Things have been going relatively well for the Chicago Fire in recent weeks. The team went unbeaten in the month of June, and now sit in the 6th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Much of that has been down to the offense, who haven’t been held scoreless for ten straight matches.
There have still have been problems, with most of them coming the other side of the pitch, where the defense has been leaking goals. This was evident against NYCFC, where the Fire conceded twice as a result of poor defending. In total, the team has conceded 31 goals in 18 games, which is tied for third worst in the Eastern Conference. Head Coach Veljko Paunovic needs to make a change sooner rather than later, as it is clear that the Chicago backline is in need of a reshuffle
First, and most importantly, Brandon Vincent is not a centerback, and should return to his natural position at the left side of the defense. His lack of height is the biggest problem, especially when he is played alongside Kappelhof. Neither is taller than six feet, which has lead to the Fire conceding a bunch of goals off of headers.
Vincent can’t help the offense much either, as he is unable to venture forward when playing at center back. With Matt Polster on the opposite of the field, Vincent played a key role in the high powered Fire offense of last season. Nikolic has missed him the most this year, as the Hungarian no longer gets consistent service from the left wing in Vincent’s absence.
Moving him back out to the left hand side would force Jorge Corrales back to the bench. The Cuban international hasn’t made any mistakes since becoming a starter, but offers very little going forward. He’s one of those players that is decent enough at almost everything, but doesn’t excel at anything in particular. A spell back on the bench wouldn’t be all doom and gloom for the player, as Corrales has been able to cement himself as a trustworthy option off the bench if Vincent is unavailable for selection.
The change would also open up a slot alongside Johan Kappelhof at the heart of the defense. Jonathan Campbell has been given most of the chances to play, starting both games during the Dutchman’s suspension. He has yet to truly shine and take control of the position, making a couple of mistakes that have lead to dropped points for the men in red.
Grant Lillard had some chances earlier in the year, and should return to the starting XI. Standing tall at 6’4”, the homegrown was a much needed presence at the back, and complemented Kappelhof well. Lillard wasn’t even that bad with the ball at his feet, as he could make the simple pass, and knew when to clear it out of play. He wasn’t perfect, but is still only in his rookie season, and should be allowed further game time to grow.
Diego Campos has tried his best at right back in recent weeks, but he’s not the answer for the clubs injury woes at the position. He’s not reliable enough at the back, and gets beat off the dribble too easily. With the injury to Luis Solignac opening a spot further up the field, Campos would be better off returning to the right wing position, and starting alongside Aleksandar Katai and Nemanja Nikolic in the Fire front three.
As Polster and Drew Conner are on the shelf at the moment, the choice is down to either Kevin Ellis or Rafael Ramos. As neither player has proven to be much better than the other, Paunovic might base his decision on who Chicago is playing. Ellis has the experience and defensive ability, which would see him called upon in away games against tough opposition. If the Fire are playing a weaker side at home, and need to break down a team parking the bus, Ramos possesses the speed and creativity in the final third that could prove vital. When Conner is able to return, he should his fair shot in the side, and prove why he was such a breakout player last season.
The Fire will need to fix the backline as soon as possible, as the men in red face off against sides with quality in the attack. The Vancouver Whitecaps are able to blow out any team when they’re at their best, especially at home. The Union put three past the Fire earlier in the year, while Toronto still have players like Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez, who nearly led the Canadian side to CONCACAF Champions League glory. The Fire have finally climbed back above the red line, but will have to improve at the back if they want to stay in playoff contention.