Chicago Fire

Notes from the rewatch: Why were the Fire satisfied with a home draw?

Notes from the rewatch: Why were the Fire satisfied with a home draw?

Saturday's Fire-Red Bulls contest won't win any awards for entertainment or aesthestic quality. Neither team completed passes at a high rate nor was able to pepper the opposing goal.

So when the match finished a 1-1 draw it was probably a fair result. Neither attack can feel like it created a ton of chances nor was really threatening to the opposition and neither defense can come away feeling great after failing to come up with a clean sheet. The Fire completed 66 percent of passes while the Red Bulls came in just slightly better at 72 percent. Both of those are well below a satisfactory rate for two teams which put effort into controlling possession.

Performance aside, coach Veljko Paunovic and his players said they were happy to get a point at home against a team below them in the standings. Here's a look at that, along with the Red Bulls' dominant start.

Red Bulls owned the first 10 minutes

Bradley Wright-Phillips' goal in the seventh minute came soon after a corner kick and the way the opening minutes were going, it seemed to be coming. The Fire couldn't keep the ball out of the defensive half for the first 10 minutes.

In the seven minutes before the Red Bulls goal, the Fire completed more than two passes in a row on one occasion, all of which were in the defensive half. The Fire completed 16 of 33 passes in the first 10 minutes.

Whether the Fire was surprised by the Red Bulls' pressure, which shouldn't have happened, or was simply just slow out of the gate, it proved costly. The Red Bulls managed to close down passing lanes and had a huge territorial advantage in the opening part of the match.

New York came out in an unsual formation, which was tough to get a read on. There is a lot of fluidity in Jesse Marsch's system and to try to explain what they were doing would be beyond my knowledge of soccer tactics. I asked Frank Klopas about it when I saw him at halftime in the press box and he said it was basically a 5-4-1, but it shifted depending on what the wing backs were doing.

Either way, the Red Bulls caught the Fire off guard from the start.

Then the Fire improved

After Wright-Phillips' goal, the Red Bulls didn't have another shot the rest of the half. The Fire's first shot didn't come until 25 minutes into the game, but the improvement was evident.

The problem was the only shot that came close was a Michael de Leeuw effort which looked like it was going off target until getting deflected by a defender and hitting the crossbar. It was a good show of skill from de Leeuw, but that was pretty much it for the first half.

The Fire picked up the pressure in the second half and that led to the goal, which also came from an impressive show of skill from de Leeuw on the assist.

But what about those last 20 minutes?

After the game, Paunovic said the Fire had the better of the chances and were pushing for the win. The first part was definitely true on the whole. The shot total favored the Fire 14-5.

“I think as I remember we had more opportunities in this game, as I can remember it," Paunovic said during his fiery postgame press conference. "I think we were the team that was pushing hard to get that tie and then we were still pushing to win the game."

The pushing for the win part didn't show up on the field. With neither team playing particularly well, neither one put another shot on goal in the final 20 minutes. In fact, the Red Bulls didn't have another shot on target after scoring in the seventh minute.

However, a simple look at the passing charts for both teams show where the ball was (the Fire's defensive third) and where it wasn't (the Red Bulls' defensive third). Here's the Fire's passing chart for the final 20 minutes (attacking from bottom to top, green passes are completed, yellow passes led to shots and red passes were not completed):

Note the lack of passes in and near the box and the lack of completed passes beyond midfield. Now look at the Red Bulls' passing chart for the final 20 minutes:

The obvious relative density of passes shows the territorial advantage the Red Bulls had down the stretch. So no, the Fire did not push for the win. That's not to say the team was necessarily playing for the draw, but New York was certainly the aggressor late.

There are practical reasons why the Fire said they were happy with the draw. The Fire didn't allow the Red Bulls to gain ground in the standings and remained four points ahead of New York, although the Red Bulls have a game in hand. The Fire's closing schedule includes just two playoff teams out of the final six matches so this could have been a case of trying to fight another day. Is that good enough though?

However, this isn't what Paunovic has been preaching since he took over. Paunovic talks about trying to control and win every game, even on the road. That's why it was jarring to see him and the team not only satisfied with the home draw, but "happy with it" as de Leeuw said after the game.

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?