fans and players alike – and it’s left the coaching staff in utter disbelief.
“Individual mistakes have cost us a lot of points so far this year,” assistant coach Marc Bircham said Saturday. “We’ve looked at games where blatant individual mistakes have probably cost us 10 points.”
After surmounting a 1-0 deficit to the New England Revolution to assume a 2-1 lead with a quarter of an hour to play, a mix-up between Adaílton and Sean Johnson gifted the visitors a share of the points at Toyota Park last Saturday. For a team that, slowly but surely, is welcoming back Shaun Maloney, David Accam and Patrick Nyarko from injury – with the impending arrival of newly acquired Designated Player Gilberto to boot – the Fire (5-11-4, 19 points) enter Sunday’s match with an assembly of attacking options, lessons learned and a point to prove against high-flying Western Conference leader FC Dallas (11-5-5, 38 points).
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Another vital piece of the puzzle is center back and captain Jeff Larentowicz, who, after being sidelined with a herniated disc in his neck since June 24, looks bound to make his long-awaited return to the heart of the defense.
“It’s looking like our starting 11 that we’ve wanted since the start of the season,” Bircham said.
With all but Chris Ritter (groin) and Mike Magee (knee) available, the Men in Red will have their hands full. Riding a five-match winning streak in regular season play, Dallas’ quartet of Fabián Castillo, Mauro Díaz, Michael Barrios and David Texeira has accounted for 10 of the 13 goals scored in victories over Houston, New England, Orlando City SC, D.C. United and the Portland Timbers – the Fire’s next opponent – to erase a previous six-game winless skid.
At the other end, Óscar Pareja’s men only conceded two goals during that stretch – an own goal and penalty kick – that has seen them leave Seattle Sounders FC and others in their wake to catapult to the top of the Western Conference standings.
Planted to the base of the Eastern Conference table, the Men in Red’s proneness to sporadically submit to slow starts and allow the opposition to dictate play has provoked Bircham and head coach Frank Yallop to implement a transformed tactical approach, one that would force Dallas to play on the Fire’s terms, and one that would demand an unwavering effort for 90 minutes at that.
“We’ve got to turn their strength into their weakness,” Bircham added. “They’re very good at going forward; their attackers are very good. We’ve got to stay strong defensively and exploit that with our attacking talent.
“We’re going to work on something different where we’re going to look to exploit areas that they vacate with their attacking play. Hopefully it’ll work, and hopefully there are a couple of things that we’ve changed that will prompt them to change their game plan if we’re on top. If you’re going for a different style or game plan, it’s important that you’re in control of the game because then the opposition has to change for you. If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to what we do. We just feel like we need to do something a little bit different.”
NOTE: Sunday's match will mark the debut of fan-centric MLS jersey numbers, a league-wide initiative that will feature the faces of 2015 Fire season ticket holders on players' jersey numbers in all home and away fixtures in August.