In the matches leading up to the international break, the Fire had been plagued by bad form and were unable to get results both at home and on the road. The team’s last match before the break was their 17th in league play, which marked the halfway point of the MLS regular season. The storyline of that match against the Columbus Crew was nearly a spot-on representation of the Fire’s first half of this campaign as the Fire were downed by a 93rd-minute goal from the midfield stripe. Following the matchup against the Crew, the Fire had just three league wins to their name and sat 14th out of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. With just Xherdan Shaqiri and Miguel Navarro called up by their home nations to play in the international fixtures, the majority of the Fire first team had a whole week and a half to train and prepare for the crucial second half of the season after having underperformed severely in the opening 17 matches.
After struggling for form and results whilst playing a five-back in recent fixtures, Frank Klopas decided to line the Fire up in the 4-2-3-1 system that the team knows so well. With Shaqiri and Miggy excluded from the matchday squad after playing at the international level, Alonso Aceves got the start at left-back while Brian Gutiérrez was brought back into central midfield.
When the Fire have played with both Guti and Shaq on the pitch at the same time, both would either be put out on the wings as almost wide tens in a 3-4-3 (5-2-3) system or, Shaq would be deployed centrally while Guti would play as a winger when playing with one true central attacking midfielder. Shaq’s absence would ultimately allow Guti to again show his brilliance as a number ten for this Fire team.
Other notable changes to the starting XI included the re-introduction of Jairo Torres and Fabian Herbers. With Guti playing as the ten and with Maren Haile-Selassie only fit enough to make a 15-minute cameo in the second half, both wing positions in the 4-2-3-1 system were vacant.
Herbers had begun the season playing important minutes in both midfield, and as a winger after players like Chris Mueller, Federico Navarro, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Jairo Torres all suffered injuries. However, since the return of these players, apart from Mueller, who has been ruled out for the season, the German has recently been contributing as a second-half substitute.
After a poor performance as a late substitute in the Fire’s last match against the Crew, where his turnover ultimately led to the visitor’s late winner, it took Herbers just eight minutes against Portland to reprove his worth as a valuable member of this Fire team. The German was able to get on the end of Guti’s beautiful cut-back to give the Fire an early lead.
What created the opportunity for the Fire was Guti’s ability and willingness to make the deep run beyond the last line of defense. So many times, I have spoken about Guti’s dynamic movement as a ten. He is unpredictable in the sense that he will often come short for the ball to receive it on the half-turn in order to quick-start an attack, but will also run beyond the opposing center-back to get on the end of a through ball.
Although the Fire started the match strong by grabbing the opener, they struggled to maintain this momentum for the duration of the half. Portland found themselves with two great opportunities within five minutes of the Fire’s goal. Luckily for the Fire, however, great defensive efforts from Chris Brady and Alonso Aceves kept the match at 1-0. For the next 15 minutes of the match, Portland continued to ask questions and catch Chicago on the back foot. The Timbers built out of the back quickly and continued to threaten the Fire with their direct and progressive passing moves. From the time that Chicago took the lead up until Portland responded with a goal of their own in the 26th minute of play, it looked far too easy for Portland to carve out opportunities. Backpedaling and disorganized, the home team managed to find themselves in and around the Fire’s penalty area, which eventually led to their game-tying goal.
Despite Portland having the momentum for the remainder of the half, the Fire had some moments where they could have restored the lead. Running in behind the back line nearly worked again for the Fire as Jairo Torres was able to get on the end of a long ball that would ultimately put him one on one with the Timbers’ goalkeeper. Unfortunately, however, the chance was for naught as the close-range chance was saved.
The Fire managed to get to the half-time whistle unscathed without going down a goal and came out strong in the second half as Jairo Torres was on the end of another decent look at goal. Unfortunately, again for the Fire, the DP was unable to convert. Chicago took the match into their hands in the second half as they proved to be the better, more dominant team. Although the Fire struggled to create a myriad of chances for themselves to take the lead, they dictated the flow of the match as they successfully executed their possession-based style of play. The change in shape to play with two pivots certainly enhanced the Fire’s ability to keep possession and to successfully build and keep the ball. The re-introduction of a third midfielder certainly enhanced the play of all three Fire midfielders and was certainly the best performance from Gastón Giménez that we have seen so far this season. By having a third option to play with in the middle of the park, the game is made much easier on the entire team as it enhances the Fire’s ability to keep the ball and make their opposition chase.
Set-pieces for the Fire this year have been quite disastrous on the defensive end, as the team has conceded on seven separate occasions. However, the Fire were able to make some form of partial reparations by grabbing the go-ahead goal from a short corner, where Guti’s inswinging ball connected with Kei Kamara’s head.
Upon taking the lead, the Fire quickly changed into a back five to try and see out the match. Especially in the first half, it was evident that the Fire were having problems defending in the four, especially when it came to organization and staying tight. In the first half, Portland easily broke lines with direct balls, and the Fire were often caught out.
While the five has had its problems in regard to creating scoring opportunities and putting the ball in the back of the net, it is certainly a viable option to see out matches. Again though, it is a double-edged sword in the sense that it invites pressure in the dying moments of the match, where a deflection or a screamer from 30 yards can tie the game. The Fire faced two scary moments in the final three minutes of second-half stoppage time after bringing on Wyatt Omsberg as a third center-back. However, a very solid foot save from Brady and a skied overhead effort from inside the box kept the score at 2-1 when the whistle finally blew to end the match.
This victory is hopefully the first of many as the Fire begins the second half of their MLS campaign. If the Fire want to make a run to sneak into the playoffs, it is crucial that players like Guti and Kamara can maintain good form and continue to produce in front of goal.
Additionally, the Fire must play to their strengths and play in a system that is familiar to them. While I was originally convinced by the back five after the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 victory over Austin, the ensuing stretch of two draws and three losses in a row convinced me otherwise. Not only the negative results in the back five but the positive result against Portland has proved to me how much better the Fire are when in possession of the ball when in a four-back system with three midfielders. Having three players in the middle of the park to control the game and dictate the tempo, I feel, is crucial, especially for a Fire team that prides themselves on playing a possession-focused style. Not only this, but the Fire, in my mind, have the perfect balance of midfield options to play with three in the middle. With either Shaq or Guti as the creator, Fede as the ball winner, and Gaston as the facilitator/maestro, the Fire certainly have players that I feel complement each other well in this system and in this style of play.