Fire return to reality and Toyota Park for Saturday's match against New England


Fire return to reality and Toyota Park for Saturday's match against New England

Back to reality for the Chicago Fire.

The team’s coaching staff, office staff and a handful of players focused on the All-Star Game as it took place in Chicago this week. Now, it’s back to regular season games in Major League Soccer.

The Fire get to stay at home when they take on New England on Saturday. The game will be on CSN+ (channel finder) with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live.

The Fire’s coaching staff was pulling double duty, training the MLS All-Stars and what players remained with the Fire. Five players were not in training with the team with the team’s four all-stars, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and Johan Kappelhof, and Djordje Mihailovic, who played and scored in the homegrown game on Tuesday, unavailable.

“I think this week the guys worked very well, the training was with a small group, but very committed,” Paunovic said after the All-Star Game on Wednesday. “The next game is the most important game from now on. I was working still with Chicago Fire all these days. I was working the same way and putting all my energy in that also.”

The Fire (11-5-5, 38 points) already have a pair of wins against the Revolution (7-9-5, 26 points) this season, but there is a possibility that the Fire enter a bit distracted or less prepared than normal. On top of having a number of key players out of training, and the coaching staff’s attention divided, the people involved had extra duties as hosts, so to speak, of the event.

That may not be clearly visible on Saturday, but it could be a small factor.

“I’m very happy how we did, but now we can focus on only Chicago,” Paunovic said.

The match does represent a needed return home for the Fire. After going winless on a three-match road trip, including losing the last two, the Fire can try to extend the eight-match home winning streak the team has enjoyed. Only two of those eight wins were decided by one goal.

The Eastern Conference has tightened up while the Fire struggled on the road. New York City FC is just one point behind the second-place Fire, a surging New York Red Bulls sit three points back and Atlanta is four points behind the Fire. With 13 matches left in the regular season, the race for playoff positions appears to be worth keeping an eye of the rest of the way.

The Fire will be without Brandon Vincent for the third straight game. Arturo Alvarez, who missed last week’s loss in Kansas City, is listed as questionable with a calf injury.

New England, which has won two straight, enters Toyota Park with a mostly clean bill of health.

The match will also be the Fire's first with MLS' new video review system.

Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution

Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.

TV: CSN+ (channel finder)

When: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Fire Pregame Live

Records: Fire (11-5-5, 38 points), New England (7-9-5, 26 points)

Notes from the rewatch: Bastian Schweinsteiger plays a new role

Notes from the rewatch: Bastian Schweinsteiger plays a new role

Bastian Schweinsteiger has been a key, calming influence in the Chicago Fire's midfield this season.

However, on Saturday he spent most of his time in a different position. Schweinsteiger played as a defender in an old-school German-style sweeper role to help the Fire hand the New England Revolution a first home loss of 2017.

Here's a look at what that did for the Fire, how New England adjusted and all the incredible chances the Revolution failed to put away.

Schweinsteiger the sweeper

The Fire's announced tactical set up before the game didn't give anything away regarding Schweinsteiger's new role. With David Accam sitting out, Juninho entered the midfield in a what appeared to be a more traditional 4-3-3 formation with Luis Solignac and Michael de Leeuw flanking Nemanja Nikolic up top.

It played out that way for about six minutes. Schweinsteiger was the right center midfielder with Dax McCarty playing more on the left and Juninho centrally.

In the seventh minute Schweinsteiger dropped between centerbacks Joao Meira and Johan Kappelhof in what ended up being one of the more creative and clever ways coach Veljko Paunovic has tried to play the midfield trio of Schweinsteiger, McCarty and Juninho at the same time. The Fire have looked more comfortable with two players in central midfield this season as opposed to all three. Saturday was the first time all three started since the May 6 game at LA.

The Fire entered with a 1-2-2 record when all three start and are 6-0-1 when Schweinsteiger starts with only one of McCarty or Juninho.

By moving Schweinsteiger back, Paunovic freed up his best player to have plenty of the ball in the build up and removed any awkward clogging in central midfield. Defensively, the German spent a lot of time sticking close to big New England striker Kei Kamara, and helped limit him for the most part.

With Schweinsteiger at the point of every build up, the Fire were able to be very patient in possession and it paid off. Before Nikolic scored the first goal in the 18th minute, the Fire had two stretches of extending passing.

There was a 17-pass sequence before Juninho attempted a long ball that didn't connect. The Fire won the ball back and went back to passing, this time for 20 consecutive passes before Nikolic missed a trap on a Schweinsteiger pass. The Revolution pushed forward after Nikolic's turnover, but Matt Polster came up with an interception and four passes later he assisted Nikolic's goal.

The Fire's ability to knock the ball around and have good movement in possession eventually led to Nikolic getting behind New England's defense for the breakaway chance. Plus, Schweinsteiger got to do things like this:

New England's adjustment

New England coach Jay Heaps made an adjustment at halftime, which seemed to work. He brought on Juan Agudelo, a forward, for defensive mid Scott Caldwell. The formation change allowed the Revs to finish the match with a slight majority of the possession after the Fire had 55 percent in the first half.

The Revs pressed higher up the field to disrupt the Fire's passing out of the back. They were also able to limit Schweinsteiger's touches. He completed 44 of 48 passes in the first half, but was just 21-for-26 in the second half.

However, the first time the Fire were able to string passes together in the second half, it led to a goal. After Michael de Leeuw was fouled, the Fire connected 11 straight passes to lead to Luis Solignac’s goal in the 61st minute.

Soon after New England got its goal, a play which involved Schweinsteiger unable to beat Agudelo for a header in the box, Paunovic brought on defender Jonathan Campbell and had him play as the third center back with Schweinsteiger moving back into midfield.

Schweinsteiger as a sweeper could work against certain teams, but against New England it was a trump card. Paunovic had never used it before so it caught the Revs off guard, but Heaps had an answer for it and the Fire ended up being a bit lucky to hold onto the win.

New England's shocking misses

Why were the Fire a bit lucky to hold onto the win? Well, take a look at these:

The last four of these gifs came in the last 10 minutes of the game. The Revs had 24 shots, but somehow only one goal.

Fire hold on to hand New England its first home loss

Fire hold on to hand New England its first home loss

The evolution of the Chicago Fire from doormat to championship contender took another big step on Saturday.

The Fire beat the New England Revolution 2-1 at Gillette Stadium with goals from Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac.

It’s an impressive win because New England (5-6-5, 20 points) is a playoff contender which was undefeated at home.

The Fire (9-3-4, 31 points) took the lead in the 18th minute with Nemanja Nikolic getting behind New England’s defense and finishing his own rebound.

Both teams had chances in an open first half, but the Fire maintained control and added the second goal after a series of nice passes before Solignac finished it off in the 61st minute.

The Fire also won without David Accam, who was not even among the list of substitutes. With Accam out, Juninho stepped into the starting lineup and Bastian Schweinsteiger played a different role than his typical central midfield spot. Schweinsteiger played as a central defender, a bit of a sweeper/libero role, between Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira.

New England adjusted at halftime, switching formations with forward Juan Agudelo replacing midfielder Scott Caldwell. The Revs had most of the possession in the second half and scored with a goal from Antonio Mlinar Delamea in the 70th minute. Schweinsteiger moved back to midfield soon after the goal when Jonathan Campbell entered the match and became the third central defender.

It was an all-out onslaught on the Fire’s goal in the final 15 minutes, but New England missed chance after chance that seemed destined to be the equalizing goal. The Revs finished with 24 shots, 18 of which came in the second half.

“Wins like this, suffering a little bit, but taking the three points is really important for the spirit of the group as well,” Solignac said on the CSN broadcast after the match.

The Fire are now unbeaten in nine straight games across all competitions and have matched last season’s point total with still a majority of the season remaining.