There was a time in preseason - as preserved in the now-disproved tactical previews - when the Fire flirted with playing a compact, fluid 4-1-4-1 shape, compressing space, pressing high; a swashbucking, confident style. I wrote then, "The 2013 New England Revolution under Jay Heaps played the 4-1-4-1 well, and stand as a handy comparison."
No plan survives contact with the enemy, of course. The confidence required of the system was shaken badly by the defensive collapse at the end of the opener. Jeff Larentowicz struggled in possession when pressed, which meant basically always, which meant a deeper line to cover it, which meant pinched-in fullbacks to win a second ball, which meant more stress on responsibility for the wings, which meant less fluidity, which meant more than one striker just to get some people in the box sometimes. And so on, every petite failure taking another pull on this one loose thread on the unraveling fabric.
Juan Luis Anangono's thread came loose early as well, unable to wrest control of the striker position from a cocky journeyman in Quincy Amarikwa. Without that, the Fire didn't have the 'point of the spear,' the safe outlet under pressure; Amarikwa battles but thrives on a diet of through balls. And the tendency of the central defense to get, like, really mellow at just the wrong moment - for example, when addressing set pieces in the box - meant the the midfield sagged yet more; Chicago became a sort of footballing metaphor for a tension headache, everyone deeply concerned with marking, all the joy of a parental lecture on responsibility married to obvious physical exhaustion.
So the idea was discarded; sometimes it doesn't work out. Shipp moved out to the left, Mike Magee moved up top with Quincy, and the idea was, roughly, the 4-4-2 as played by pub teams everywhere: Outside guys, try to do stuff; inside guys, make it hard to do stuff. Strikers, be awesome a couple times a game. And so on. But New England's still doing it, and they're still the model for this shape in this league, in my view. Here's what to look for today when the Fire trot onto the turf in Foxborough:
Keep the ball, be patient
Just when we'd nearly given up on the idea of the Fire keeping the football, they've found their footing. Moving Larentowicz to centerback means that, against all but the most reckless of pressing schemes, he's receiving the ball facing upfield and has a touch to gather himself. Given that time, Big Red goes from being a net liability in possession to a crucial component - and movement in midfield now pays off, because now there's a centerback who can slide a pass into those openings.
The two-man central midfield pairing of Matt Watson and Razvan Cocis deserves some mention here - to this point, they've got a positive version of the earlier unraveling happening, a sort of virtuous cycle. Watson covers a great deal of ground defensively, which frees up Cocis to pose interesting questions of the opposition's defensive shape simply by standing in inconvenient spots and showing for the ball; which wouldn't matter if the passes weren't accurate, the touches on-point, which they mostly have been recently; which frees the wings to move into attacking positions, since they're now confident that they can leave defensive stations, since we're clearly going to have the ball, right?
Against Dallas, Cocis often found that space very deep, since the Toros' midfield overload made space farther forward hard to come by. By being unafraid to follow possession into space farther away from the goal - by staying patient and refusing to play directly - the Men in Red bottled Dallas' lightning-bolt counter-attack.
New England will present some of the same problems, but their best chances tend to come from clever overloads from their creative central-midfield duo of Lee Nguyen and Daigo Kobayashi. If the Fire can avoid turning the ball over against the Revs' swarming pressure, those notional overloads become gaps to be exploited.
Play the angles
But even the sharpest possession performance will yield some turnovers. Nguyen and Kobayashi's usual approach is to both move sharply ball-side, the closer one farther forward, the farther deeper in the channel; this asks a huge amount from the centerback on that side, who has to find the striker and decide whether to mark him or the attacking midfielder. The fullback on the ball-side could help, but has the winger ghosting in behind for a through-ball. It's ugly.
The only solution is one that Bakary Soumare demonstrated ably against Dallas: the two defenders ball-side step forward into space and play the passing angles, splitting the space while tracking the runs. It's a dark art. It's a mental challenge. And it's not possible to do over and over again. But if the the Fire can keep the ball, they can limit the number of tries the Revs have to hit the perfect pass past our defenders in space - and the Men in Red can control the game.
Have a 'Plan B'
It's possible that the glimpses of possession football the Fire have shared with us recently are the result of externalities: A Toronto team playing with 10 men, a Dallas side featuring a great deal more talent than experience. Or we could be seeing great form from Watson and Cocis, not great quality. If it's not working - if we're turning the ball over in the middle of the field through simple misplacement - then we'll have to return to the bunker-and-counter broken team we've been most of the midseason. Six guys defending, four guys attacking; a hope for solidity, and a glimmering moment.