Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Fire flip a switch in the final half hour against Seattle

Notes from the rewatch: Fire flip a switch in the final half hour against Seattle

The Chicago Fire picked up a big win against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday.

It wasn't a win against a rival, or even a conference foe jockeying for playoff position. It also wasn't against a full-strength team playing well.

It was big because of the way it happened (a three-goal margin with plenty of action both ways) and who it was in front of (a soldout crowd and a national TV audience).

Despite the temporary euphoria Fire fans left Toyota Park with on Saturday, the players and coaches on the team admitted it wasn't a complete performance. The Fire were largely outplayed in the first half and caught some breaks to go into halftime tied. Seattle hit the crossbar in the first five minutes and the Fire were fortunate to be given a retake on the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic eventually scored.

Coach Veljko Paunovic talked about adjustments the team made at halftime that made the difference. Here are some notes on that as well as Drew Conner's tough assignment against Joevin Jones.

Rotating up front

Paunovic said the halftime adjustment of moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 played a key role in turning things around from the first half to the second half. Seattle had more than 60 percent of the possession in the first half, but the Fire had the edge in possession after halftime.

The biggest difference between the two formations was having Dax McCarty line up as the lone defensive midfielder, meaning he takes a more central role. Clint Dempsey scored Seattle's goal by drifting a bit into midfield to receive the ball and had free space to step into a shot. That's the area the Fire were trying to cover with the subtle formation change. It also freed Schweinsteiger to play a big higher up the field in a more neutral midfield role as opposed to primarily positioning for defensive purposes.

 

That change helped clear things up defensively, but the attack remained similar. The Fire's four attacking players, Nikolic, David Accam, Luis Solignac and Michael de Leeuw, were swapping positions frequently throughout the match.

Accam was on the right wing the first 12 minutes and then went back to his usual spot on the left wing, swapping back with Solignac. Accam and Nikolic did shift around with Nikolic drifting wide and Accam moving into the center as well. Michael de Leeuw began centrally and moved more to the right wing in the second half before getting subbed out.

The combination of having four attackers and having them swap positions allowed them to cause some chaos in Seattle’s defense. Throw in McCarty and Schweinsteiger being able to quickly change the point of attack, something the Fire didn’t always do well last year under Paunovic, and the free-moving attackers were able to take advantage when there was an opening.

It’s also worth noting that Seattle was without stud centerback Roman Torres and was playing a regular starter in the central midfield, Cristian Roldan, at right back.

Maybe on another day Seattle’s defense could have coped better with what the Fire threw at them, but they were not able to do so on Saturday.

Tempo change after halftime

Another shift after halftime that came as a result of the Fire's adjustments was the tempo of the match. Both teams had nine total shots at halftime in a back-and-forth 45 minutes.

The Fire had extended periods of possession in the first 15 minutes of the second half, but the only shot of the second half before Accam's goal in the 60th minute was an off target effort from Clint Dempsey. This was a drastic change from the first half.

The Fire methodically picked Seattle apart on the second goal. Schweinsteiger started the play with a first-time lofted ball that hit Conner open on the right to switch the play. Conner, de Leeuw and Schweinsteiger combined well to unlock Seattle’s defense. This goal opened the tempo of the game right away.

In the next 20 minutes after the goal, the Fire had five more shots, including the third and fourth goals. Matt Polster and Jonathan Campbell subbed into the match and the Fire went to a 5-3-2 that was another tactical change.

"It made it a little easier to play out of the back and exploit some of the wide spaces, which made us get into their half a little bit easier and create chances,” Polster said.

Drew Conner vs. Joevin Jones

After a tough matchup in LA for his first career start, Conner went up against arguably the league's best left back going forward in former Fire player Joevin Jones. Jones toasted Conner twice in the first five minutes to create chances near the box and set up a shot for Nicolas Lodeiro in the ninth minute, which Lodeiro badly scuffed, when Conner backed off to respect Jones' speed. It was an ominous start, but Jones didn't get forward much after that.

It wasn't exactly Conner's doing as much as cover and adjustments. The Fire having more possession in the second half certainly helped.

In terms of 1v1 defending, it wasn't a bright spot for Conner, but most right backs in the league have trouble staying with Jones. The positive sign for the Fire was the ability to adjust and cover for Conner when the first 10 minutes showed that was needed.

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

The Fire have secured the transfer of midfielder Aleksandar Katai from Deportivo Alavés of the Spanish La Liga, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

This season’s breakout playmaker has been signed with Chicago through 2019, with a 2020 club option. Before the transfer, Katai was on loan from Alavés, which was set to expire after July.

The Serbian player has emerged as one of the most important pieces of the Fire’s offense this season. Since joining the club on Feb. 6, Katai has scored eight goals in 18 league matches, tying forward Nemanja Nikolić for the most on the team. Katai also has three assists in 2018.

The 27-year-old’s biggest game of the year came against New York City FC last month when he scored two goals to lead the Fire to 3-2 victory. His production this season in the MLS has been much more significant than it was in 23 matches with Alavés, where Katai only tallied three goals and four assists.

His transfer fee is unknown but, according to Sam Stejskal of MLSsoccer.com, he will be a “Targeted Allocation Money player” for the rest of this season and will not be a Designated Player until 2019. Whatever the official price was, acquiring Katai for a lengthier amount of time seemed like a must.

Throughout this season, the Fire were rumored to be in talks with legendary Spanish striker Fernando Torres. On Tuesday, he signed with Sagan Tosu, a Japanese club. The Fire signed Katai the next day, showing that the team was possibly waiting for Torres to leave the market.

Chicago will face the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night at Toyota Park, where Katai will look to continue his impressive season.

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

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USA TODAY

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof involved in car crash on Thursday morning

Chicago Fire defender Johan Kappelhof was involved in a car accident on his way to practice Thursday morning that sent him to the hospital with minor injuries.

According to authorities and the Secretary of State’s Office, a box truck crashed into the Dutch player’s 2013 Volkswagen and another vehicle in the 5900 block of South Harlem. Kappelhof’s vehicle rolled over and two people fled from the scene.

The driver ran on foot and the passenger moved into the driver’s seat before driving the truck onto the Stevenson Expressway after the crash, officials said. After the damaged vehicle broke down, police say the same passenger tried to jump into the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Both were taken into custody.

Team officials said Kappelhof was treated and released from the hospital without indicators of a concussion. The 27-year-old was reportedly seen at Toyota Park after the crash and did not have any serious injuries. The other driver who was hit by the box truck was also treated, police said.

This season in league play with the Fire, Kappelhof has three assists in 16 games. The international product was a 2017 MLS All-Star and the Defensive Player of the Year for the Fire last season. He was signed in 2016 and has made one MLS Cup Playoffs appearance.