Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

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Fire gear up for playoffs, Dynamo

The Fire goes into its first Major League Soccer playoff match since 2009 on Wednesday lacking momentum and postseason experience. Maybe that matters, maybe not.

For most of the 34-match regular season the Fire (17-11-6) was a feel-good, uplifting story. In the last five matches, though, the Fire was 1-3-1 and lost to two clubs (Philadelphia and New England) that had long been eliminated from playoff contention. In its last match, with a chance to claim second place in the Eastern Conference with a win before a sellout home crowd, the Fire scored first but settled for a 1-1 draw against D.C. United.

As far as postseason experience goes, the team doesnt have much. Only eight Fire players have played in an MLS playoff match, and only four did it with the Fire. Chris Rolfe played in 14, captain Logan Pause 13, Gonzalo Segares 12 and Patrick Nyarko four. They will add to their numbers on Wednesday when they take on the Houston Dynamo (14-9-11 in the regular season) at Toyota Park at 8 p.m.

The Dynamo is long on playoff experience, with most of the team that went to last years MLS Cup still on the roster. Houston has also won twice as many MLS Cups (two, in 2006 and 2007) than the Fire (one, in its inaugural campaign of 1998). The Dynamo lost last years championship match 1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

While Houston finished four points behind the Fire in fifth place, the Dynamo season included a run to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The Fire lost its lone U.S. Open Cup, the clubs lone tournament appearance of 2012.

Still, the Fire has some things going in what MLS has dubbed the Knockout Round of its current playoff format. For one, there's familiarity with the opponent.

Its crazy in this league, said Fire Defender-of-the-Year Arne Friedrich, who starred in Germany before coming here. Weve played Vancouver once. Well be playing Houston for the fourth time. This is MLS. Welcome to America.

Not only has the Fire played the Dynamo three times already this season, the Fire won the season series.

The first match was the strangest of the campaign for both clubs. It didnt last the full 90 minutes. Officials called it a 1-1 draw after 66 minutes because of severe weather at Toyota Park on April 15. The teams were scoreless on July 3 at BBVA Compass Stadium, and goals by Nyarko, Daniel Paladini and Alex gave the Fire a 3-1 victory in Bridgeview on Sept. 2.

The Fire has also been solid at home (11-3-3), despite the unimpressive finish to the regular season, and has a good track record (6-3-2) in the first round of its playoff matches over the years. Though the Fire missed postseason play in 2010 and 2011, the Fire is in the playoffs for the 12th time in 15 seasons by far the best success rate of Chicagos major pro teams.

The Bulls and Blackhawks made it in 10 of their first 15 campaigns, the Bears eight, the Cubs four and the Sox two. In the last 15 seasons the Bulls had eight playoff appearances, the Blackhawks and Cubs five, the Bears four and the Sox three. An interesting statistical tidbit, if nothing else.

Wednesdays match will be the Fires first-ever on Halloween and its first postseason meeting against Houston. The Dynamo is led by forward Will Bruin, who has 17 goals in his first two MLS seasons with 12 of them coming this season. Houstons most dangerous player, though, is midfielder Brad Davis. His 12 assists are twice as many as any of his teammates, and he also had eight regular-season goals. Midfielder Ricardo Clark will be marking his eighth season on an MLS playoff qualifier.

The teams made one big trade, on March 23, 2011, that helped both clubs. The Fire acquired speedy Dominic Oduro for injury-plagued striker Calen Carr. Both performed well for their new teams the last two seasons, though neither are starters now.

More than anything, the Fire has to shake off the disappointing draw with D.C. United, which deprived the club of a weeks rest before starting its playoff run.

It was disappointing, and it stinks, said Nyarko. But its just one extra game, and its good that its at home.

If the Fire does win on Wednesday the next step in the playoffs will be even more difficult a two-game home-and-home semifinal series against Eastern Conference regular season champion Sporting Kansas City. That round would begin on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire can get by the Dynamo.

2012 MLS playoffs Predicitions

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round -- FIRE over Houston; Semifinals Sporting Kansas City over FIRE, D.C. United over New York. Conference Final Sporting Kansas City over D.C. United.

WESTERN CONFERENCE: Knockout Round Vancouver over Los Angeles; Semifinals San Jose over Vancouver, Seattle over Real Salt Lake. Conference Final San Jose over Seattle.

MLS CUP: San Jose over Sporting Kansas City.

Fire hoping loss in Yankee Stadium will provide wake-up call

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USA TODAY

Fire hoping loss in Yankee Stadium will provide wake-up call

Coming off the first MLS loss for the Chicago Fire in more than two months, Tuesday’s practice seemed to have a bit more intensity.

After coming out a bit sloppy in a 2-1 loss to New York City FC following a two-and-a-half week break, the team is trying to get back the sharpness and consistency displayed during its 12-game unbeaten run.

“I think it’s the transfer from the bad sensations that we had in the last game,” Paunovic said. “You can lose the game and it’s not the end of the world, but not in the way we lost it.”

The Fire are again licking their wounds after failing to convert chances against a shorthanded team. As opposed to the scoreless draw in Orlando in June, when the Lions finished the game with nine players, this time the Fire were able to score, but actually lost.

This problem is something Paunovic has spoken about before, but is one the Fire still haven’t been able to solve.

“You see the same as in Orlando,” de Leeuw said. “If they play with 10 men and it looks like we’re playing with 10 men, then they deserve every point they had.

“I don’t know what it is. I think maybe when teams are sitting back we need to do something else. We are good at 11 against 11 with possession, the runs we make, but when they have 10 men and they’re going to sit back, you think you need to run less, but actually you need to run more. Because you are with 11 guys you need to create more space. The expectation is higher then from you and I think we lacked that and some other things in the game.”

The filter-free, outspoken de Leeuw said the team had no energy. He is hoping the loss will turn into a motivating factor for the Fire.

“It’s better that it happens now because everybody needs to wake up,” de Leeuw said. “The points we had, it’s not coming by itself. We have to work for it every game, against every opponent, if it’s 10 men, nine men, we have to work for it. It’s good everybody had a wake-up call Saturday I think. OK, we need to work for it, but also we don’t need to distract because we lost one game. We had 11 or 12 good games before that and we lost one, so OK it can happen, but it’s more s--- that it’s against 10 men.”

Teams having sometimes inexplicably bad games is a part of Major League Soccer. The fact that the Fire had gone so long without one was what made the team’s unbeaten run so impressive.

The players and Paunovic have talked about how important the break was. Bastian Schweinsteiger said it was more important for the mind than the body. However, is it possible that the break took the edge away from the Fire?

“We were not sharp, I don’t know, maybe from the break,” winger David Accam said. “We came back and not a single player was sharp. We gave sloppy passes and for us I don’t think it’s just about 10 men or teams staying back, it’s just about us. We were not sharp. We did not play well. It was like we were still training or something.”

Paunovic is trying to refocus his group for another tough road game at Sporting Kansas City coming up this weekend.

“The break was a good thing in terms of recovering from the tough first half of the season,” Paunovic said. “Every team needs that, especially when you’re at the top and did well like we did in the past, but also the break has some challenges and these challenges are losing the rhythm, getting back to the working suit and working atmosphere and mentality.

“It’s just different when you have the game, when you’re in the rhythm of the games and in the season and you’re going from game to game you kind of get that habit very, very simple and very fluent and then you just work towards the next game. That was maybe interrupted with the break, but we are going back, as I said that’s our goal now, to get that habit back again, that mentality that we had before.”

Notes from the rewatch: Why can't the Fire score against bunkering defenses?

Notes from the rewatch: Why can't the Fire score against bunkering defenses?

It’s no secret that the Chicago Fire have struggled against teams that bunker in defensively and wait for the Fire to come to them.

Saturday’s loss at New York City FC was another example of that. The hosts were at full strength for less than 11 minutes and still outscored the Fire after Yangel Herrera was sent off for a second yellow card.

Coach Veljko Paunovic is well aware of his team’s struggles against the defensive strategy New York utilized. He has spoken about it, but there hasn’t been any improvement.

Here’s a look at what went wrong for the Fire in The Bronx.

How the game played at full strength

This game was yet another missed opportunity to see how the Fire stack up against a quality opponent. Add this game to that list along with the time FC Dallas sent its B-team to Toyota Park and when Orlando suffered two red cards when the Fire played in Florida.

The Fire looked a bit sluggish to start. NYCFC had the early possession edge and should have had a penalty kick called after Bastian Schweinsteiger was stripped of the ball and Johan Kappelhof tackled Herrera in the box, but got away with it. It would have been interesting to see if the Fire could adjust, but things obviously changed after the red card.

The rest of the first half

Despite turning the man advantage into solid control of the possession battle, the Fire weren’t turning the possession into shots in the first half.

The Fire managed just three shots in the first half and all three were from well outside the box. One of them probably wasn’t even a shot. Johan Kappelhof took a low drive just before halftime that was deflected by a defender and forced Sean Johnson into a tough save.


The Fire spent too much time cycling the ball around and not making an incisive pass. As has been the case in the two previous games that were similar to this (at Orlando and the Open Cup loss in Cincinnati), Dax McCarty was not there for the Fire. McCarty’s ability to quickly push the ball forward via a pass is something the team has continued to miss without him. The Fire have looked competitive, and at times good, without him, but the dropoff from how the Fire play with him as opposed to without him builds a strong argument that McCarty is the team MVP.

The Fire settled for too many crosses without McCarty’s forward passing ability. They are credited with completing just one cross in seven attempts in the first half. It didn’t help that Brandon Vincent picked up an injury in warmups and was replaced by Michael Harrington in the lineup. On top of that, Schweinsteiger was uncharacteristically sloppy.

Things changed when David Accam entered

It’s not clear why David Accam didn’t start for the Fire, but they definitely played better once he entered as a halftime sub for Luis Solignac.

Of course, Accam’s entrance also coincided with the Fire’s defense going AWOL for the first five minutes of the half, but he did bring the team back into the game with a miraculous long-range strike that went in off the bottom of the crossbar.

Accam didn’t complete many passes (9 for 14), but he was credited with five successful dribbles. That was more than the rest of the team combined in the second half.

His ability to take players on in one-on-one situations was an important asset with NYCFC defending with numbers and conceding possession to the Fire. Paunovic brought on young players Djordje Mihailovic and Daniel Johnson, both offensively-minded players who are willing to take risks to create chances.

The Fire cranked up the heat with 20 shots in the second half, including 11 from the 76th minute on, but it wasn’t enough to break down NYCFC’s defense.

Paunovic and Co. will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to score against teams that play the way New York did on Saturday.