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Final

On Fire: Klopas debut brings promise for the future

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The Chicago Fire weren’t able to break their nine-game league winless streak in the first game for interim head coach Frank Klopas on Saturday night, forging a scoreless draw against the Seattle Sounders at Toyota Park.

This week’s On Fire breaks down the scoreless draw, focusing on three key themes from the match.

Defense shows up

While Chicago failed to snap their dreary winless run, they did show improvement in several key areas on Saturday. The biggest step came on defense, with the team — which had given up 1.72 goals per game before Saturday’s match — registering their second shutout of the season. 

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“Our focus tonight was on the defensive end and to come out and get a shutout,” goalkeeper Sean Johnson said after the match. “The guys were committed early on. ... We came together in the second half and limited their chances and gave ourselves the opportunity to win the game.”

Apart from the first 10 minutes, Chicago were airtight in the back. They limited the Sounders to one dangerous opportunity and just three shots on goal in the entire match.

Just as importantly, the team was solid against set-pieces — something that hasn’t been the case all season. Klopas’ switch from a zonal marking scheme to man-to-man on dead-ball situations paid off, as the Sounders didn’t come close to scoring on any of their five corner kicks. 

“We worked on the set pieces that have led into goal scoring opportunities [and that] didn’t occur tonight,’ Klopas said. “It’s a positive clean sheet for Sean and the rest of the team.”

Second-half slowdown

After creating several solid opportunities in the first half, the Fire’s offense came to a screeching halt in the second. The team failed to break down Seattle’s back four in the last 45, looking tired and mustering just a pair of half-chances. 

The sleepy second-half performance flummoxed Klopas, who made three attacking substitutions after the break. 

“It’s hard to say,” Klopas said when asked why the Fire slowed down as the game wore on. “At times, we had an opportunity to be a bit more simple and connect passes, and I think we weren’t as sharp with the final pass or the outlet pass out wide.”

“We had moments in transition where we got the ball and were able to break, but I think at times we didn’t step high enough so we could win the second balls and keep possession in their half,” Klopas added. “I think late in the game the guys got tired and we didn’t push high enough.

Paladini plays well

Central midfielder Daniel Paladini had one his best games in a Fire uniform Saturday, creating several good chances, consistently breaking up plays on the defensive end and impressing Klopas with his ability to open up the Seattle defense with diagonal balls.

“He has the ability out of the back not only to attack from behind, but also make those diagonal balls," Klopas said. "I think that was crucial today because in the four days [of practice], we talked about Seattle and how they like to overplay the middle. They compact space and we knew we constantly had to be switching the ball with diagonal balls, and I think Daniel a very good game.”

Paladini nearly scored on two occasions. His best chance came in the 26th minute. He collected a Corben Bone back pass 25 yards from goal, took a touch and lofted a shot toward net. The ball looked destined for the top left corner, but Sounders veteran Kasey Keller made a fine diving save, tapping the ball over the bar and out for a corner.

“It’s basically [center midfielder Logan Pause’s] job and mine to stop their offensive threats, and when we can to get into the attacking third,” Paladini said. “Tonight I found myself in some good spots and I took my chances.”

Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at sam.h.stejskal@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.