Unbeaten in 7, Fire Climb to Within a Point of First Place

2017-06-10 CHI v ATL

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

Sometimes, examining the statistics at the conclusion of a soccer match fails to tell the whole story. Following the Chicago Fire’s systematic 2:0 victory over Atlanta United on Saturday at Toyota Park, the statistics really told very little of the story. Atlanta dominated possession (61% to 39%) and passes completed (461 to 304), but their apparently huge advantage translated to just two shots on target and zero goals. The Fire, on the other hand, made the most of their chances, and could have won the game going away if they had made some better decisions in front of goal.

The victory extended their winning streak at home to seven games. Overall, the Fire remain unbeaten in seven. With 28 points from 15 matches, the Fire are close on the heels of leaders Toronto FC (29 points from 15 matches) as the season nears the halfway point. This Fire team is doing a lot of things very well and their position in the table is not a mirage.

The Fire players who were on the field on March 18 when the Fire visited Atlanta and came away on the wrong end of a 4:0 bashing undoubtedly had June 10 circled on their calendars. That first match versus Atlanta was the last one that the Fire would play without Bastian Schweinsteiger. Needless to say, the Fire have never looked back since the German’s arrival, and are plowing their way past every opponent whose name comes up on the schedule.

The return of Juninho to the starting lineup paired him with Schweinsteiger in central midfield, and shifted Matt Polster to right back. Drew Conner started out with the substitutes, but made his impact felt in the second half. Other than that, coach Veljko Paunovic maintained the same group that have played so well together.

Atlanta coach Tata Martino had his own lineup problems. Midfielder Miguel Almiron had just returned from international duty with Paraguay, striker Kenwyne Jones was away with Trinidad & Tobago, and striker Josef Martinez was only just coming back from a hamstring injury that had sidelined him for several weeks. Almiron and Martinez, who had terrorized the Fire in the first meeting back in March, came on as second-half substitutes, but failed to provide the spark that Martino was seeking.

Atlanta turned quite a few heads in the first few weeks of the season. They are a team with a lot of young talent and they played an aggressive, pressing style that made some people think that a playoff spot was a foregone conclusion. Fast forward to reality and eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Although Atlanta have played 9 of their 14 matches away, their quality in road games is a stark contrast to their form at home, which has been impressive. They have just nine points in those away matches, and outside of the nine goals they scored at Minnesota and Salt Lake, they have managed just six goals in the other seven games.

The high pressure that Atlanta unleashed on the Fire in the first meeting was unrelenting, so the visitors weren’t afraid to apply pressure on the Fire in Chicago’s back third on Saturday. The pressure may have contributed to the Fire’s uncharacteristically low completion rate of 69%; they have consistently been near 80% and above since Schweinsteiger arrived. But all of the pressure never amounted into key turnovers that might have became serious scoring chances.The Fire found a way through with well-placed long balls that transformed them into a formidable counterattacking team.

Both teams had great opportunities in the first quarter hour, but neither found the back of the net. A booming clearance from midfield sent Hector Villalba scooting behind the Fire defense in the 12th minute. With only Matt Lampson to beat, Villalba sent a shot through the onrushing Lampson’s legs, only to see it trickle wide of the post.

Just two minutes later, Brandon Vincent looped a terrific ball in to Nemanja Nikolic on the right side of the box. Nikolic turned immediately, but his shot ticked off of the left post.

Accam and Nikolic were at the end of a quick counter in the 23rd minute. Accam chased down a bouncing ball and was looking for Nikolic in the middle of the area when shooting might have been the better option.

It was another long ball that led to the Fire’s opener in the 30th minute. Accam swept past goalkeeper Alec Kann on the left side of the area and found himself near the byline. Nikolic was planted on the right side of the six-yard box as Accam faced three Atlanta defenders in his path. After several fakes and some hesitation, he laid the ball back for Luis Solignac, who finished things off with a first-time blast. There was a feeling of relief as much as there was joy; Accam had taken so long to make up his mind that the opportunity might have been lost.

The missed chances gave Atlanta some hope that an equalizer was in the cards. Martino sent in Almiron and Martinez just after the hour mark, and Paunovic countered with Drew Conner and Jonathan Campbell to transition into a five-man backline.

The Fire were hardly circling the wagons, however. Just a few minutes later, a riveting combination play between Michael de Leeuw and Nikolic sprang Polster on a breakaway from the right flank. As Polster bore down on Kann, he chose a difficult shot with the outside of his right foot, instead of centering for Nikolic or Accam, both of whom were in a better position to score.

The ensuing corner kick by Accam found Joao Meira in the mixer and his glancing header was handled by the luckless Tyrone Mears, whose extended arm was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nikolic did the honors from the penalty spot, all but extinguishing Atlanta’s hopes.

Atlanta continued to push forward, but were out of ideas as to how to break down the Fire defense. Once again, the Fire demonstrated that they are learning the lessons of how to put away a beaten opponent.

When key midfielder Dax McCarty returns from international duty, he will find that his teammates picked up four points in the two matches he missed. The Fire are obviously better with McCarty than without him, but other players did their jobs in the team’s version of “next man up.” Sure, the Fire were different, but no less effective in their quest to sit at the Big Boy Table of MLS.

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