The Chicago Fire used a very different lineup against the New York Red Bulls. It worked, giving the team a the first win of 2019. Outside of it being the team’s first win and first shutout of the season, a few other things stood out.
Fewer and newer fullback options
Left back and right back were already the thinnest positions on the Fire’s roster. Now coach Veljko Paunović has two fewer options at those spots.
After Nicolás Gaitán arrived on Thursday, the Fire needed to clear an international slot on the roster. As a result, Nicolas Hasler was waived hours after Gaitán’s introductory press conference concluded. Hasler played in each of the team’s first three matches. In his lone start, March 16 against Seattle, Hasler was taken out in the 35th minute after playing at left back. After that match, Paunović admitted he played Hasler out of position. Jorge Corrales, who had started the first two matches at left back, was serving a red card suspension. Corrales was also out with a groin injury Saturday.
Additionally, Raheem Edwards, who missed the first two matches while recovering from injury, is expected to be out four-to-six weeks with a second degree LCL sprain. Edwards made his 2019 debut replacing Hasler against Seattle. Edwards played left wing back and the Fire switched to a 3-5-2 formation.
With Hasler and Edwards out of the picture, Paunović played rookie homegrown Jeremiah Gutjahr at left back and Johan Kappelhof at right back against the Red Bulls. Gutjahr made his MLS debut.
“Unbelievable experience, just being able to play in front of the fans with this group of guys,” Gutjahr said. “Hard to put into words. Just a joy that you can feel it, but it’s hard to say what it means. It was just fantastic to get the three points with this group of guys.”
Kappelhof usually plays at center back, but has featured at right back at times in his tenure with the Fire. Bastian Schweinsteiger played center back next to Marcelo in a four-man back line.
Gaitán made his anticipated debut on Saturday, but it was mostly uneventful. He played 27 minutes when the Fire were already winning and mostly hoping to hold off the Red Bulls’ pressure.
He finished with one shot, which was a slow, long-range effort which was easily saved. Regardless of how he performed, this one was just about getting settled.
“First of all, it’s very important for him to see the crazy coach that he has on the bench, sitting next to me,” Paunović said. “What are we saying on the bench and how we are saying it and how important for us is every detail and everything that we are trying to give to the team. Then, it’s important for him to step on the field to learn the atmosphere, to learn our fans and their spirit. To learn the opposition.”
Interestingly, Paunović emphasized the importance of adjusting to the officiating in MLS. He said its a style completely different from what players abroad are used to.
Competition in the attack
Gaitán’s arrival means there is a number crunch in the attack. Paunović talked about this at his introductory press conference, admitting not everyone is going to be happy if they are not playing.
Gaitán isn’t fully match fit yet and didn’t start on Saturday, but this match was still the first example of this. Djordje Mihailović, who started the first three matches of the season, didn’t enter until the 80th minute.
When Paunović was asked if this was related to the matchup or due to wanting to see more from Mihailović, he said it was both.
“Our four front positions are very talented, very powerful,” Paunović said. “On the side of players not being happy I think if the team wins, it definitely helps. When the guys are coming from the bench, when guys are having an opportunity to start, they know that they have to be at their best. I think that’s important. Creating that environment and that culture of everyone giving his best, not only in the games, but in the [training] session and having that habit, I think is going to increase the competition and the level of our team. Everyone should be comfortable with that.”