After what was, in truth, a woeful start to the MLS season, which saw the Fire in 14th out of 15th in the East, the Fire have gotten their second half of the 2023 campaign off to an electric start by securing back-to-back away wins. On Wednesday, the Fire reverted back to their traditional 4-2-3-1 system and reversed their curse against the Portland Timbers with a 2-1 win. Leading up to the match, the Fire had never recorded a win against Portland in any of the ten times that the two teams had met, and Wednesday’s win was certainly a massive moment for the club in that regard.
To start the match, the Fire kept the same 4-2-3-1 shape and personnel, other than Kacper Pryzybylko, who was replaced at striker by Kei Kamara. The Sierra Leonean international grabbed the game-winning goal against Portland off the bench on Wednesday, which earned him the start today. After being left out of the squad on Wednesday as he recovered from the international break with Switzerland, Xherdan Shaqiri was integrated back into the team on Saturday and was eventually used as a second-half substitute. Other notable inclusions on the bench and in the second half included Maren Haile-Selassie and Carlos Terán, who are both working their way back from injury.
The Fire came out strong in the first half, as they did on Wednesday, and recorded three shots within the first ten minutes of the match. Looking confident in possession and driven to go forward, the Fire opened the contest positively. However, Kansas City soon took control of the match and started building momentum for the second third of the first half as they began to work some chances for themselves. The Fire struggled to clear their lines a few times, and Kansas City found themselves taking three long ranged efforts. Man of the Match Chris Brady was forced to make a great diving save on Alan Pulido’s shot from outside the 18 to keep the match at 0-0. Kansas City continued to dominate possession and generated more chances as the first half progressed with their most notable effort coming in the 35th minute. Remi Walter found himself in on goal from close range after the Fire failed to clear their lines once again, but to Chicago’s fortune, sliced at the ball, sending it wide of the post.
The Fire were able to quickly respond with a chance of their own as they broke with numbers and attacked Sporting’s box with pace. Kei Kamara was able to beat his man well and find space on the right-hand side of the box to pick out Jairo Torres, who was running through the middle. Torres met Kamara’s ball with a first-time strike from inside the 18 that was saved well by Kansas City’s keeper. The movement of the front three throughout the match was most certainly dynamic, especially how Torres and Brian Gutiérrez interchanged positions when going forward. Guti and Torres can both play centrally or out wide as an inverted winger, and we often saw Torres come inside as Guti made way and filled the Mexican’s space out on the wing. By drifting wide, Guti would often take defenders away from the center of the park, opening up spaces for Torres and Fede Navarro to run through and provide an option through the center of the pitch.
Saturday’s match was the most progressive I have seen Fede play in terms of his off-the-ball movement. He continually drove forward, looking to receive the ball in and around the box, and certainly provided an attacking presence that I have not seen from him before. What allowed the high-energy midfielder to burst forward on the counter was Fabian Herbers, who would cover his position in midfield. The advantage of playing with personnel like Torres, Guti, and Fabi is that they are all very versatile players who are willing to drop into different positions to either add some dynamic to the attack or to provide cover for their teammates. What makes players like Guti and Torres so willing to interchange is that they are comfortable playing both out wide and through the middle, and this willingness to sit in space centrally one minute and move out wide the next makes the lives of the opposing defenders very difficult.
Cutting in onto his right foot, Guti came close right before the halftime whistle as his effort from 20 yards whistled just past the outside of the far post, and the Fire had the momentum leading into the half.
The Fire continued how they left off at the end of the first half in the second as they threw themselves at Kansas City in the attacking third, and it took the Fire just two minutes to find the opener. The attack came from the pace and quality of Guti, who received the ball at midfield and drove at Sporting’s defense. As the center-back began to close on him, Guti released Torres on the left wing to take on the full-back one vs. one. Torres successfully beat his man with a stepover before smacking the ball across goal. Torres’ cross/shot was handled poorly by the KC backline and fell only as far to Fabi Herbers, who was poached just inside the box. The German took on the chance first time and found the back of the net to the jubilation of the Fire.
What ultimately created the space for Herbers to take on the chance with so much space was the positioning of Kamara. Throughout the match, Kei operated mostly down the right-hand side, creating space for runners to flood through the middle of the field. By playing out more towards the right, it also created space for Torres and Guti to combine with one another on the left and through the middle, which is where some of the Fire’s best forward plays came from. Poached out on the back post, the full-back who duffed the clearance was so tight to Kei that Fabi was unmarked and able to stroke the ball into the back of the net with ease.
Despite going a goal up, the Fire struggled to maintain this momentum, and KC began to re-control the match by dominating possession. The Fire, a possession-based team, almost never get bossed in possession, but in the second half, the visitors certainly found themselves without the ball more often than with it. Come the end of the match, KC had held double the amount of possession that the Fire did as the visitors continued to soak up pressure. Even more so when Carlos Terán entered the match as the Fire went into a back five to try and see the match out. To the Fire’s relief, the visitors never used their possession to its full potential to create clear-cut scoring chances, and the Fire ended the match with all three points.
If the Fire can continue to play the way they have the last two matches and round out this away trip with three wins from three, it will certainly prove crucial to not just the Fire climbing the table right now but the longevity of this team and a potential playoff surge. Winning back-to-back games will certainly provide this team with some much-needed confidence after so many negative results in the first half of the season.
Of course, I do not want to speak to soon, knowing how we have played for the majority of the season, but hopefully, this stretch of good form is a sign of what is to come for the Fire as they push for the playoffs.