Coming off of a crucial victory against. St. Louis in the U.S. Open Cup earlier in the week, the Fire were determined to continue this form in league play. Leading up to the match, the Fire had won just one of their last five MLS games and it was this run of form that eventually led to the sacking of former manager, Ezra Hendrickson.
His successor and club legend Frank Klopas has invigorated his side in his first two matches in charge and the team put up two of their best performances of the season this past week against St. Louis.
After seeing the success that the team had playing a 4-2-3-1 in the cup match, Klopas decided to stick with this shape for Saturday’s match. The starting lineup from Tuesday stayed the same apart from 3 changes.
In goal, Chris Brady was brought back into the team to replace Spencer Richey while Fabian Herbers replaced the concussed Maren Haile-Selassie on the right wing.
Carlos Terán was also re-introduced into the XI but was forced off after re-aggravating his injury just 34 minutes into the first half.
In terms of end-to-end matches, Saturday was the most back-and-forth action that I have witnessed this Fire season. The number of chances on both ends of the pitch can be attributed to the high press of St. Louis, especially in the first half.
St. Louis initiated a high press on Saturday as they had on Tuesday, which barely gave Chicago any time on the ball. Although Chicago have lots of technical quality dispersed throughout the whole team and were able to break the press with a decent amount of success, there were certainly a few scary moments.
The visitors’ press was effective and forced Chicago to play under pressure with little time on the ball. Most notably in the first half, two badly misplaced passes from the reliable Gastón Giménez nearly cost the Fire. Superb goalkeeping from Chris Brady however kept the visitors off the scoreboard.
St. Louis’ press on Saturday in my opinion was more effective than it was on Tuesday in the cup. Instead of playing the same 4-1-2-1-2 that they had on Tuesday, St. Louis matched the Fire’s 4-2-3-1 shape while making 7 changes to their starting XI.
Although St. Louis did not use the wide areas particularly well going forward, it certainly enhanced the effectiveness of their press. By taking away options in wide areas, Chicago were under more pressure when building out from the back and were often forced into playing dangerous square balls in their defensive third.
However, once the Fire were eventually able to find the space behind the initial line of press, they had lots of space to operate going forward. Especially with Xherdan Shaqiri on his game, the veteran playmaker had lots of time and space to operate and pick out a killer pass to break the final line of defense. It was in these spaces in between the lines where the Fire were able to hurt the visitors the most.
Again, Shaqiri and Brian Gutiérrez played well side by side and connected with one another well. In Guti’s post-game interview with MIR97’s Alex Calabrese, he mentioned the connection that he and Shaq have and how that helps him when playing out of position on the left wing. Again in his secondary position, Guti still looked dangerous and continued to create and impose danger on the opposition.
As the Fire continued to dominate attacking midfield and the spaces in between the lines, their attacking presence mounted and eventually led to them taking the lead through Rafa Czichos. The club captain, who was subbed on for the injured Terán was able to get his foot on the end of Shaqiri’s out-swinging free-kick to put away the only goal of the match.
The Fire ended the half a goal up, but came out a little flat to begin the second half. After a positive first 5 minutes that included Fabian Herbers’ effort smashing off of the frame of the goal, the Fire underwent about a 20 minute period where they were second best.
As the Fire struggled to shift the momentum of the match back in their favor, St. Louis defender John Nelson made a fatal mistake of picking up a second yellow card that would reduce the visitors to ten men. The sending-off of Nelson proved to be the turning point of the second half as the Fire were able to re-establish their dominance following the defender’s dismissal.
St. Louis were forced into playing a back 3 and continued to commit numbers forward as they chased for an equalizer in the final 20 minutes of the match. As a result, the Fire were able to hit St. Louis on the counter and with a numbers advantage due to the red card.
Georgios Koutsias and Kacper Przybyłko were subbed on minutes after the red card to reinvigorate the attack and although both played poorly, the two certainly provided much-needed energy that would help the Fire see out the match. Continually on the receiving end of a Fire counter-attack, St. Louis was never able to establish any sort of attacking rhythm and could not find a way to equalize the match.
Although the Fire were able to maintain their advantage and regain momentum in the second half, the Fire could have certainly improved their advantage by a goal or two. The Fire were able to counter the visitors numerous times in the final 20 minutes, but nothing ever came from these efforts despite often attacking four-on-three or four-on-two in their favor.
Overall, however, it was a solid performance again from the Fire and Frank Klopas. As the Fire will now roll into a stretch of 4 away games in their next 5 matches, it is crucial that they continue this run of form in order to revitalize their playoff hopes and stay alive in the Cup.