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:
Armchair Analyst: Teams have been more targeted & ruthless about where they press the Fire. We'll see on Saturday if TFC follow suit pic.twitter.com/QyiW1q4RSg— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) August 17, 2017
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.