Two recent trends with the Chicago Fire got flipped in Saturday's win at D.C. United, not even counting that it was the Fire's first road win of the season.
Nemanja Nikolic entered Saturday's game at D.C. United as arguably the hottest striker in Major League Soccer. He had plenty of scoring chances, most of them good ones, but couldn't convert after being very efficient in recent games.
Also, D.C. is a team struggling offensively and entered without its top playmaker in Luciano Acosta, out serving a red card suspension, so it relied on set pieces and long throws to create scoring opportunities. That's something the Fire have had troubles with this year, notably in the LA game a few weeks ago. However, the defense held strong to survive the onslaught of balls into the box.
Here's more on those two things, plus Bastian Schweinsteiger's near assist of the year.
Defending set pieces
Without Acosta, D.C. found itself relying even more on free kicks, crosses and long throws to get the ball in the box. After recent struggles defending set pieces, this could have been a problem on paper for the Fire.
D.C. completed just three of 16 crosses and only one of those three led to a shot. Of D.C.'s three corner kicks, none first went to a D.C. player.
There were five more long throws, four from the left by Taylor Kemp and one from the right by Chris Korb. D.C. won flick headers on a pair of those, but nothing came from those chances. The best chance was when a ball fell to Patrick Mullins in the box following a deflection. He slid for an open shot in the box, but shot over the bar.
Overall, the Fire did well to handle the barrage of balls flung into the box from distance.
Nikolic's missed scoring opportunities
Nikolic still has the league lead in goals, even after not scoring in this one. His 10 goals are more than D.C. and the Fire's previous opponent, Colorado, have scored as teams.
He had seven shots, more than twice the amount of any other player on the field, and put four on target. No other player had more than one shot on target. Despite these numbers, Nikolic did not score.
Matt Polster gave him a good chance in the 29th minute. Nikolic's first-touch shot from 10 yards out was blocked. He hit it well, but it was a good block.
David Accam crossed to Nikolic on the back post just before halftime. Nikolic put the header on target, but didn't get enough on it to get it past goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
In the final 10 minutes things really picked up for Nikolic. He tried to round Hamid in the 81st minute, but couldn't get around the big man and then his shot from a tight angle was saved. Three minutes later Hamid made his best save with a diving stop to deny a streaking Nikolic, who was coming in from the right side.
Hamid gets credit for these stops, but Nikolic's best chance came in added time after Schweinsteiger set him up on a platter.
Schweinsteiger robbed of assist of the year
The biggest of Nikolic’s blown chances was Schweinsteiger’s elusive dribbling at the end line in added time. If Nikolic finished the open shot, it would have been one of the best assists you’d see in any league around the world this season. Instead the viral clips of the play were either truncated before Nikolic’s shoots over the bar or included the somewhat comedic finish to a highlight-reel play.
Schweinsteiger got a bit of the last laugh after suffering four fouls, no player was fouled more during the match, against a physical team.
This play got the most attention from Schweinsteiger's game and it could have really blown up had Nikolic finished it off. Don't forget that Schweinsteiger nearly gave D.C. a goal by turning the ball over with a lateral pass right to Lloyd Sam at the edge of the penalty box a few minutes after the Fire took the lead. That certainly would have flipped the prevailing view of Schweinsteiger's performance as well.