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Tactics Time: How To Put Out The Fire

Can Torrent make it two wins in a row on his first MLS road trip?

MLS: New York City FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Domenec Torrent era got off to a flying start when New York City FC took down Toronto FC 2-1 at Yankee Stadium this past Sunday.

However, I’d imagine few could predict the manner in which those points were won.

With several key defenders absent from the XI against Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa limping off in the 28th minute with an injury, and a 0-1 halftime deficit, NYCFC looked dead on arrival. Luckily, and improbably, Jo Inge Berget — whom NYCFC fans online still haven’t exactly warmed up to — rescued them in the second half with his first MLS brace.

Torrent’s first road trip lands him at Toyota Park to face one of the mots puzzling and enigmatic sides in MLS, the Chicago Fire. On paper, Chicago is a frightening group. With DP stars like Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic and Bayern Munich legend Bastian Schweinsteiger, NYCFC nemesis Dax McCarty, and golazo machine Aleksander Katai, they have everything they need to pepper keepers on any given night. Add in former Serbian U-20 coach Veljko Paunovic on the touchline, and Chicago has a playoff caliber roster.

Strangely (and ironically, perhaps), the Fire can go cold for long stretches. With draws in their last three matches, including two against cellar-dwellers Colorado and Seattle, Chicago isn’t exactly flying high coming into this clash.

  1. Line Up Like This

3-4-3: Johnson; Callens, Ring, Ibeagha; Sweat, Ofori, Moralez, Tinnerholm; Tajouri-Shradi, Medina, Berget

Bench: Stuver, Chanot, Abdul-Salaam, McNamara, Awuah, Lewis, Wallace

While Patrick Vieira experimented with a 3-man backline that just flat out was not working with this squad, Torrent’s more European approach actually seemed more suited for NYCFC’s strengths. With Ben Sweat and Anton Tinnerholm now playing a psuedo-wingback role and Alex Ring as a sweeper/ball-playing centerback in a system not dissimilar to Chelsea’s when they won the Premier League two years ago, the Boys in Blue looked as composed and organized as ever.

In a move I’m sure everyone saw coming, Sebastian Ibeagha starts over Maxime Chanot, having leapfrogged him in the center back pecking order. NYCFC’s two man central midfield consists of the defensive minded Ebenezer Ofori — who has come into his own after a slow start — and attacking mid Maxi Moralez.

Though it appears that young DP Jesus Medina has fallen behind Jo Inge Berget on the forward depth chart, he starts in this one after David Villa’s injury. This could be a make-or-break game for the Paraguayan, as Rodney Wallace’s return (on the bench, granted) signals yet another attacker for him to compete with. The now un-droppable Ismael Tajouri-Shradi starts opposite Berget on the left flank.

2. Chicago are an adaptive side that changes formation and tactics often. Expect multiple looks and a fluid formation

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Columbus Crew SC vs Chicago Fire Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

One of the dizzying array of contributing factors to Chicago’s less than stellar start was an inability to settle on a consistent formation and style of play. Paunovic experimented with a 5-man backline, 3-man backline with Schweinsteiger as a sweeper, traditional 4-2-3-1 with 24-goal scorer Nikolic at attacking midfield, and a host of others.

Lately, he has settled on a traditional 4-3-3 with Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarthy in midfield, Katai at left wing, and Nikolic at striker. At least, at kickoff. Paunovic will move players around and change his gameplan almost on a whim, keeping the other side completely off balance.

What makes Chicago tough to game plan for is how frequently they change their style. NYCFC better be equally prepared for an all-out blitz from the wings or possession-dominating, play out of the back mentality. The Fire have the skill to pull off both styles.

3. Chicago like to utilize width and pace. Avoid becoming to compact on the defensive end.

MLS: Preseason Friendly-Tulsa Roughnecks at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

One of the few constants in Paunovic’s plans is to lead his attack from the wings. After losing David Accam to Philadelphia in the offseason, the better part of the first half of the season was spent trying to find a replacement. Aleksander Katai — a versatile forward on loan from Spanish side Alaves — has more than answered the call.

In both the defending and middle thirds of the field, Chicago actually plays very compact offensively, with McCarty seeing a lot of the ball. Once they cross midfield, the push it out to the wings and utilize their pace.

This game will be a good test for NYCFC’s three man backline. Callens and Ibeagha will have large chunks of ground to cover on both flanks. Katai and Argentinian forward Luis Solignac are clever forwards with eyes for the goal that have scored on center backs better than NYCFC’s duo. The threat of Nikolic sometimes makes stopping the wings an afterthought, but it’s actually critical to disrupting Chicago’s game plan.

4. Schweinsteiger and McCarthy are great midfielders, but not fast at all. Exploit this advantage early and often.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Bastian Schweinsteiger is as complete a midfielder as we’ve seen in this generation. In his prime, he was a world class defender, distributor and leader. Dax McCarty is a quality midfielder that conducted a many of beatings on NYCFC squads of yesteryear during his time with the Red Bulls. But both Schweinsteiger and McCarty are glacially slow players.

NYCFC have the advantage in pace, with Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Jesus Medina both possessing a good amount of juice in their boots. If NYCFC can isolate those two in one-on-one matchups, their athletic advantage should be enough to carry them.

With center back Johan Kappelhoff — with whom Chicago concedes 0.3 less goals per game than without — on a yellow card suspension, the two midfielders will have extra defensive responsibility on them. They can match the physicality of Berget and creativity of Villa, but might not have as many answers for the speed of ITS and Medina.