Chicago Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Fire under siege in Atlanta

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: Fire under siege in Atlanta

Saturday's 4-0 loss in Atlanta was the first setback in the young season for the Chicago Fire.

The first loss of the season came as a result of a nigthmarish first 11 minutes which left the Fire almost no way to come back. It wasn't just Johan Kappelhof's early red card that doomed the Fire though, things were already looking grim beforehand.

Here's a look at the 11 minutes of 11v11 from the match and other observations from after the Fire were down a man.

Evaluating things before the red card

It's hard to evaluate the Fire's performance considering they went down a man so early in the match. However, the symptoms of a bad loss were already showing in the first 10 minutes despite the Fire having a couple decent chances in the first several minutes.

In the second minute, the Fire showed a quick counter, which was probably the gameplan going in on the road against a possession-oriented team like Atlanta. Michael Harrington intercepted a switch pass with a header. The header landed with Dax McCarty. McCarty found Arturo Alvarez, who turned it over, but Atlanta gave it right back to David Accam. Accam mishit the shot and it went harmlessly wide. It was a sloppy play from both teams, but it showed the Fire's intent to be dangerous on the counter.

Two minutes later Atlanta went on top with a pair of slightly unlucky breaks for the Fire. Atlanta is cycling possession around the back until pushing forward with a pass to Yamil Asad. Asad takes a heavy touch and Alvarez and McCarty swarm him to try to force the turnover. They are unable to win it cleanly and Josef Martinez steps in to redirect the ball into the path of Hector Villalba. Seconds after nearly forcing a turnover, the Fire are now scrambling defensively.

Villalba feeds Julian Gressel wide right and his low cross ricochets off Brandon Vincent and into the net. Atlanta was quicker to a loose ball and was able to quickly get the ball in the penalty box. After that, it's just an unlucky deflection.

Arturo Alvarez did have a chance a few minutes after the goal by cutting onto his left foot, what else, but the shot is an easy save for Alec Kann.

Then Atlanta kicked in its possession dominance. A 26-pass sequence led to a Michael Harrington foul in Atlanta's defensive half. The Fire were already chasing and struggling to get on the ball, even before going down a man.

The red card itself comes from an intercepted Michael Harrington throw in. Atlanta is off to the races at that point and Johan Kappelhof is sent off, which practically ended the game at that moment.

It's easy to point to the red card when explaining Atlanta's mind-blowing possession numbers (83 percent for the match), but the hosts actually had 87 percent of the possession in the first 10 minutes of the match. The Fire may have planned to weather an early storm and then try to work their way into the match with counters or more aggressive pressing, but they were already down a goal and couldn't get on the ball. The red card may have ended the Fire's chances of coming back, but it wasn't looking good before it either, even considering the goal involved a bit of luck.

Jonathan Campbell's first action of 2017

Campbell probably had the toughest season debut possible. Sub into a match after just 15 minutes in front of a sold out, hostile crowd when your team is already down a goal and a man. On top of that Atlanta forward Josef Martinez has superb movement, forcing the centerbacks to constantly stay on their toes.

Campbell had an impressive rookie season and led the Fire in minutes. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he has a possible future with the national team. However, Campbell didn't play in either of the Fire's first two matches this season. Kappelhof's red card thrust him into a tough situation and will require him to start against Montreal in the Fire's next match.

He made some nice plays beforehand, but was involved in Atlanta's second and third goals. Campbell headed a clearance from goalkeeper Alec Kann that went right into the path of Miguel Almiron. Almiron then threaded a nice pass to Josef Martinez. Campbell's errant header started Atlanta's break and he couldn't keep up with Martinez after that.

The video below starts just as Almiron controls Campbell's header.

Then on Atlanta's third goal, Campbell denies a Greg Garza cross headed for Martinez. Campbell had position and was able to stay in front of his man. However, the clearance went up the middle in the box and Hector Villalba hammered it home.

It wasn't a great outing, but assuming he starts against Montreal that would be a better judge to see where Campbell is in his second year.

Jorge Bava's distribution

Whenever a team signs a South American goalkeeper, the stereotype is that he is good with his feet and in distribution. In the case of the Uruguayan Bava, it was magnified because of Paunovic's desire to play out of the back and general manager Nelson Rodriguez's comment this preseason that Bava's skillset was rare among domestically based goalkeepers.

So how is Bava doing?

In the season opener at Columbus he had a pair of turnovers on distribution, one of which led to a chance on goal. The following week he was clean against Real Salt Lake. He came off his line on a couple occasions when needed, he caught all the crosses he was supposed to and his distribution was solid.

In Atlanta Bava made both some impressive throws and long kicks and had more dangerous turnovers.

For starters, Bava's yellow card in the 18th minute had a bit of a comedic element to it. Bava came out to punch away a long ball in the corner of the box. He dribbled the ball out of bounds after hesitation and then gets a yellow for running away with the ball so he can get back in position. He could have just blasted the ball 40 rows up, but for whatever reason he didn't. Ultimately no harm, no foul other than an unnecessary yellow card.

A few minutes later was a sequence that encapsulated what Bava's distribution has been like with the Fire. He turned the ball over on a goal kick, but after he reclaimed the ball from the ensuing attack he hit a nice long punt that found Nemanja Nikolic (who made an impressive one-touch trap) past midfield. Later in the half he heaved a throw past midfield that Nikolic was able to run onto.

To cap it off, in the 90th minute he came out of his box to intercept a ball over the top. He then missed the 10-yard pass aimed for McCarty.

Bava has shown the standout long kicks and throws that Paunovic seems to be looking for, but has also made mistakes on some of the simpler plays. None have led to goals yet, but that's something he will need to clean up.

To close, here's an impressive view of Josef Martinez's fourth goal from Saturday:

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.