Since the international break, the Fire have arguably been the best team in MLS. The team has won five of their last six, and Saturday’s win over Toronto was their third victory in a row. This stretch of good form has propelled the Fire from 14th to 8th as the team continues to push for a spot in this year’s playoffs.
While the Fire have been in great form, Toronto have lost all six of their matches since the break and currently sit in 14th, one point ahead of last-placed Inter Miami. Adding further detriment to what already looked like a tough match on paper, Euro 2020 champions Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne were omitted from the team due to injury.
It was a standard Fire team besides Jonathan Dean taking Arnaud Souquet’s place at right-back. Due to Federico Navarro’s injury, Fabian Herbers kept his place in the Fire’s double pivot, while Georgios Koutsias started his third consecutive match as the lone striker.
So although the team’s personnel was quite standard (Shaqiri, Guti, Czichos, Brady, M. Navarro, etc), individuals like Koutsias and Herbers certainly change the dynamic and how the team plays. Compared to Kei Kamara and Kacper Przybyłko, Koutsias is a much more mobile striker who likes to run in behind or at defenders one-on-one. So rather than either coming deep to help in the buildup or going long to get on the end of a long ball, Koutsias’ runs are a lot more unpredictable in the sense that he is a lot quicker and a better dribbler than the Fire’s other two number nines. Concerning Herbers, he provides a much more offensive profile than Federico Navarro. Although he does not have the ability to chase down opponents and win loose balls like Fede, the ex-Creighton player pushes the team forward from the defensive midfield and is not afraid to get involved in attacking midfield and out on the wings. The winger/midfielder certainly likes to get forward and provides an attacking/goal output that the Fire often lack when playing with both Fede and Gastón Giménez in the pivot.
Toronto, playing a 4-4-2, were dominated by Chicago in all aspects of the match in the first half. The Fire made their advantage in midfield known as they held the majority of possession, forcing Toronto to chase the game. Not only did the Fire dominate possession, but the Fire also played the majority of the first 45 in Toronto’s defensive half. Keeping the visitors pinned in, Toronto hardly created anything, while the Fire came close on a number of occasions. Chicago’s best look of the first half came off of a Brian Gutiérrez corner that Fabian Herbers met. Unfortunately for the Fire, USMNT and ex-Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson denied the midfielder from close range with a simple save.
Although the Fire were unable to take the lead in the first half and went into the break at 0-0, they were extremely dynamic in terms of their movement to try and break down Toronto’s low block. The movement was especially notable among the Fire’s three attacking midfield players, Haile-Selassie, Guti, and Shaqiri. This was the most central I have seen MHS play this season, but by coming central, he would free up space on the right wing for Fabian Herbers, who would look to whip the ball in. Similarly, out on the left, as we have seen all season long, Guti would come inwards to free space on the left for Shaqiri. In doing so, Shaq found himself with lots of space and created some shooting opportunities for himself in the first 45.
After chasing for the majority of the first half, Toronto made the correct decision to switch into a shape that accommodated three central midfielders as they matched the Fire’s 4-2-3-1 shape. As a result, Toronto were able to get a foothold on the match as they established some form of control in terms of possession and presence on the ball.
Toronto were not the only ones, however, who changed in order to adapt to the match. The Fire brought on Kei Kamara at half-time for Koutsias in an effort to introduce a more physical presence in the form of a more traditional target man.
With changes made on both sides, the second half was much more balanced in terms of possession and chances as Toronto grew more and more into the match in their new system. However, towards the end of the half, the Fire managed to regain the dominance that they had shown in the first half, as they pinned in the visitors in search of a game-winner. As the pressure began to mount, the chances began to flow in.
The first notable chance during this stretch came through Jairo Torres, whose first-time effort from inside the box sailed over the crossbar. The Fire came again and again as they pushed for the lead. The momentum was clearly in the Fire’s favor, and Klopas could feel that a goal was coming. Out of this confidence, he switched the team into a 4-4-2 as he introduced Kacper Przybyłko, who would ultimately score the game-winner in the 90th minute.
It was jubilation for the Fire yet again; this time, it came in the most dramatic fashion. A well-deserved result, especially after the team’s dominance in the first half and in the last 15 minutes of the match.
Whereas the playoffs seemed like an impossible feat at the season’s midpoint, it seems like an incredibly probable reality just a month later. Now for the Fire, it is about maintaining this form in the league and the Leagues Cup later this month.