Fire End Grueling Stretch With Another Win

2017-05-25 CHI v FCD

(Photo courtesy mlssoccer.com)

The Chicago Fire extended their unbeaten run to five matches after a systematic 2:1 victory over FC Dallas on Thursday. Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam continued their impressive attacking form, scoring twice within the first nine minutes of the contest. Those goals proved to be enough to ensure all three points over a Dallas side weakened by coach Oscar Pareja’s decision to rest several key players ahead of their Sunday encounter versus Houston. The Fire have 24 points from their 13 matches and are comfortably set in second place in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire managed to get through four matches in the span of twelve days without the loss of any points. Three of those matches were played at Toyota Park, where the team has compiled a glittering 6-0-1 record this season. Coach Veljko Paunovic ignored any potential fatigue issues during this period, staying with essentially the same lineup throughout. The squad put together a solid effort last weekend in DC and rebounded nicely on Thursday, where the speed of play and the sharpness of their passing was significantly improved.

That Pareja chose to leave key players is of no concern to the Fire. Everyone knows that you can only play the team that is in front of you. Pareja’s tactics are understandable because the race for the playoffs is within each conference, thus, points from intra-conference matches carry more weight than those played outside the conference. Because Chicago and Dallas meet just once per season, a match pitting the best players from both sides would have been quite enjoyable. As it turned out, Pareja’s second stringers gave a good account of themselves, demonstrating the depth of his player pool. They were not, however, a match for a Fire team firing on all cylinders the last couple of weeks.

Anyone who was standing in line waiting for a hot dog might have missed the most exciting parts of the contest, as the fireworks ignited right from the jump. The Fire got on the board in the third minute, following a period of sustained ball possession. Bastian Schweinsteiger sent a ball from midfield to Brandon Vincent, who pushed forward along the left wing. He played an incisive pass towards the near post, where Nikolic brilliantly finished a twisting, first-time, re-directed shot past goalkeeper Chris Seitz.

Dallas needed just three minutes to respond and got lots of help from Fire defenders who were unable to clear the ball out of their own penalty area. Joao Meira flubbed an easy clearance, with the ball landing at Johan Kappelhof’s feet. Kappelhof’s attempt slammed off of Cristian Colman and deflected over to an unmarked Roland Lamah, who slid a shot past Matt Lampson from close range. It was the only significant defensive miscue by the Fire in this four-game stretch.

The Fire regained the lead in the ninth minute. Kappelhof found Accam in space on the left side and the winger was off to the races. As he cut into the middle, no Dallas player moved in to close him down and Accam drilled a low shot past Seitz at the far post.

That wrapped up the scoring in the contest, but the Fire displayed plenty of quality and smart attacking instincts for the remainder. They completed 83% of their passes and had a tidy completion rate of 68% in the final third. Although Dallas completed 80% of their passes overall, they hardly made any substantial challenge in front of the Fire goal. Their only shot on target was the 6th-minute goal by Lamah.

The Fire had a great chance to put the result beyond any doubt when Nikolic was shoved to the ground deep in second-half stoppage time, leading to a penalty kick. Nikolic failed in his duty at the spot, shooting far too close to Seitz, who dove to his left to deflect the ball away. It appears that Paunovic may have to seek out someone more reliable for penalty kick duty. Neither Accam nor Nikolic have shown that they are a lock for converting from the spot.

The Fire have been dominant on both sides of the ball during this streak. They have outscored their five opponents 12:4 and have generated more shots on goal by a 28-10 margin. Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty continue to be the engine that keeps the offense humming. Defending has become a much easier job, now that the Fire routinely complete over 80% of their passes. When the opponent creates so few scoring chances, it reduces the scrutiny heaped on the Fire’s goalkeepers. Current starter Lampson has had little to do during this period and has managed to keep his area tidy with well-timed interventions.

If the Fire can continue to pile up scoring chances and shut down their opponents before they can get close to the goal, then the math here is simple: three points are far more likely than not.

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