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Physical Fire turn the tables on Red Bulls to earn big road win

1:19 PM SGT 22/4/18
Aleksandar Katai Tim Parker Chicago Fire New York Red Bulls MLS
Chicago took a page out of the New York playbook, using a physical and tenacious approach to upset the Eastern Conference power

HARRISON, N.J. — Six months ago, the New York Red Bulls dominated the Chicago Fire in a 4-0 playoff demolition at the Fire's home stadium. On that day, the Red Bulls were the bullies, overwhelming the Fire with a physical brand of soccer they simply didn't look ready for.

On Saturday, in their first meeting since that memorable playoff defeat, the Fire took a page from the Red Bulls playbook, beating them at their own game by using physicality and tenacity to keep the Red Bulls from feeling comfortable at Red Bull Arena, where they usually dominate opponents.

The result was a 2-1 Fire victory that snapped the Red Bulls 11-match home unbeaten streak and helped the Fire climb further away from the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

"Against Red Bulls its always a very physical game, so we tried to think about a very intense game plan for them," Fire star Bastian Schweinsteiger said. "I think we had, in both halves, very good situations for transitions to create good chances, even if we knew the Red Bulls would have more of the ball and possession than us."

Even New York boss Jesse Marsch was quick to admit that the Fire brought a lot of intensity to the match. 

"Chicago should take playing against us personally, right? And I get that," the Red Bulls coach said. "Like when you get knocked out (of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs), when you've had challenges against certain teams, then it builds more competitive fire. So they came out and they won a lot of duels in the first half, aerial duels, tackles. They fought, they battled, and then they caused trouble on our back line."

Fire winger Aleksandar Katai gave the Red Bulls defense headaches and set the tone for the match with his outstanding 30th-minute volley finish. Katai also drew the penalty kick that led to Nemanja Nikolic's goal, which wound up being insurance the Fire needed.

The Fire didn't dominate the Red Bulls — they needed goalkeeper Richard Sanchez to make several big saves to keep the Red Bulls from taking control — but they made the New York look worse at home than we have seen Marsch's side look in a long time. They exposed a Red Bulls defense that had been incredibly tough so far this year, and they outworked a midfield known for doing just that to opponents.

From a physical standpoint, the Fire made things tough on the Red Bulls midfield, which never really found a good rhythm. Fire coach Veljko Paunovic gave rookie first-round pick Mo Adams his first professional start and gave him the daunting task of trying to contain Red Bulls playmaker Kaku. Adams responded with an outstanding debut, keeping Kaku contained and teaming up with Dax McCarty to help the Fire dominate the middle of the field for large chunks of the match.

"To win a game like this you have to be up for it, and give them no respect," Mo Adams told Goal. "We just came out here and did what we had to do."

Marsch went with a central midfield trio of Kaku, Marc Rzatkowski and Tyler Adams, choosing to sit Sean Davis. Rzatkowski delivered a poor performance,  and the difference was obvious when Davis replaced him in the second half. Davis and fellow second-half substitute Derrick Etienne Jr. helped give the Red Bulls a much-needed spark, and should give Marsch plenty to think about as his team heads towards a very tough stretch of matches that includes road games in three of their next four, with matches coming up against the LA Galaxy, New York City FC and Atlanta United.

The win was a vital one for a Fire side still working to climb out of the hole created after managing just one point from their first three matches. They have done so relying more on playing well as a unit, rather than as a team leaning on its stars. The Fire are greater than the sum of their parts right now, which is the only way they're going to win when they're missing defender Matt Polster, forward Luis Solignac and midfielder Michael de Leeuw, and are still sitting on a considerable amount of money earmarked for the acquisition of a high-level attacking midfielder and central defender.

That's what made Saturday's match all the more impressive. If you just looked at the starting lineups, which included the Fire starting three rookies, you would have pegged the Red Bulls for a comfortable victory. The Fire had other plans, and executed Paunovic's game plan to perfection, frustrating and bullying the Red Bulls on the way to a big road win.

Now after registering two wins in three, the Fire are in much better shape heading into a pair of extremely difficult matches against Toronto FC and Atlanta United.

"It's a really important result," Fire midfielder Dax McCarty said. "I, more so than most, know how hard is to win here when you’re on the opposing team. It’s a gutsy performance, a really gritty performance and basically it was one that we needed."