Chicago Fire

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire played without Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger

Notes from the rewatch: How the Fire played without Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger

Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger have been the guiding forces of the Fire's turnaround this season, but neither were available for Wednesday's match in Portland.

McCarty missed his second straight game while with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup. Schweinsteiger didn't travel after suffering a hip injury in the previous game against Vancouver.

Coach Veljko Paunovic had to make some adjustments and the team survived a late flurry of chances in and around the box in the final half hour.

What the Fire look like without Dax and Basti

Given how important the Fire's typical midfield duo has been this season, it wasn't clear how the team would line up or play without either of them. Juninho has stepped in when one has been missing and the team has done fine, but with both gone things were going to be different.

Juninho was the lone defensive central midfielder. Nemanja Nikolic was joined up top by David Accam, who played as more of an outright forward than usual. Joining Juninho in the midfield was Luis Solignac, Michael de Leeuw and Arturo Alvarez, who all dropped back and defended more than usual. The formation was a 4-4-2, more specifically a 4-1-3-2 with how Juninho was the lone defensive mid and the other three attacking more.

Portland striker Fanendo Adi is a big body and one of the best at his position in the league. He gave the Fire problems in the middle, racking up seven shots. At New England on June 17, Paunovic used Schweinsteiger as a sweeper to mark another big striker in Kei Kamara. That worked fairly well on that day, but that option wasn't available to Paunovic.

Whether it's been McCarty or Schweinsteiger, one of those two has dropped between the two center backs to build possession from the back. Juninho is a sound passer, but that's not really his game. He is a shuttler, who moves the ball along simply, but he didn't have anyone to move the ball along to in the same way McCarty and Schweinsteiger would.

The Fire still tried to build out of the back, but had a few dangerous turnovers while trying to do so. Both the personnel and the formation made the Fire's typical style very difficult to play. Portland was aggressive in pressing and had a majority of the possession.

It didn't help that Matt Polster went down with an injury in the first half. Being forced to sub him out and bring on Drew Conner burned a sub, killing flexibility for later in the match, and meant another central midfield option (Conner) was now out of play because he was playing at right back.

Things changed when Jonathan Campbell was brought into the match in the second half and the formation shifted. More on that below.

Portland's second half assault

The match started fairly slowly with neither team creating many chances in the first 20 minutes. Portland had three shots, one on target, in the first 20 minutes. The Fire's first shot wasn't actually a shot. Alvarez's goal in the 34th minute was a cross that found the net thanks to Nikolic crashing in front to freeze goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.

With the match tied 1-1 after halftime, Portland didn't manage a shot in the first 10 minutes of the half. The Timbers quickly ramped things up, especially after Brandon Vincent gave the Fire the lead in the 61st minute.

When Campbell entered in the 65th minute, Paunovic was hoping to hold onto the 2-1 lead and get the win. Portland was controlling midfield and had turned up the pressure in the previous 10 minutes.

Campbell led the Fire in minutes in 2016, but has come on as a sub in his last nine league appearances. It's something that Paunovic has used regularly to help close out games, but it didn't work in Portland.

The Fire moved to a 5-3-2 formation with Campbell and then it changed to somewhat of a 5-4-1 with Accam dropping into midfield more often. Regardless of the nuance of how the players were positioned, the Fire were sitting way too deep and couldn't relieve pressure.

Portland's game-tying goal, which came five minutes after Campbell subbed on, was a combination of positioning errors and confusion with Joao Meira, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. Meira stepped up to close on the ball and Juninho and de Leeuw both closed on Diego Valeri, leaving Sebastian Blanco open in the box. In a four defender set Meira wouldn't have been in that position, but under normal circumstances de Leeuw wouldn't be asked to do this much defending anyway.

The Timbers racked up 11 shots in the 30-plus minutes after Vincent's goal gave the Fire the lead. The Fire were lucky to escape with a draw, and they may have known it. Nikolic put his arms in the air in a mild celebration after the final whistle blew.

Fun with gifs

De Leeuw was somewhat involved in Portland's second goal, but he did make a nice tackle late in the first half on Blanco. This is not your average striker's tackle.

Also here's Accam dribbling through and then burning four Portland players:

Fire fans are throwing a killer party for the club's 20th birthday

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Fire fans are throwing a killer party for the club's 20th birthday

Most MLS teams are too young to have substantial history, but Fire fans are doing their part to celebrate the 20 years of Chicago Fire soccer.

A group of supporters is putting the work in to throw a party for the club in the vein of a fan convention — except this one isn’t run by a team. The small group of fans from the Fire’s independent supporters’ association, Section 8, is pooling efforts to throw a killer birthday bash and inviting former players and coaches to return for the celebration.

The Chicago Fire 20th Anniversary will take place on Oct. 8 at the Chicago Cultural Center. That’s 20 years to the day since the club’s first general manager, Peter Wilt, announced the name of the then-MLS expansion team at Navy Pier. Wilt will be among the star-studded list of attendees.

“You’re basically taking a fan convention and cramming it into four hours,” said Scott Greene, the chair of Section 8’s board of directors.

Greene was at the anniversary party five years ago and the plan is to continue them every five years. He said the 15th anniversary was “pretty flawless” in the way it ran and they are hoping to replicate that this time around with a similar type of program.

“It was astounding from the fact of what the Fire means for former players,” Greene said. “I think that always takes you aback at their experience at what the Fire means... Their willingness to come out to Chicago to interact with the fans is remarkable.”

The list of confirmed guests already boasts some of the biggest names in the team’s history and more are expected, although still unconfirmed. Five players from the original 1998 team, which won both the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup, are already confirmed to be attending: Lubos Kubik, Diego Gutierrez, Jerzy Podbrozny, Roman Kosecki and current broadcaster Frank Klopas.

“It’s always great, the ability now to reconnect with all the old friends,” Klopas said during the broadcast of the D.C. United match this past Saturday. “I pretty much run into a lot of my old teammates that are still involved in the league here, but the ability to spend some time with Kosecki and Podbrozny, guys that you don’t see that much. It’s fantastic to reconnect with some of our old fans and some of the new fans and talk about some great moments from the past, but also some fantastic moments where the team is now.”

Longtime Fire defender Gonzalo Segares, 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee and 1994 Ballon d’Or winner Hristo Stoichkov also will be attending.

In order to get the players to come to Chicago, Section 8 has worked to raise funds to fly the players in, which is especially tricky with those coming in from out of the country. Greene said ticket sales are the main revenue portion, but they are also accepting donations and there is a silent auction.

The auction includes a game-worn Michael Bradley national team jersey from a Gold Cup semifinal this year. Bradley is the son of the Fire’s first coach, Bob Bradley, and grew up in Chicagoland while his dad coached the team. There is also the press of the Bastian Schweinsteiger poster that ran in the Chicago Tribune.


“It’s a ton of coordination, but from a fan’s point of view it’s pretty awesome to email people,” Greene said. “I sponsored Andy Herron and it’s really cool to interact with him. I’m interacting with my sporting heroes. That’s really cool from being a volunteer and organizing this, the logistics of who’s coming.”

The club has helped provide videos and photos as part of the program and the beer list would make some brew fests envious. Chicagoland breweries Half Acre, BuckleDown (which has a Section 8 Pale Ale), Two Brothers (which will have a 20 Twenty-Plus Pilsner Lager which is named for the founding year of the brewery, which matches the Fire’s founding year) and Goose Island will have beers at the party. Goose Island is making a black lager made exclusively for the party.

Tickets and more information are available through the Fire 20th Anniversary website.

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

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USA TODAY

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.”