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.
Schmetzer on the decision to start Roldan at RB/Svensson in MF:— Sounders Beat (@SoundersBeat) May 14, 2017
"Desperation. I don't have a right back...desperation measures."
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.