The Chicago Fire’s style of play under Veljko Paunovic has been inconsistent. Other than the highs of 2017, the Fire have really struggled to put a stamp on a season via a play style. This can get frustrating to watch because it stops the team from building towards anything in the long term. Sometimes Pauno seems like he is too worried about his job, and therefore won’t sacrifice individual games or growing pains in order to build an identity. Pauno’s ideal soccer is a very fluid and dynamic possession system that would be fun to see the Fire utilize again.
The Fire have a small chance to make the playoffs this year, but I think a commitment to possessing the ball is more important over the last three games. Squeezing into the playoffs will really do nothing for the long-term success of the team. Dedicating multiple games to a team identity that they can carry into next year would be much more beneficial.
The final three opponents are teams that the Fire should be able to possess the ball against. FC Cincinnati has been the worst team in the league almost the entire season, and regularly cedes possession to opponents in exchange for a more defensive play style. Orlando City, while not necessarily a bunkering team, has the same level of talent as the Fire, so are less likely to punish mistakes. Toronto FC is the toughest team the Fire will play for the rest of the season. Thankfully, the game is a home game and Toronto will be coming off of a midweek Canadian Championship matchup with the Montreal Impact.
None of those three teams should be a big threat to committing to possessing the ball. That doesn’t mean it will be successful or an easy win, but the opening is there if the Fire want to stamp an identity on the remaining games.
The primary change that needs to happen if this is to be successful is a focus on possession in the midfield. That means Dax McCarty, Nicolas Gaitán, and a third midfielder need to prioritize keeping possession at all times. Recently that third midfielder has been Brandt Bronico, but I would like to see Djordje Mihailovic given the minutes instead. I think Bronico is a good player and has earned the minutes that he has gotten this year, but Mihailovic is more suited to being a possession number 8.
The problem in midfield right now is that it is so spread out that the Fire often leave a hole in the middle of the field. Dax McCarty drops between the centerbacks, Gaitán pushes high or wide and often doesn’t move as much as he should, and Bronico doesn’t find space as well as he needs to. I would argue that Mihailovic’s best talent is finding space to receive the ball, and is a good passer as well. He’s the perfect number 8 for a possession-based system, and is going to be able to progress the ball and connect the back line to the attack.
The Fire often possess the ball across the back line and even through the wings very well, but that is an easy task. Penetrating the middle of the field has not been quite as successful, and I think it comes from wanting to possess the ball but not going about it in the right way. It leads to recycling possession in a big ‘U’ shape without doing enough dangerous ball movement.
This isn’t just about playing pretty soccer. This is about working towards something that is bigger than the individuals on the team. The Fire have just come off a dominant win while playing possession soccer. The final three games are an opportunity to build off of the FC Dallas win and stick to principles of play.