Major League Soccer has seen a steady, highly visible in uptick in scoring since the 2013 season, with the most drastic increase in goals coming in the 2018 season. This comes in part to a large infusion of young talented players to the growing league, but also a change in team philosophy. Teams have shifted their scouting, game planning and formations to accommodate their most creative and offensively talented players, allowing for a more entertaining, end to end game, and as a result, a large increase in goal scoring output.
We are already six weeks into the 2019 MLS season, and the entertainment value and quality of play is at an all-time high. Top tier talent throughout the league has led to stunning team and individual performances, and increased offensive efficiency and dynamic playmakers have seen scoring continue to climb.
In this new era of soccer in America, it’s time for the Men In Red to embrace this high energy, high scoring philosophy and go all in for their offensive output.
Fire Goal Stats, 2013-2018
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The Chicago Fire seem to be at a crossroads with this new formula for success and infusion of young playmakers. On the one hand they have done a great job up top loading the roster with players capable of scoring goals and making plays. The acquisitions of Przemysław Frankowski, Nico Gaitán, and CJ Sapong have proven to be fantastic decisions by the front office and look to provide great returns as the season progresses. Each of these players have proven themselves with their previous teams and now look to continue that form while forming lethal partnerships in the Windy City.
When the new faces are combined with the attacking pieces already on the roster in 2017 Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, a dangerous Aleksander Katai, emerging star Djordje Mihailovic, and stud veterans Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, along with Fabian Herbers and Brandt Bronico off the bench. Chicago has the firepower and talent to go toe to toe with any offense in MLS.
The issue for Chicago comes from trying to pigeonhole other players into defensive positions to fit the formation and system head coach Veljko Paunović wants to use. The Fire have tried to balance their impressive attacking talent with strong defensive play, at times leaving some serious ability on the bench in favor of more defensive minded players that better fit the system and shore up their defensive line. In years past that has worked to larger degrees of success, with two-way players such as Joevin Jones, Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent among the defensive line, capable of making runs up the flank, contributing with their passing and runs in addition to their defensive efforts that were able to match opponents speed and keep them away from goal.
The attempt to have their cake and eat it too has not exactly worked out for the Men In Red thus far this season. Their decision to stick with a tradition back four, with a turnstile of defensive backs joining Johan Kappelhof, Marcelo, and at times Bastian Schweinsteiger on the back line, has been largely disappointing. The latest tinkering of Mo Adams and when healthy, Raheem Edwards, is finally showing some signs of promise.
The big issue with this is that three times in their first four games this season, the Fire only managed to put one goal on the board. While this is in part to less-than-clinical finishing, it also speaks to the need to put as much talent on the field as possible, and let the creators and goal scorers do their thing. It’s time for the Fire to embrace their offensive potential, putting their best attacking, creative players on the pitch and allowing free reign in a flowing deadly offense. They have the pieces and talent already in place on the roster, and allowing them to play together early in the season and become a more fluid group will only benefit them more as the season progresses.
As Mick wrote yesterday, Djordje needs to play. His development and creativity are critical for the Fire now and will be for years to come. Partnering him with new arrival Gaitán underneath the attacking of trio of Nikolic (or Sapong, if you are so inclined), Katai, and Frankowski gives the Men In Red a formidable, potent attacking force, all capable of interchanging and playing off of each other. These players have all proved themselves to some degree over the last few seasons, and Fire fans would be in for a great treat getting to enjoy a full season of Frankowski and Katai burning down the wings while Djordje, Basti and Gaitán carved up defenses through the middle.
To mitigate some defensive pressure while still contributing to the attack with their field vision and passing ability, having Schweinsteiger, Adams and Dax in a triangle set-up just underneath the attackers allows the Fire to overload and bring pressure when the situation calls for it, while still having a solid defense presence.
While some attention has been given to Father Time’s effect on the Fire’s German star, and rightly so, Basti has proven his ability to turn in star performances for Chicago. This role is designed for him at this point in his career, as he can contribute without being put into difficult situations. His passion, skills on the ball, passing ability, and high soccer IQ will help him both push the attack and set up teammates while also having the knowledge of when and where to step in to break up the opposition’s attack, making him the ideal man for a critical position.
This strategy is going to pay dividends for Chicago in numerous ways. On the field, embracing this attacking formation and mindset should first and foremost result in more goals being scored by the Men In Red. By putting their top offensive players in positions to succeed, the Fire should be able to maintain better possession and build up longer, more meaningful attacking movements that keep their opposition pinned in defensively.
Off the pitch, the Fire should expect to see an increase in attendance and viewership. Everyone loves goals, and the more the Fire score and win, while playing entertaining soccer, the more attention they will receive and the more people that will tune in and show up week after week.
Playing a more aggressive offensive style will reap a multitude of rewards for the Fire and help establish them for the next era of MLS play, keeping them in contention for the MLS Cup and re-establishing the proud legacy of champions.