Two Thoughts On Fire v Crew

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(Photo courtesy of chicago-fire.com)

The Fire fought back from an early deficit, took the lead, but ultimately failed to hang on, and they shared the points with Columbus on Thursday at Toyota Park. Here are two quick thoughts about the match.

Pauno ain’t playing the kids
Speculation has been raised in the media on whether Veljko Paunovic would provide playing opportunities to his younger, less experienced players once the Fire were officially eliminated from the playoffs. The Fire’s lineups in recent matches have shown no indication of a youth movement. Paunovic wants to win games, regardless of the circumstances, and he’s putting his first-choice players out there. Whether his approach is the best one is ripe source for debate.

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Basement Door About to Close on Fire

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(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

The Fire ended their three-game swing away from Toyota Park on Saturday in desultory fashion, a 3:0 defeat to the Columbus Crew in a match that felt as though the deficit was much bigger. Last place in the Eastern Conference is almost assured, as the Fire trail both Columbus and Orlando by eight points with three games left on the schedule.

The Fire keep looking for improvements, but the cupboard is looking pretty barren these days. The Fire looked impotent in two of the three matches and were outpossessed 71%-29% in the first half of the Seattle match. The Fire dumped their coaching staff and most of their roster after their awful showing in 2015. What remedies can they possibly create at this point?

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Fire No Strangers to Cellar

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(Photo courtesy soundersfc.com)

 

Right around the time the Chicago Fire had racked up 3:0 victories over Montreal and Philadelphia, coach Veljko Paunovic declared that his team had turned a corner, and that observers would be surprised by the Fire’s performances going forward. With just one point in their last four matches, there is nothing surprising nor promising about the Fire. Wednesday’s 1:0 loss at Seattle merely confirmed how far this team still has to go before they can be consistently competitive. Once something breaks down, very little seems to go right.

Paunovic put out what is likely his strongest 11 versus Seattle. Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell returned to the starting lineup, allowing Johan Kappelhof to slide over to right back, a position from which he can make a maximum contribution. An improvement on the defensive side was essential for the Fire, who looked ragged, disheveled and disorganized against New York. Restoring a stable back four was a key element towards improvement. Seattle dominated possession and did create a handful of nervous moments for the Fire, but the back four held together reasonably well. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson was a key performer in this effort. He generally controlled his box with authority and registered several important saves.

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NYC Leave Fire Defense In Tatters

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(Photo courtesy nycfc.com)

It took only a New York minute for NYCFC to take total control over the Chicago Fire in Friday’s match at Yankee Stadium. In those brief seconds, a scoreless match became 2:0 for NYC, and the two punches to the gut left the Fire on the canvas. They spent the remainder of the match searching for answers and wound up finding few, leaving New York 4:1 losers. For anyone who watched this match with eyes open, it was evident that the final score very much flattered the Fire.

Sure, the Fire had a spell of positive soccer in the latter part of the first half, and yes, Luis Solignac’s balletic header to bring the Fire to within 2:1 might have given the most dreamy-eyed optimists a sliver of hope. But NYC had been plowing through the Fire defense right from the jump, and only some poor shooting and several important Sean Johnson interventions prevented the score from reaching epically embarrassing proportions.

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This Song Is Too Familiar

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(Photo courtesy Mike Di Novo USA Today Sports)

The Chicago Fire thought that they had done enough to earn victory over DC United on Friday after having built a solid 2:1 lead in the first half. They were not successful in finding that crucial third goal to provide some cushion, and DC scratched out an equalizer in the third minute of second-half stoppage time. The Fire ended their three-game stretch of home matches with a disappointing total of four points, as they continue to languish in the depths of the Eastern Conference table.

The Fire proved once again how sensitive their fortunes are when they give away goals cheaply. DC’s first goal was just such a scenario and it forced the Fire to make an uphill climb that seems to be part of the script every week. As it often happens, the ending of the story is not a happy one.

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3 Things About the Fire’s Loss to TFC

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(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

The Chicago Fire went down 2:1 to Toronto FC last Saturday in disappointing fashion. Here are three thoughts about how the game went and what could have gone differently for the Fire.
The Fire continue to battle

Yes, the Fire are still mired in the depths of the Eastern Conference standings. Yes, the people in the Fire locker room are probably the only ones who don’t think that playoff talk is silly. But this team continues to bring the fight every week.The only thing that is a realistic motivator for the players at this point is that they are auditioning for jobs on the 2017 roster. The players seem to be buying into coach Veljko Paunovic’s undying optimism concerning the team’s fortunes.

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Fire Get Back on Winning Track

2016-09-03 CHI v PHI

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

If any psychological demons remained in the Chicago Fire’s locker room following their 6:2 debacle at RFK Stadium last week, they were exorcised on Saturday when the Fire swept the Philadelphia Union out of town by a resounding 3:0 scoreline. The Fire played some attractive soccer at times, and were competent on both sides of the ball. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson came up big in crucial moments. The mix of these successful ingredients resulted in three points and the Fire nudged their way past Columbus to escape the Eastern Conference cellar.

Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez described the result versus DC United as an anomaly during a media conference call last week. After that feeble effort, it was hard to tell whether the match truly was an exception, or whether the Fire’s recent string of improving performances was nothing more than a mirage.

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DC Give Fire a Good Thrashing

2016-08-27 DCU v CHI

(Photo courtesy Tony Quinn)

The Fire ended their heavy schedule of three matches in a week with an absolutely dreadful display against DC United. Striker Patrick Mullins registered a hat trick en route to a 6:2 whitewash. The teams combined for five goals in a wild first half. Things went downhill for Chicago after the break. Tired legs, a lack of motivation, and playing down a man all contributed to the debacle. The last time the Fire conceded six goals in a match was 2003.

Coach Veljko Pauno Paunovic tried his best to maintain a stable 11 and continue the successes gained in the last two matches. He made just two changes from the the lineup he used versus the Galaxy; Razvan Cocis gave David Accam a break and John Goosens was in his familiar midfield role, in place of Arturo Alvarez.

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Fire Fail to Seal the Deal, Split the Points

2016-08-24 chi v la

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

The midweek round in the MLS schedule is the round that every team hates. The Chicago Fire and Los Angeles Galaxy took their turn on Wednesday at Toyota Park and provided an entertaining roller coaster of a match. Both teams played away last Saturday, and it became clear early on that both teams were going to be able to exploit the holes in the opposing defenses. The match ended at 2:2 after quite a bit of see-saw in the 90 minutes. While it was a fair outcome, both teams had evidence that their side should have claimed all three points.

The squad rotation that is inevitable for midweek rounds went far deeper for LA than it did for the Fire. LA coach Bruce Arena left Giovani dos Santos, Nigel de Jong  and Ashley Cole on the bench and didn’t even bother to have Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane suit up. On the other side of the field, Fire boss Veljko Paunovic pretty much stuck with the lineup that won 3:0 at Montreal. Khaly Thiam stepped in for the injured Razvan Cocis at holding midfielder, and Arturo Alvarez replaced John Goosens on the right side.

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Streak Over, Fire Can Look Forward

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(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

As referee David Gantar blew his whistle for full time at Stade Saputo on Saturday, the joy on display on the faces of Chicago Fire players was palpable. A road winless streak dating back over two years finally came to an end, and in stunning fashion, with a convincing 3:0 win over the Montreal Impact. The Fire were the better team and they played like the better team right from the jump.

To be sure, one result does not define a team and their quality. The Fire’s meager point total of 22 from 23 matches is full testament to where they stand. On the other hand, they looked like a real soccer team on Saturday, as opposed to 11 disjointed individuals who appear to have little in common. This kind of soccer has come in rare and miniscule doses since the (gasp!) Frank Yallop era. It’s now coach Veljko Paunovic’s responsibility to make games like this one the norm.

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Another Draw, Fire Still at Bottom

2016-08-14 CHI v ORL

(Photo courtesy orlandocitysc.com)

After getting bounced from the US Open Cup last Tuesday, what is at stake for the Chicago Fire in the final 13 matches of the MLS regular season? With only 18 points from 21 matches, the climb to get up to the Red Line would have to start immediately. The Fire got nowhere as far as that goal was concerned following a 2:2 draw versus Orlando City at Toyota Park on Sunday. The Fire grabbed the early lead through John Goosens, and then Orlando reversed things to go 2:1 up. The Fire rescued their point late in the second half, thanks to Razvan Cocis. Earning one point at a time is no way to move up in the standings.

Coach Veljko Paunovic reverted to the 3-5-2 formation that had worked well early in the season. He presumably was adjusting his game plan to provide a counter to Orlando superstar Kaka. The plan mostly failed for the 70 minutes or so where Kaka was actively involved in the Orlando attack. Matt Polster got the assignment initially and Kaka handily put him through the wringer in several 1 v 1 situations along the left flank. Johan Kappelhof’ was the next one to take a turn to slow down the Brazilian midfielder. Although Kappelhof might have had a bit more success than Polster, Kaka was still crucially involved in both Orlando scores, notching a goal and an assist.

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Fire Finished in Cup; Now What?

2016-08-09 NE v CHI

(Photo courtesy of Winslow Townson, USA Today Sports)

The Chicago Fire made their record 12th appearance in the US Open Cup semifinals on Tuesday and it was a match they would probably like to forget. The opponents were the New England Revolution, who came after the Fire right at the jump. They quickly gained control of the match and the Fire spent the evening playing catch-up. The Revs were up 2:1 at the break and did a fine job of killing the game off in the second half. A late tally put the wraps on yet another road defeat for the Fire.

A lot has been written in this space about squad management as Cup matches pop up on the schedule. Every team deal with it in their own way, and how well they deal with it is entirely dependent on the quality that exists within their player pool. Coach Veljko Paunovic did some shuffling last Saturday versus Real Salt Lake with an eye on getting the starting 11 just right for the semifinal. With Michael Harrington in that lineup, and with Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent on the bench, did Paunovic get his starting 11 correct?. Paunovic also stuck with his decision to retain Matt Lampson in goal, despite some recent shaky performances in league matches. Lampson had done the job in the Fire’s three victories in the Cup, although two of the wins came against NASL teams. The third win was over Columbus, barely sitting higher than Chicago in the MLS standings. Lampson was not seriously tested in any of those matches; the semifinal would be another story. The Fire’s lineup was as strong as it could be in the other positions; could they pass the test and reach the final?

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Fire Have Their Minds Elsewhere

2016-08-06 RSL v CHI

(Photo couiresy chicago-fire.com)

If the Chicago Fire were focused on snapping their hideous 37-game road winless streak on Saturday, they picked a bad day to do it. Hosts Real Salt Lake were unbeaten at home this season and the Fire have a much bigger game facing them this Tuesday in the semifinals of the US Open Cup. A weakened and unfocused starting 11 played weakly and meekly in the first half and RSL gleefully took advantage, going up 2:0 in the first half. The Fie had renewed energy for the first 20 minutes of the second half and got to within 2:1, but the hole from the first half had been dug too deeply and RSL walked out 3:1 winners.

The question of how to rotate players when multiple competitions are in play is always difficult, and especially in MLS, where roster depth is not easy to achieve. Coach Veljko Paunovic trusted Eric Gehrig and Michael Harrington to give breathers to Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos, and goalkeeper Matt Lampson, presumably getting a run on Saturday in preparation for the Cup match, did little to instill confidence that he can back up defensive mistakes.

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Fire Fail to Seal the Deal

2016-07-31 CHI v NYRB

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

The Chicago Fire appeared to have done enough to beat the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, clinging to a 2:1 lead late in the contest. The dreaded kick to the gut came in the final minute of normal time, as Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal salvaged a 2:2 draw for New York. The result extends the Fire’s home unbeaten streak to nine in all competitions, but the outcome sure felt a lot like a loss. The Fire remain in last place in the Eastern Conference, and a barren playoff landscape is looking more and more like reality.

It was the Fire’s first match since the stunning trade of Kennedy Igboananike to DC United on Friday. The Fire received an undisclosed amount of Targeted Allocation Money and a third-round draft pick in 2019. Given his poor level of productivity, it was not all that stunning that the Fire chose to part ways with Igboananike. But the fine print of the deal was a head-scratcher. Igboananike’s salary would still count against the Fire’s salary budget for 2016 and the Fire would not be able to use his Designated Player slot on a replacement. Given the way this team has struggled, they can use all the help that they can get. One can only wonder what General Manager Nelson Rodriguez has up his sleeve in order to turn this situation into a positive for the team.

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Squad Rotation Kills Fire’s Chances in Dallas

2016-07-16 FCD v CHI image

Photo courtesy Stewart F. House, dallasnews.com)

One look at coach Veljko Paunovic’s lineup sheet for Saturday’s match in Dallas made it clear that the Chicago Fire are putting all of their available resources into Wednesday’s US Open Cup match versus the Ft Lauderdale Strikers. Sean Johnson, Jonathan Campbell and David Accam were left at home, and Brandon Vincent, Khaly Thiam and Razvan Cocis started the game on the bench. The patchwork 11 that started the match was designed to hold things together and count on Lady Luck to nick a goal somewhere. Given the quality of the opponent, it wasn’t that good of a plan on paper and it worked out even worse on the field, as FC Dallas handed the Fire a 3:1 pasting to send the Fire back into the Eastern Conference cellar.

The difference between good teams and bad ones quite often can be found in the quality of their second-line players. Dallas brought in Victor Ulloa, Mauro Rosales and Tesho Akindele as substitutes on Saturday. It would be easy to argue that all three would be starters if they played for Chicago. Fire fans were treated to a starting lineup that contained Matt Lampson, Michael Harrington, Nick LaBrocca, and Michael Stephens. How many of those players would even see the field if they played for Dallas?

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Fire Squeeze Past SKC

2016-07-13 CHI v SKC

(Photo courtesy csnchicago.com)

When you’re at rock bottom, the climb to the top can seem unreachable. On Wednesday, the Chicago Fire took the first steps on that climb, on the heels of a 1:0 home victory over Sporting Kansas City. Newcomer Michael de Leeuw had a productive home debut, banging home the game-winner, and goalkeeper Sean Johnson went above and beyond the call of duty with two fantastic saves to preserve the win. The Fire have a long way to go before they reach the top, but the 17 points that they have earned from as many matches inches them above the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference table and out of last place. Is it ridiculous to talk about the Red Line? The Fire trail sixth-place New England by five points and have played two fewer games.

The Fire won’t win any plaudits for playing creative, flowing football off of this performance. They did, however, show signs that they might one day become a good team, once all of the playing pieces are aligned optimally. Faced with a schedule of Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday for two weeks, coach Veljko Paunovic had to do some serious squad rotation versus SKC. When he can get his best attackers on the field to start a match, we might get a clearer idea of his team’s true capabilities.

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Fire Cannot Match Giovinco’s Class

2016-07-09 TFC v CHI

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

 

When forming a roster in MLS, there are basically two ways to do it. Go big, and lavish significant money on “name” players, or, become proficient at identifying talent that will excel in MLS, but not break the bank to do it. Teams like Portland and Real Salt Salt have succeeded using the latter approach. Teams like Toronto FC, the Fire’s opponent last Saturday, have gone big. Toronto is still seeking their first trophy, but the quality of their star player, Sebastian Giovinco, is unmistakeable. Although he didn’t score on Saturday, his influence on the match was in evidence for the full 90 minutes, leading TFC to a 1:0 victory. The Fire have now gone a full two years since last winning a road match.

Giovinco is the league’s reigning MVP and he showed why, setting up the goal to put TFC ahead for good. He was inches away from swerving a free kick past the Fire defense in the second half and generally caused loads of trouble for the Fire midfield. Giovinco was the best player on the field and a difference-maker in the outcome. The Fire expended a lot of energy trying to contain him and were also unable to offer much on the attacking end as a counterbalance. To put it into perspective, Giovinco earns about $7 million per season. That amount is two to three times bigger than the COMBINED salaries of the Fire’s starting attackers. You really do get what you pay for.

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Accam’s Double Leads Fire to Open Cup QFs

2016-06-28 CHI v CLB

(Photo courtesy Chicago Fire)

The Chicago Fire jumped out to a 2:0 lead on the Columbus Crew on Tuesday in their US Open Cup encounter, and it was enough to propel the Fire to the tournament’s quarterfinal stage. David Accam paced the Fire with a pair of goals and the Fire bunkered for the last half hour to hang on to a 2:1 victory. They will face the winner of Orlando City v Ft Lauderdale Strikers on July 20.

Tactically, the Fire played two completely different games against Columbus. They started out with what, on paper, was an empty-bucket 4-4-2. In reality, the midfield quartet of Razvan Cocis, Michael Stephens, Nick LaBrocca and John Goosens aligned themselves to plug the middle of the field, while Brandon Vincent and Rodrigo Ramos provided the width from their fullback positions. Goosens was the most active as an attacker among the midfielders. Cocis played deep to provide cover, while Stephens and LaBrocca were the harriers doing the running up and down the field.

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Fire Look Defenseless in Philly

Fire image 2016-06-22

(Photo courtesy csnphilly.com)

Following their 4:3 defeat to New York City FC in the 2016 home opener, the Fire looked completely clueless on defense. Add in a dose of bad luck, and you had a recipe for a horror show. Coach Veljko Paunovic promised improvements and they came almost immediately, with the Fire conceding just 12 goals in their next 12 matches. On Wednesday, all of that solid defensive work became undone, as the Philadelphia Union turned an early 1:0 deficit into a commanding 4:1 lead in the second half. The Fire showed some fight to pull to within 4:3, but the defensive errors were simply too numerous to overcome. The Fire extended their league record for consecutive road games without a win to 32 and have accumulated just 11 points from 14 matches.

It was a game for pulling your hair out as the mistakes piled up. The Fire spent much of the first half backed up in their own penalty area and allowed the Union free reign in the final third of the field. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson must have been asking himself whether this was shooting practice or the actual game. As the Fire huddled themselves like frightened goldfish, the Union cranked out shots from all over the place.
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Road Futility Continues for Fire

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(Photo courtesy David Zalubowski – AP)

After the Chicago’s Fire’s woeful performance versus the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Good Park on Saturday, it was quite clear that July 9 cannot arrive fast enough. That is the first match for which new signing Michael de Leeuw will be eligible, and his goalscoring prowess is sorely needed to spark what has been primarily a moribund attack for the last-place Fire. The Rapids squeezed past Chicago 2:1 in a match that was not in any way memorable by what either side contributed to it.

Once again, the MLS schedule makers continue to baffle us. The Fire came back after the Copa America break to play a US Open Cup match last Wednesday, traveled to Denver for a match on Saturday, and will go to Philadelphia on Wednesday. And where will the Fire be this coming weekend? In the comfort of their homes, presumably, as MLS have given the Fire yet another bye week.

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Fire Outduel Timbers, Settle for Point

CHI v POR 05-28-2016

(Photo courtesy Chicago Fire Soccer Club)

The Chicago Fire reached the one-third point of the 2016 season on Saturday and probably played their best soccer so far in a taut 1:1 draw with the Portland Timbers at Toyota Park. The goals were separated by just a couple of minutes of action in the first half, but the Fire seemed to be the more hungry of the two sides to grab all three points. They are still missing consistency in the finishing third, but they are at least creating chances to finish, a quality that was frequently missing in these first 12 matches.

The Fire played a balanced game at both ends of the field and really were a good bet to bring home a victory. Portland’s lone tally was the result of a poor defensive error, and the Fire had several good scoring situations of their own. They were either rebuffed by some glittering goalkeeping from Jake Gleeson, or were let down by strange decisions on passing and shooting in front of goal.

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Fire Come Alive, Winless Streak Ends

Chicago Fire vs Houston Dynamo's

(Photo courtesy Sean King for Chicago Fire Confidential)

In a significant turnabout, the Chicago Fire won their second match of the season at Toyota Park on Saturday, riding an early goal by Arturo Alvarez on the way to a tidy 1:0 win. Only one Fire shot found the back of the net, but the team looked more lively and creative than they have in previous matches. They still have quite a bit of work to do to reach respectability, yet can retain some level of optimism in an Eastern Conference that lacks a dominant team at the moment.

The soccer on display on Saturday finally showed some intelligence against a moribund Houston side that barely looked interested for long stretches. The Dynamo have been running hot and cold in the early season, and Saturday was far from their best effort. Some of the misery of the visitors might have been self-inflicted; who elects to wear black uniforms on a hot afternoon?

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Fire Scoring Drought Reaches Critical Stage

 

NYRB v CHI 2016-05-18 image

(Photo courtesy http://www.sny.tv)

The Fire extended their winless streak to six matches on Wednesday when they dropped a narrow 1:0 decision to the New York Red Bulls in Harrison, NJ. The Fire relied on strong defending and a counterattacking mindset. They were very good on the defensive side, but mostly toothless on the attacking side. The defeat drops the Fire to 1-4-5 on the season and raises serious questions about whether a turnaround in their fortunes can be engineered in short order. If this dismal quality of play cannot be reversed quickly, the Fire may have to forget about any hope of reaching the playoffs by the time July rolls around.

The possession style of play that was promised in the pre-season was nowhere to be found on Wednesday, as the Fire gameplan was to counter, counter, and then counter some more. The most that they got out of that tactic was the creation of some half chances and David Accam drawing some fouls. A counterattacking style can prove effective if the target players up front can consistently get shots on goal. We saw an abundance of shots on goal versus New York City FC in the opener, but have seen very few since.

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Road Woes Continue for Feeble Fire

The Chicago Fire suffered the effects of having to play two away matches within three days when they fell 2:0 to the New England Revolution on Saturday. The pitiful Fire attack managed zero shots on target over the 90 minutes and certainly looked the part of the last-place team in MLS’s Eastern Conference.

The logic used by the people in charge of setting up schedules at MLS headquarters is baffling. The Fire had bye weeks two of the last three weekends and are now in the middle of a stretch of four matches in 11 days, three of which are played on the road. Given that MLS teams normally take commercial flights when traveling, the toll that extended road trips exert is not insignificant. (MLS teams are allowed to schedule, at their discretion, up to four charter flights per season.) History has shown that teams perform poorly in the second game of a Wednesday-Saturday schedule when they have to cross three time zones to play the second game.

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