Published on April 8th, 2017 | by Jeff Engelhardt0
Adjust & Achieve: Fire show off tactical prowess in 1-0 win over Columbus
The Chicago Fire needed three points Saturday and they got it with a 1-0 victory over a red hot Columbus Crew team that is leading the Eastern Conference.
The rematch from the season opener was much different as Chicago imposed its tempo on the visiting Crew side from the jump and came out with a completely different look. After seeing how team fared without Juninho in the midfield in that season opening contest, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic opted to deploy a 3-4-3 to make up for Juninho’s absence.
The formation worked as the extra bodies in the midfield allowed the team to control possession and stay organized defensively. Dax McCarty especially flourished in the formation, consistently breaking up plays in the midfield, enjoying the freedom to roam (which paid dividends with a key breakup on a Justin Meram rush in the first half from what was essentially the right back position) and making one of the best passes you will see all week.
While the Fire enjoyed possession for much of the first half, it wasn’t until McCarty made his pass from midfield in the 22nd minute that Chicago finally scored. The pass, which was delivered with laser precision from nearly midfield to the box, found Nemanja Nikolic who beat Zack Steffen low to the far post.
The Fire would have more chances in the first half, including one from David Accam who used his patent cut-in move at the top of the box to force a tip save from Steffen, but none would find the back of the net.
Columbus enjoyed the bulk of possession to start the second half, but Paunovic made an effective adjustment, subbing out Jonathan Campbell and bringing on midfielder Drew Conner, allowing the team to fall into a 4-2-3-1 with Bastian Schweinsteiger moving further up field.
After the adjustment, the Fire quickly found more chances in the second half, including two involving Conner. In the 76th minute, Conner made a powerful run up field before getting brought down right outside the Crew box, leading to a Schweinsteiger free kick. The ensuing free kick forced a strong save from Steffen.
Conner later found a loose ball in the box and used some fancy footwork to get off a shot that was well off target. But the Conner substitute was not Paunovic’s only good call of the game.
In the 73rd minute, the sophomore coach called on teenage sensation Daniel Johnson to replace David Accam. The move proved fruitful as Johnson wowed with a sharp move down the end line, juking a defender out of his shoes, and making a play that could have resulted in a penalty kick had the referee decided to call the ensuing take down of Schweinsteiger.
Johnson also had an incredible look on goal in the 81st minute. After a tremendous pass from Nikolic to spring Johnson, the young midfielder tried to chip Steffen, and while he beat him, Nicolai Naess got to the ball just before it crossed the goal line and cleared the chance.
Columbus was not without its share of chances. Surprisingly, Alex Crognale had some good looks in the second half, including just missing a high shot after the Fire failed to clear their own box. Adam Jahn also forced a Jorge Bava save in the dying minutes. But overall, the defense held strong throughout (even Michael Harrington had a couple blocked crosses!)
It was a promising team effort and perhaps Paunovic’s finest game as a head coach. From the decision to switch formations to start the game, to adjusting in the second half and calling on Conner and Johnson, Paunovic pushed all the right buttons Saturday.
If he proves to have that tactical awareness and feel for a game, this team should be in good hands as it grows together on the field. Next Saturday against New England is another game Chicago should take three from. Paunovic has an opportunity to finally establish himself with this club and in this league if he can replicate Saturday’s performance.