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Know Your Enemy: Chicago Fire - Meeting the First

Dominic Oduro is one to watch out for.
Dominic Oduro is one to watch out for.

The streak has continued.

An exceptional feat of perseverance in the face of continued failure - both in the stands and on the pitch. Toronto FC's perfect record is at risk when the Chicago Fire visits on Saturday afternoon.

Do not be fooled by the negativity that surrounds; Toronto has been in every match this season. Were it not for poor finishing, a touch of bad luck, momentary lapses of concentration, and clinical precision from their opposition, this team would not be pointless.

Chicago - the hottest team at the close of last season - too have been slow coming out of the gates. Two bye-weeks have limited them to four matches played and that places them towards the lower half of the Eastern Conference table.

Both sides will see the potential to grab points in this match, which will hopefully mean the crowd is in for some entertainment.

Many of the meetings between these two clubs have been entertaining, more often in those at Toronto. Who can forget the inaugural opening day in year one, a five-goal cracker at the end of season two, 2010's 4-1 TFC win featuring that wind-assisted curler from Nick LaBrocca, and last season's 2-2 draw that introduced the dancing feet of Joao Plata and Maicon Santos to the home faithful.

The Lineup

Frank Klopas has lined up his team consistently in a diamond 4-4-2 formation. Given their relatively light schedule of late there is no reason to predict there will be any radical changes.

The projected lineup features Sean Johnson in goal; from right to left - Dan Gargan, Arne Friedrich, Jalil Anibaba, and Gonzalo Segares along the back-line; Pavel Pardo sitting at the base of the midfield with Sebastian Grazzini at the top, Logan Pause and Marco Pappa on the flanks, normally right and left, respectively; with Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko up top.

football formations

With Johnson away on international duty for the U-23 US Olympic Qualifying campaign at the end of March, Italian and former Internazionale youth keeper Paolo Tornaghi filled in admirably. With two promising keepers on the books and Jay Nolly in reserve, the Fire will most likely be platooning their backstops, riding the hot hand, especially once the summer grind comes around.

Having lost Corey Gibbs to a meniscus tear recently, former German international Friedrich has stepped in, after gaining fitness in the reserves and making his league debut last week against Houston. Slotting Friedrich in has moved Anibaba to the left centre-back spot, previously occupied by Gibbs.

At full-back, Gargan's return to fitness has seen him lock down that position - which Pause performed well during his absence; while Segares has been substituted for first year back Hunter Jumper on one occasion - their first match against Montreal - most likely just due to fatigue as he was building fitness.

Pardo has started every match this season, as has Grazzini, though the likes of Daniel Paladini, Corben Bone, and even Rafael Robayo can be used centrally, while Federico Puppo tends to be brought on late to inject some fresh legs for Pappa in the second half.

Orr Barouch is yet to really feature much for the first team this season, but often came on as a substitute last season; he scored the tying goal in the 2-2 draw between the clubs at BMO in 2011.

The reacquisition of Chris Rolfe this past week from Danish club Aalborg BK gives the Fire another attacking option. Rolfe who reportedly featured up top and on the right for the Danes will be available, but whether he is inserted directly into the starting eleven or held in reserve is unknown.

On the right of midfield he could prove more attacking impetus than Pause currently does, but would be removing the club's captain and Pardo's support at the base of midfield from the lineup.

The Tactics

Normally a 4-4-2 two would be a very balanced formation, but Chicago's version heavily favours attacking down the left flank. From full-back to forward that side has much more attacking talent in Segares, Pappa, and Nyarko than their more defensive counterparts on the right.

It could almost be termed a lop-sided formation, in the sense that Nyarko, the more playmaking of their forwards has a tendency to operate almost from the left touchline where he can combine well with the tricky Pappa and hard-working Segares in an effort to send a ball in behind the defense for the speedy Oduro to run at from his theoretical position on the right - usually he is found quite centrally in practice.

Oduro's speed, when combined with the service from Nyarko and Grazzini - an excellent selector of through-balls - seeks to take advantage of the slow-footed defenders they come up against.

Whether a through-ball or one over the top, those quick breaks featuring Oduro crossing over on the pitch have the desired effect of dragging defenses out of position and confusing the marking scheme. Whose responsibility is the right-sided forward when he moves out to the left?

When in alone Oduro will break in and seek to either place a low shot across the keeper into the far-netting or curl one to the back-post. Should he encounter resistance, reinforcements arriving from the left - Nyarko, Pappa, Segares - or the centre - Grazzini and Pause - provide amply choice for a pull-back or a more conservative pass to maintain possession in the attacking third.

Pappa too is a threat to advance the ball forward with surging runs down the flank, to cut in a place a shot on goal. He will occasionally switch flanks with Pause, which allows him the option of cutting in onto his left-foot for an effort on goal. Nyako will also pop up on the opposite flank, usually as a means of throwing something different at the defense from time to time.

In Grazzini and Pardo the spine of the midfield has two of the better passers in the league and despite the apparent dependency of Oduro and Nyarko; it would be wise to be aware of their threat.

Those two, along with Pappa provide dangerous set-piece delivery, while Grazzini is the most likely to have a strike in the run of play from distance.

The Form

In four matches this season the Fire have a win, a loss, and a pair of draws.

At home against Philadelphia and Houston they took the match to their opponents, earning their 1-0 win and 1-1 draw in respective matches, but on the road, particularly against Montreal - 1-1 draw - but also in Colorado - 2-0 loss - they sat back and sought to use their speed to counter.

Whether this was a deliberate tactic or a consequence of the occasion - the home opener at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal was a daunting place, while the thinned air of the Rocky Mountains often sees clubs sit back - is difficult to say with such a small sample size.

Two of their three goals on the season have come from open play, both from Oduro. The first was in Montreal, Grazzini from the top of the box lofted a pass over the defenders for Oduro to slide onto and touch past Donovan Ricketts in goal. The second - against Philadelphia - the result of some fine work by Pappa on the right-touchline, eluding two defenders and curling a delivery to the high slot at the near-post for a wicked downward header beyond the reach of Zac MacMath to the bottom corner of the net.

Their third goal came this past weekend against Houston. A free kick a few yards outside the box was struck by the right-foot of Pardo towards the bottom right-corner only to hit the ducking Pause in the back, loop up in the air out of grasp of Tally Hall, and dink in off the underside of the bar.

All four of their goals conceded have come from the run of play, two from good attacking play on the right, the other pair from lax defending through the middle.

Against Montreal, Sanna Nyassi was played into space down the right, where he picked out Davy Arnaud arriving in the middle of the box for a strong header across the keeper into the top corner of the goal. In Colorado, a long pass from Martin Rivero into space behind the defense on the right for Brian Mullan allowed setup a cut-back pass for Omar Cummings who held his run in the high slot at the near-post for an easy strike across Tornaghi.

Colorado's second came late in the match when Wells Thompson picked out Kamani Hill in the centre of the pitch for a shot from distance. The original effort was stopped, but palmed back out, where Hill reacted first to collect and place a shot across the keeper at the second time of asking.

Houston's lone goal on the weekend saw Brian Ching collect the ball deep and draw Friedrich towards him, before laying a through-ball between the German and Anibaba for Will Bruin charging between them. Bruin waited for Johnson to commit, before finishing high to the short side.


Chicago's quick break potential and willingness to play on the counter will be a serious threat to Toronto FC's at times weakened defense. Depending on whether Torsten Frings has returned to the starting lineup, but even with his inclusion, the high line could prove very costly against the threat that is Oduro and balls in behind the defenders.

Assuming Cann retains his spot, he will have to be wary of Grazzini's ability to pick through-balls, while whoever takes the defensive midfield positions will have to be wary of his and Pardo's shot from distance, and Pappa cutting in from the wide position.

The Fire defense has had difficulty picking up runs into the box and spotting danger, as witnessed by virtually the fact that all the goals they have conceded were the result of simple mistakes in positioning and recognition.

Bruin's came as Anibaba retreated back instead of reacting to the Dynamo striker's run, Hill's from the non-recognition of his continued movement forward and the threat of the rebound from his initial shot. Cummings was allowed free space at the top of the box with the defenders attentions focused on Mullan at the end-line, while Arnaud got in front of his marker on a quick break to be first to the aerial delivery.

Toronto would do well to be aware of that space afforded to late arrivals. Danny Koevermans in particular, with his ability to find space, should potentially have a field day with the still acquainting pairing of Friedrich and Anibaba. The Dutch-German dual there will be an interesting one to watch.

The use of space opened up on Chicago's left by their forward movement should provide Ryan Johnson or Reggie Lambe, whoever gets the start on the right for Toronto, lots of room within which to operate.

Whether it is Sean Johnson or Tornaghi in goal, Toronto will be facing a young keeper. Young keepers are prone to the occasional loss of concentration that can result in a dangerous rebound or a flubbed block.

Get some shots on target and follow them in, create pressure and be ready for the consequences.

Points of Interest

Beware the Twi connection - being Ghanaian, both Oduro and Nyarko speak the principle native language of their home land and on occasion will use it to communicate on the pitch.

In 2007, following four straight losses to open their inaugural season, Toronto FC picked up their first ever win against the Fire at BMO Field. A 24th minute strike from Danny Dichio - TFC's first as if anyone need be reminded - and goals from Kevin Goldthwaite and Maurice Edu outnumbered Chris Rolfe's lone strike for the Fire 3-1. Pause, Segares, and Rolfe played in that match - and are still/back with the Fire, as did Chad Barrett, while Dasan Robinson and Jon Busch were on the bench; not a single member of TFC's squad is still playing for the club.

Former Red and Cult Hero Dan Gargan, who scored in the meeting between clubs in Chicago last season - which the Fire won 2-0, will be making his return to Toronto, his first since leaving the club in a bizarre trade for Dasan Robinson last July.

Former German International teammates, Arne Friedrich and Torsten Frings will presumably be facing off against each other, expect a warm handshake - Frings does not hug - and perhaps an exchange of jerseys come the match's conclusion.

You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee