I’m typically an optimistic guy, and markedly hopeful when it comes to the teams that I support to a fault. It’s an unhealthy optimism that comes back to bite me in the ass most of the time, but not right now. Right now, I’m very nervous for what we might see in the next 180 minutes with our Chicago Fire.
Through two games, the Fire have received positive marks from fans and analysts alike. Even though they only hold a single point to their name so far this season, they performed quite well out against the LA Galaxy in the season opener and stole a point at the death with only 10-men this past Saturday against Orlando. But as I peek ahead in the schedule, the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls might expose the Fire for who they really are this year: a team who cannot consistently withstand pressure for 90 minutes with a vulnerable back line.
The backline is not good
Simple as that. The backline is a problem. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, and we saw more evidence of this Saturday as Orlando consistently got in behind the Fire, exposing the lack of pace and lack of cohesion displayed by the defensive unit. For a team that doesn’t throw a lot of numbers into the opponent’s final third or play a high line, they have been very susceptible to being hit in the channels behind their outside backs and leaving their centerbacks exposed to 1v1 situations.
It seems Veljko Paunovic’s solution to cover for a sub-standard backline has been to stick as many numbers behind the ball as often as possible. The outside backs have been cautious getting forward, and the double pivot of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty stay home to screen and clean anything in front of the four. This has, in general, been enough to blunt any attack, but Seattle comes to SeatGeek Stadium looking early on like a Supporters’ Shield contender. I urge Pauno to make some adjustments ahead of Saturday.
What are the options?
With our (gulp) first choice left back Jorge Corrales out on suspension, Pauno has a few decisions to make when setting up the team the next two weeks.
I think the obvious answer is somehow getting Raheem Edwards back in Chicago, but as of writing this, there have been no reports of him getting called back into the team by way of some roster shuffling.
Pauno doesn’t have many defensive options to rotate into the backline from the bench, but I think Pauno has two legitimate options to try and get points over the next two games in terms of team setup and personnel.
I think the first move is bringing Mo Adams back into the team. I don’t know why he’s been left out of the 18 thus far but bringing him into the team and slotting him next to Dax in the double pivot is going to give the team two central midfield destroyers to counter Nico Lodeiro and Diego Rodriguez. Yes, that would mean dropping Schweinsteiger, but I think it gives Pauno a midfield that can cover more ground and withstand more consistent pressure, and I think you can bring him in after an hour. Slide Nico Hasler in as a left back and replace Aleksandar Katai with Przemysław Frankowski for some pace on the wings, and this team might walk away with a point.
I think the second option is play a tighter 4-3-3 and introduce Brandt Bronico as a more defensive number 10, pairing with Dax and Schweinsteiger to flood the middle of the field to try and break up the rhythm of play in the middle of the field. Hasler replaces Corrales as the left back once again and you drop Katai, Letting Djordje Mihailovic either play wide or float centrally to connect the defensive block with Frankowski and Nikolic, who can expose the space left by the Sounders outside backs who fly forward.
This is by no means a setup that will provide creative, free flowing football in the attack, but they might grind out a result, which is all that matters.
It really is baffling to me that Nelson has left this group so thin across the back four, especially after having arguably the best tandem in the league only a year ago.
For Pauno and company, continuing momentum will be crucial to keep the team and fanbase engaged, and any points on Saturday would go a long way to keeping that going.