Chicago Fire

Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

Michael de Leeuw got the elephant off his back

This season, Michael de Leeuw had been forced to earn credit for doing the dirty work because he didn’t have any goals to show for his play.

On Saturday that finally changed. The Chicago Fire forward scored his first goal of the season in a 4-0 win against Vancouver to end a drought that lasted through the first half of the regular season.

“Finally, you know?” de Leeuw said. “The monkey is finally off my back, but I think it was an elephant. I’m happy with my goal, but also with the points. It’s for me also good that I scored, but I think the most important thing was that we killed the game really soon.”

De Leeuw’s goal was the fourth in a comprehensive win. The Fire now have the best record in Major League Soccer following Toronto’s 3-1 loss at Dallas.

De Leeuw scored seven goals in 18 games last year on a bad Fire team, but moved to a different role this year to accommodate the league’s leading scorer, Nemanja Nikolic. He maintained a regular spot in the lineup due to his work rate and ability to have a positive influence on the game without scoring.

“So happy for him,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We were talking about that for a long time now, how important his work for the team and how important his assists are for the team.”

De Leeuw, who was named the man of the match, assisted Nemanja Nikolic for the second goal of the match. That was de Leeuw’s fifth assist of the season.

In the second half, he had a pair of golden opportunities where it seemed certain that he would score. De Leeuw chipped goalkeeper David Ousted after an errant clearance, but a defender headed the ball off the line. Later, he missed an open shot in the box.

“I had some chances,” de Leeuw said. “One ball was headed out of the line. Also one chance that has to be a goal.

“I was feeling it today. Then at the end it’s good that you score a goal. Sometimes you just need that goal to open your tab, open your account and let’s hope that it keeps flowing now.”

Finally, de Leeuw scored on a give-and-go with Nikolic in the 84th minute. He took the shot with his first touch and slid it past Ousted.

He was mobbed by his teammates, who were clearly aware of de Leeuw finally getting a goal.

“That felt great, the support” he said. “I felt the guys were also feeling it, that I needed a goal. I felt the love from the guys and that’s great.”

Everything feels good when a team is winning, but this one had a little extra meaning to de Leeuw and his teammates.

“I think we’re all excited,” defender Matt Polster said. “He’s been working really hard. We need everyone scoring.”

With playoff spot nearly secure, 'now it’s about how good' Fire can be

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With playoff spot nearly secure, 'now it’s about how good' Fire can be

Things have been on the upswing for the Fire for the past couple weeks, but the players recognize the sharpness of the team’s unbeaten run earlier in the season still eludes them.

The 3-0 win against D.C. United on Saturday wasn’t all-out domination, but was the only comfortable win in the past seven games. With five games remaining in the regular season, and a playoff spot virtually locked up, the Fire is hoping to reach its heights from earlier in the year.

“We can start mentally getting ready to treat I think these next five games like they are playoff games, mentally getting ready for it,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We haven’t clinched anything yet so I don’t think we can take any of that for granted, but obviously with a couple good results in a row now, we’re feeling pretty comfortable about making the playoffs. Now it’s about positioning. We want to get a first-round bye so, like I said, these last five games for us, from my perspective, are playoff games.”

New York City FC is three points ahead of the Fire for second place in the Eastern Conference. The two teams play at Toyota Park on Sept. 30.

They already met in Yankee Stadium on July 22. That game was the first in a stretch of seven games in which the Fire lost six. NYCFC suffered an early red card and still managed to beat the Fire. The Fire’s struggles to create and convert quality chances was evident in that game and continued for many of the next several games.

The three-goal outburst against D.C. was a sign that the Fire may be getting the attack back in gear. David Accam, whose six chances created were most in MLS this past weekend, said the attack is not quite back to its peak.

“At the moment we are creating more chances,” Accam said. “We’re not sharp in front of goal. Before we were. We were creating, we were sharp, but now we are only creating. We’re not sharp. We are still working in training at trying to be sharper in front of goal in games.”

Defensively, the Fire has allowed one goal in the past three matches. In the previous eight matches, the team allowed 19 goals. As Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster returned from injury, and Joao Meira is right behind after coming off the bench against D.C., the Fire’s defensive record seems to have improved.

That doesn’t mean the team has a clean bill of health. Both Bastian Schweinsteiger (calf) and Juninho (knee) were not at training on Tuesday. Luis Solignac (thigh) and Daniel Johnson (knee) were both limited to running. Even without Schweinsteiger and Juninho, the Fire produced in a convincing win against D.C.

McCarty wasn’t worried the team would turn things around, but he has noticed more confidence in the team after getting seven points from the last three games.

“Certainly there’s more confidence in the group,” McCarty said. “We know we’re a good team. We know we can win games. Now it’s about how good can we be? We’re going to have to play our best if we’re going to be successful because I think we’ve shown that if we drop our level, even just a little bit, we’re just not good enough to win games in this league. We have to be very good every time we step on the field because other teams have certain aspects where maybe they’re stronger than us in, but if we can be at our best I like our chances against anyone.”

Notes from the rewatch: Fire win despite losing midfield

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Notes from the rewatch: Fire win despite losing midfield

Numerous times this season the Fire have been the dominant team in midfield, stringing 10 or more passes together to lead to a scoring chance.

It was role reversal on Saturday with D.C. United winning the midfield battle, but the Fire still came out 3-0 winners. With a few key names missing from the Fire's midfield, namely Bastian Schweinsteiger, the team had to find a different way to win and it did.

Here's a look at how the Fire midfield worked with Drew Conner filling in, how Arturo Alvarez changed the game and Bill Hamid being the best goalkeeper to give up three goals in a game.

The Dax McCarty/Drew Conner midfield pairing

With Schweinsteiger and Juninho out, Dax McCarty's midfield partner was Conner. The second-year homegrown player has played more at right back this year, but he began his pro career as a midfielder and still views that as his natural position.

Conner did have a few notable turnovers and wasn't as involved in the play. His 33 touches were tied for the lowest on the team among starters. McCarty had 65 touches and more than twice as many passes attempted (56 to 24).

It appeared D.C. wanted to force Conner into turnovers when possible. This play shows how D.C. swarmed Conner after he received a pass from McCarty:

Another thing worth noting from this play is how there is no support for Conner as he pushes forward. Nemanja Nikolic and the two wingers, David Accam on the left and Alvarez on the right, are too far from Conner to help him and he gets easily and quickly outnumbered on this occasion. This is a slightly unfair example because the player playing underneath Nikolic, Luis Solignac, had won the ball in the defensive third and gave it to McCarty, but the point is D.C. seemed to identify Conner as a weak link.

D.C. finished with 57 percent of the possession and had a number of extended stretches of possession, connecting more than 10 passes in a row. There were five sequences of 15 passes or more in a row completed by D.C. The Fire dropped off in the midfield, choosing not to press, but D.C. was able to break down the Fire this way consistently. The reason it didn't always go noticed was that D.C.'s forward play was lacking. Throw a Nikolic-type forward on this D.C. team and they could be real good next year.

Arturo Alvarez's big plays

With Solignac slotting into Michael de Leeuw's role, Alvarez got to play on the right wing and show off his left foot. He made a number of big plays, including assisting on the Fire's second goal with a cross to Brandon Vincent.

With Accam creating a whopping six chances on the left wing (although four came via corners) and Alvarez creating two on the right wing, the Fire killed D.C. from wide areas. Alvarez is known for cutting in on his left foot from the right wing and creating chances, either for himself or others. That's nothing new.

The key to Alvarez's play on Saturday was that he did some dirty work on the defensive end to go with it. He was credited with four tackles, four clearances and four ball recoveries. The tackles were most on the team and the clearances were most on the team for a non-defender.

Bill Hamid's incredible, unrewarded play

Bill Hamid was outstanding for D.C., but could only do so much. He made an incredible series of saves (see the highlights below) only to be beaten by his own teammate.

On the own goal, it appears Ian Harkes was trying to head it out for a corner, which is odd in the first place. He should have just cleared it up field or back to the sideline. Instead he headed it in the direction of his goal and gave Hamid no chance for a save.

Bill, your thoughts?