Thanks to modern miracles like bye weeks and international breaks, the Chicago Fire have only played two games in four weekends of the 2018 MLS season. Between those games, too, head coach Veljko Paunović made three changes to his starting XI and have, according to Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese, “tried different systems, already.” The main commonality between the Fire’s two 2018 run-outs: They were both one-goal losses.
The nature of those losses may have been different – a rollercoaster, 4-3, loss to Sporting Kansas City before a tight 2-1 defeat in Minnesota – but the underlying point remains. Only 180 minutes into their season, the Chicago Fire have provided few clues as to what they really are. Are they the surprised success of 2017, one that made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, or are they a team that’s lost its identity, as 2018 hints?
Hints may be the key word, there. So early in the season, it’s difficult to separate aberration from trend, something that made Saverese’s job more difficult this week.
“What have to prepare [for] is what we have seen,” he said, in his weekly press conference. “We have to predict a couple of different things, in certain areas, which we have, and try to prepare the guys for anything that we can encounter. We will have looked at every scenario, but the guys have to deal with what we are going to encounter.”
To Savarese, though, “every game is a difficult match,” meaning the Timbers have had to prepare as if they’re facing the best version of the Fire.
“Chicago is still a good team,” he explained. “They have good players. It’s going to be a difficult match … but we are preparing well for this trip.”
Here is your KeyBank Scouting Report – three things to watch for against the Chicago Fire on Saturday (3pm PT, FOX 12 Oregon):
1. Consolidate the approach
“How can we build from there is to make sure we can repeat what we saw in Dallas from the mental and the discipline stand point,” Savarese said on Tuesday, when asked how the team moves forward from last weekend’s result.
Superficially, it sounds like an obvious point. After a good performance, you want to repeat what you did. But if you look at any set of standings across professional sports, you’ll see it’s not that simple. There’s a reason why good teams still have entries in their loss columns. Consistency, especially in the mental part of the game, is hard.
The Timbers took a big step forward last week in their focus, avoiding the same mental breaks that not only undermined the team against the LA Galaxy and the New York Red Red Bulls but had also been present in preseason. Last Saturday’s was the best 90-minute showing under Savarese, but it’s important to remember, the team only got a draw. There is still room to improve, and in the face of even mild progress, teams encounter new challenges.
If this squad is going to improve, it needs to apply that focus in every game, giving the team the a steady baseline for growth.
“Sometimes you play well, sometimes you don’t play well,” Savarese said, “but I think the mentality should be always strong, in every match.”
If the mentality is not there, it’s impossible to expect consistent results.
2. It’s about more than Golden Boots
Chicago's Nemanja Nikolić was the most prolific scorer in MLS last season, his 24 goals not only claiming the league’s Golden Boot but also making him a finalist for MLS’ Newcomer of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. This season, Nikolic seems intent on continuing that trend, having already netted twice in 180 minutes.
For Savarese, though, dwelling on one man’s capabilities is a mistake, as evidenced by his response when asked about Nikolić this week.
“We have the MVP,” he said, alluding to his own 2017 standout. “It’s 11 against 11. It’s not one player we have to focus on. We have to look at the entire team, how they play, and how they can perform; how they can execute, how they can find good areas, what the strengths are and the weaknesses.”
That’s a common refrain among coaches, whenever discussion becomes too tilted toward the individual. When it comes to Nikolić, though, it’s especially true. Among his 24 goals last season, none came outside the 18-yard box. As much as any striker in the league, the Hungarian is reliant on chances being created for him.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he can be ignored. The Portland backline will have to be keenly aware of a player whose along-the-shoulder instincts may prove among the best in MLS. Just because Nikolic is more Ruud Van Nistelrooy than Ronaldo doesn’t mean Van Nistelrooy wasn’t a very, very dangerous talent.
3. Never forget Schweinsteiger
There was an interesting stretch in the second half of Chicago’s March 10 opener, a game where the team had spent 60 of its first 69 minutes trailing visiting Sporting Kansas City. By that point, however, Bastian Schweinsteiger appeared to have had enough, and after an hour or trying to gently coax his team’s improvement, the German legend decided to take over.
Schweinsteiger began dominating play more, pressing the action in Chicago’s attacking third and, in the 70th minute, setting up Aleksandar Katai for the Fire’s first score. Twelve minutes later, the game was 3-2, with the Fire having overturned their two-goal hole.
Sporting would rally late and claim a 4-3 win, but that second-half spell of control from Schweinsteiger was a reminder. He may look different, be a little slower, and isn’t nearly as durable as earlier in his career, but when he’s on the field, he can flip a switch at any time. Both in terms of skill and intelligence, he has the ability to turn a game, and while, at 33, that ability may be waning, it’s not gone yet. It’s still going to be a while before Chicago will have to treat him as New York City, last year, treated Andrea Pirlo.
With Diego Chara back, Portland has the perfect player to manage Schweinsteiger’s contribution, but the Fire’s season opener is worth remembering. The team’s biggest star is still capable of contributing in the most opportune moments.