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What We Learned From the Fire’s Last Week

Ruben takes a look back at the week that was.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a full two weeks since the last time we were able to take a step back and look at the big picture of the Chicago Fire. So for today, here’s what we learned, not just from the win against the New York Red Bulls, but from the last few games as well.

The Defense is Getting Better

The Fire’s biggest problem for the last several seasons, as we all know, has been the defense. Too often is good play undermined by a defensive error that costs the team wins, and sometimes any points at all. You always feel in the pit of your stomach when watching the club that no matter how good they were playing or how in control they were, there was going to be a point in the match where the defense would fall apart and they’d lose everything they worked for. For the last week, however, that has not been the case. The Fire held NYCFC to a clean sheet and held the New York Red Bulls scoreless until the literal last kick of the game.

How are they getting this done? It starts with the move from two center backs to three, and what the third center back is doing. In a normal back four setup, Space is created every time the ball moves from sideline to sideline forcing the defense to shift from one side to the other. Organized and communicative defenses deal with it better and the spaces are smaller, but the spaces still exist leaving room for attackers off the ball to make runs on goal to receive through balls or crosses and turn those into shots.

What the third center back does is fill the space that is given up when the defense has to shift, making it harder for runners to slip between the center backs. They also clean up whatever mistakes are made by over-aggressive actions by the defense. When the ball is turned over or someone is caught upfield, there’s a steady presence there to make sure that nothing disastrous happens.

To do this though, you need to have a guy who is versatile enough in his physical abilities to be able to do all those things, and fortunately for the Fire, they have Mauricio Pineda. When in the 4 back setup earlier in the season, Pineda was struggling a little. Without the direction that comes with good communication necessary for two center backs, he was often taken advantage of by strikers slipping in behind from his blindside without anyone telling him there was someone behind him. Now, he gets to play the sweeper with the whole game in front of him without having to rely on others. He can read the game better from where he is and clean up the mistakes of his teammates, something he’s excelling at.

Pineda isn’t the only thing that’s improved, though. The other center backs have stepped up as well. Whether it’s Kappelhof or Omsberg on the right-hand side or Calvo and sometimes Jonathan Bornstein on the left, they clearly have leveled up in performance to a degree where they can start to go forward without worrying about giving something up on the other side if they don’t end the possession with a shot.

Luka Is a (Good) Problem

The hot topic right now in Chicago Fire land is Luka Stojanovic and whether or not he should be seeing more playing time. There is no question that on merit, the answer is yes. The reigning MLS player of the week should get more playing time.

BUT

The Fire until now could not afford to play him. The movement to three center backs meant that there’s been one less spot in midfield for an offensive-minded player, and they could not afford to have a true attacking midfielder when the defense is as bad as it has been. Medran and Herbers have been essential at keeping things from tipping over on the defensive side while they get used to having a back three (or back five depending on how you look at it). During the match, Luka was having some problems defending, especially late in the contest. There were plenty of times he either got turned around 1v1 or was out of position and the Red Bulls had the run of the right side of their offense.

However, with how the defense performed against the Red Bulls and because of their overall growth, the Fire can maybe afford to play it a little less safe in the attack. Fabian Herbers is not an offensive juggernaut, no matter what his 2020 said, and Luka could play in that spot, or as the shadow striker underneath Chinonso Offor or Robert Beric instead of Stanislav Ivanov or Ignacio Aliseda. The problem with this is that he’s not really that kind of player either. His ball skills mean he should be playing further back, picking up balls 40 yards from goal and being a playmaker.

In the short term, this won’t be that big of an issue. Medran is in the health and safety protocol and Luka is sure to get those minutes. But what happens when he comes back? Medran’s played the best he’s ever played in a Fire shirt the last month and a half. He’s part of the reason the Fire have started to turn this thing around. Fabian Herbers has also been a steady force in the middle, doing a lot of the dirty work that a good team needs to be able to do.

The Fire are in a tough spot, and there are no easy answers. Luka deserves more playing time, but if they play him, they risk losing the stability that they’ve worked so hard to achieve. But these are the kind of problems managers have had to solve since the game began, and it’s where Raphael Wicky is going to have the biggest impact on the club’s results.