Chicago Fire

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire matched up with the league-leaders

The Chicago Fire's unbeaten run at Toyota Park is now a thing of the past.

The Fire couldn't hold off league-leading Toronto FC and are now nine points below TFC in the standings. If the two teams are to meet in the playoffs, the Fire will have to improve on some things, but there were positives from the Fire's perspective.

Here's a look at some of the key match ups on the field from Saturday's 3-1 win for the Reds.

Jozy Altidore vs. Christian Dean

On the surface, Jozy Altidore had a quiet game for Toronto. He only had one shot and it was blocked.

However, Altidore put on a clinic on how a forward can be effective without being involved directly in scoring opportunities. His hold up and back-to-goal play were key to reliever pressure for Toronto and he allowed his teammates to play off of him.

Altidore’s ability to win aerial duels and 50-50 balls meant Toronto didn’t have to play out of the back if it didn’t want to. If the defense was under too much pressure, Toronto still had a good opportunity to keep the ball and have something positive happen with a decently directed clearance towards Altidore.

Beyond that, his back-to-the-goal play in and near the penalty box was killer. He was credited with three key passes, which was best on Toronto and only matched on the Fire by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Patrick Doody, and had three more passes that were either completed from or into the box.

Toronto is paying Altidore the big bucks to score goals and he didn't do that Saturday, but because the team is so deep, just giving other players on the team better chances can be good enough for TFC to win big games.

The Fire had to adjust to Altidore's presence and that was Christian Dean's assignment. The recently acquired defender is another big body like Altidore. There's a reason why all of the photos of Dean from the set of USA Today wire photos are with him within reach, or actually touching, Altidore. For the most part, Dean succeeded is keeping Altidore out of scoring chances, but Altidore still won most of the physical battles.

Drew Conner vs. Justin Morrow

Whether it was by design or whether it was just what was available, Drew Conner seemed to be a focal point of the Fire's attack for much of Saturday's match. Conner played right back with Matt Polster still out injured. It was a tough assignment for him as well, going up against Toronto's left wing back Justin Morrow, who was called into the U.S. national team during the team's victorious Gold Cup run.

Morrow has scored five goals this year and can be a dangerous part of the attack coming from overlapping positions. He wasn't a major factor on Saturday although he did have a few dangerous moments in the first half.

This may have been because Conner was so aggressive in the Fire's attack. He was dribbling at his defenders on a regular basis, though not always successfully. Conner was credited with nine crosses, three of which were completed.

The Fire's reliance on crosses continued with 26 attempted in the match to Toronto's 12. Consider those numbers with the fact that Toronto outshot the Fire 18-15.

Conner's aggression may have kept Morrow more honest defensively, but it didn't result in many chances for the Fire. A near post header from Michael de Leeuw in the 24th minute off a Conner cross was a good one, but de Leeuw wasn't able to put the header on target.

It's getting repetitive, but the Fire need to find ways to attack from central positions. That will help Nemanja Nikolic in his current goal drought and give defenses multiple things to worry about as opposed to just defending crosses all the time.

Schweinsteiger's 'I'm not in Europe anymore' moment

Watch big name stars with plenty of high-level experience in MLS and inevitably there will be a play every so often that said player will be frustrated by the lack of ability and/or understanding of his teammates. MLS isn't anywhere near as good as the best European leagues so these things happen when these star players are used to playing with the best of the best. Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry were among the most amusing in these instances.

Schweinsteiger had a play like that on Saturday that had to be shared. It isn't the harshest indictment of his teammate, in this case it's Conner, but it's still somewhat amusing.

Schweinsteiger is open in the middle of the field and puts his arms up to call for the ball and show that he's open. However, there's probably not a right back in MLS who can reliably make this pass with two players in between Conner and Schweinsteiger. To his credit, Conner kept pushing forward on the dribble and the Fire got into the attacking third anyway.

Either way, soak it in: a World Cup and Champions League winner calls for a ball in MLS and gets ignored.

It doesn't stop there. In the 71st minute there's a longer version of Schweinsteiger being wide open clapping for the ball. This goes on for several seconds (eight if you count).

The Fire were constantly attacking from wide areas. Here's a world class player wanting the ball in a central area and he's wide open. He probably should get the ball here. The resulting cross at the end of this gif is headed harmlessly away.

Feel free to add your own caption of what's going through Schweinsteiger's head here.

Notes from the rewatch: Fire win despite losing midfield

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USA TODAY

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?

Why it was a near-perfect weekend for the Fire

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USA TODAY

Why it was a near-perfect weekend for the Fire

As the Fire struggled in July and August it may have seemed that the world was collapsing around them. The team was struggling and the chasing pack in the Eastern Conference were almost all putting positive runs together.

This weekend will feel like a nice change of pace for Fire fans after the forecast for the team's playoff position seemed to be getting worse with each week. Not only did the Fire pick up a 3-0 win against D.C. on Saturday, but the four other teams the Fire (14-9-6, 48 points) is jockeying for playoff position with all failed to win. Here's a look at how everything seemed to break the Fire's way this weekend.

Atlanta 3, Orlando 3

Atlanta's record: 12-8-7 (43 points)

Games remaining: 7 (5 home, 2 away)

The national media is going to focus on the league-record crowd of 70,425 that showed up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, but the home team couldn't use the crowd to pick up a win. With Leandro Gonzalez Pirez suspended due to yellow card accumulation, the Atlanta defense struggled. Only another Josef Martinez hat trick, his second in a row, kept Atlanta from losing.

Atlanta is five points behind the Fire, but has two games in hand and five more at the Benz. Atlanta still controls its destiny as far as passing the Fire and the next five games are all against teams outside the playoffs, but the Fire did get some extra breathing room.

Vancouver 2, Columbus 2

Columbus' record: 13-12-5 (44 points)

Games remaining: 4 (2 home, 2 away)

The Crew's draw in Vancouver is actually a positive result on its own. Vancouver took the Western Conference lead on Wednesday and had won three in a row entering Saturday's game.

However, Columbus blew a lead in the 92nd minute, meaning the point probably feels more like a missed opportunity than a solid result. The Crew have the fewest games remaining of the Eastern Conference playoff contenders, but does host the New York Red Bulls in a game next Saturday.

Colorado 1, New York City FC 1

NYCFC's record: 15-8-6 (51 points)

Games remaining: 5 (2 home, 3 away)

NYCFC led for most of the game at last-place Colorado, but, like Columbus, blew the lead late. Dominique Badji tied the game in the 88th minute, allowing the Fire to move within three points of second place.

The Fire host NYCFC on Sept. 30 in a game which now could move the Fire into second place if the standings hold for another week. That game will also be the third in eight days for both teams.

New York Red Bulls 0, Philadelphia 0

Red Bulls' record: 12-10-6 (42 points)

Games remaining: 6 (3 home, 3 away)

Of the four draws this weekend, the Red Bulls will probably be the most disappointed. New York hosted a Philadelphia team that is out of the race on Sunday, but couldn't score despite peppering the Union goal. Andre Blake came up with eight saves for Philly, which hosts the Fire next Saturday.

Key players Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan and Tyler Adams came off the bench in an effort to keep them rested for Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final in Kansas City. A trip to Columbus three days later is a big one for playoff seeding.

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Elsewhere, Montreal and New England lost to significantly dent their fading playoff hopes. Montreal wasn't likely to catch the Fire even before losing at home to Minnesota, but the Impact would have been within three points of the Red Bulls with a win. Unless multiple shocking things happen, the six-team playoff field in the Eastern Conference appears set. It's all about finding out how teams 2-6 rank.

The reason the top seed isn't in question is because Toronto FC is in another stratosphere right now. The Reds traveled to LA without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore (28 goals and 11 assists this season between them) and won 4-0 at the Galaxy anyway. Toronto is 11 points clear of NYCFC in the Supporters' Shield race and could clinch a first-round bye Wednesday against struggling Montreal.