Chicago Fire

On short rest, Fire head to D.C. in search of first road win

On short rest, Fire head to D.C. in search of first road win

In the first answer of coach Veljko Paunovic's press conference after Wednesday's win against Colorado, Paunovic was already looking ahead to the next game.

"We want to win the next game," he said. "That’s the attitude we were looking for for a long time and the guys are confident. The guys are really happy and enjoying soccer and winning games. I believe we are doing a good job with the team and the team believes it so now we have to keep it up. We just have to think about the next game against DC, how to recover, how to prepare well and go and compete there.”

Part of the reason to look ahead so soon was that the next game was coming so soon after the Chicago Fire beat the Rapids 3-0. The Fire will play for the third time in eight games in a match at D.C. United on Saturday.

The Fire also have another midweek game after traveling to the nation's capital, Thursday against undefeated FC Dallas. This could be squad rotation is in order, but Paunovic tends to stick with similar lineups after good performances. He made just one change in the starting lineup from the Seattle game to the Colorado game (Matt Polster started in place of Dre Conner). Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam were both subbed out in the second half on Wednesday, likely in anticipation of having them start in this upcoming road match.

Either way, the Fire (5-3-3, 18 points) have played two of its best games of the season in the past two matches and D.C. (3-5-2, 11 points) has been shutout in its past two home matches. The Fire enter 0-3-2 on the road.

"We make 18 points until now so it’s a fantastic job," Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic said. "To keep doing this we need to improve our game away so the chance is going to be against D.C. We need to prepare. We don’t have too much time for this, but we’ll try to give our best and be 100 percent for that game.”

Luciano Acosta leads United with three goals, but will be serving a red card suspension against the Fire. Former Fire winger Patrick Nyarko will miss the game with a hamstring injury. Regular starters Sean Franklin and Nick DeLeon are also out injured.

Even though D.C. comes in with a full week of rest and the Fire are not, D.C. is shorthanded and struggling at home. This appears to be a good opportunity for the Fire to get a first road win in 2017. Multiple players on the Fire have said some of the recent road performances have warranted better results than they have received.

"In away games we need to improve," Nikolic said. "We played really good against New York, against LA, so we need to keep doing the same things and start getting points in away games.”

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?

Why it was a near-perfect weekend for the Fire

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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.