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For The Fire, It’s Hard Out On The Road

The Fire have been poor on the road this year. What’s the problem?

New York City FC v Chicago Fire Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In what has been an inconsistent start to the season in terms of performances for the Chicago Fire, there is one pattern that has started to clearly emerge as we enter the meat of the MLS schedule: this team is significantly better at home than they are on the road.

The Men in Red have collected 15 of their 17 points at the fortress that is SeatGeek Stadium; only two points away from home through six games. They’re currently at a .33 point per game clip on the road, on track for 6 points this year! That just won’t be enough to help this group lock off one of those last playoff spots, even in a considerably weak Eastern Conference.

Yes, that is a small sample size and anyone with a calculator could give you those numbers, but it might be time to consider this a real problem and try to identify the underlying issue. Could it be the opponent’s raucous environments? The travel? Maybe they can’t get their pregame beef (dipped and hot obviously) quite so easily on the road?

For me, the answer to their struggles on the road is a proven and repeatable set-up and plan. I wrote earlier in the year that this group is not building week to week toward a game plan that you can point toward and say, “that is how this team wants to play.” That narrative has been on full display when the Chicago Fire go on the road looking for points so far this year. This team has high-pressed teams in one game and sat behind the ball with a low line of confrontation in another, looked to dictate possession in one game and cede possession in another.

Having different personnel and tactical approaches in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when on the road where you think you might be able to steal all three points by playing a certain way. There’s something to be said about a team that has the flexibility in style and approach, but this is starting to trend towards something that needs to be addressed.

Let’s look a little closer at the matches where the Fire earned their only two points, a 2-2 draw at Toronto and a 0-0 draw out in Los Angeles.

Looking at these stats, you would be shocked they flew home with any points at all! Toronto and LAFC they had 25% and 36% possession, respectively, and the Fire were doubled up in almost every offensive category.

What happened in these games? They put as many numbers behind the ball as possible and looked to counter. They were organized across through the spine, worked hard to shrink space between the lines, and made the most of their chances in the final third when they had them. All things considered, Toronto and LAFC were not nearly as dangerous as the box score might suggest, and the Fire relied on their individual attacking talent to make something happen when the time came. Interestingly enough, they were also largely considered some of this team’s better performances, despite the reactive style and ceding possession to the other team.

There’s no denying that this team has individual attacking talent in bunches, but it hasn’t meshed well enough to meet their potential. It might be worth the calculated risk of soaking up pressure for most of the game, and rely on the likes of Gaitan, Katai, Frankowski and company to take make the most out of the limited opportunities in the opponents final third, as they did in the games above.

Is Veljko Paunovic willing to sacrifice style of play for valuable road results? More importantly, will this squad of players who want to be on the ball buy in to that approach? I think we’ve reached a tipping point at this point in the year with this group, at least on the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a more conservative gameplan to the two games this week against D.C. and Atlanta, let’s just hope they lead to points.