The Chicago Fire have been improving as of late, that much can be said. Since starting the season with just four points from their first nine matches, the Fire have bounced back with 13 points from their next nine.
After keeping a clean sheet against one of the best attacking sides in NYCFC and beating the New York Red Bulls this past weekend, the Fire look to continue their improving performance, which has seen them go unbeaten in their last three matches, giving up just two goals in the process.
But head coach Raphael Wicky refuses to allow his team to rest on its laurels. "Points-wise, yes, we have done pretty well since July 4, but still, if you look at obviously the draw against D.C. United, the loss against Toronto, these were games where the team put in good performances, [but] we should have had more points."
Struggling Defending Champions Up Next
Next up: the defending champion Columbus Crew. The Fire met the crew back in June, losing 2-0 in the last game at Historic Crew Stadium. The match added to what would become the Fire's second losing streak of three games or more.
Now, that match seems like a distant dream. Columbus is the team that comes into this match struggling, having lost their last three matches and allowing 11 goals in that span. But once again, Raphael Wicky does not seem to put much thought into the Crew's recent struggles.
"Obviously we analyzed [Columbus] and we have seen the results," Wicky said. "We have seen that they conceded quite a few goals, but it's not my job to judge and to tell why and what happens."
Wicky added, "This is still a very, very good team. These are the champions. So we still expect them to be a strong opponent, of course. We will focus on what we can do, on our game."
Wicky's Magic Touch?
The improvement in the Fire's performances is apparent, but what have been the keys to this upward trajectory? The shift to a three-at-the-back formation has been mentioned before as a potential reason, and it seems Wicky and his players agree.
Wicky said after Sunday's victory, "I believe that changing into a back three has given this team a little bit more stability, a little bit more balance between the attacking and the defending."
Midfielder Gastón Giménez echoed his coach's sentiment saying, "I think this has helped us create more of a balance, more stability. We're more compact when it's time to defend...so that makes it difficult for our opponents to attack against us and to be able to get shots off and shoot and score against us."
Giménez continued, "It just means that we're more balanced there and ready, and that helps us, also when we are balanced and able to go forward in the attack so that we can also create opportunities on the attacking end."
Whatever the reason is, and there probably are many, the Fire have shown improvement. They are, however, still seven points from the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The team currently holding that spot? This Columbus Crew team.
A win against the defending champions could rejuvenate the Fire's playoff hopes. A loss, on the other hand, might as well set Chicago's sights toward 2022. Hopefully, that three-at-the-back system will continue to help this Fire team collect points this Sunday.