Dispatch from the Couch: Fire at DC United
Houston, we have some problems: fitness, fatigue, questionable lineup and tactical decisions, and most apparent of all, liabilities in defense. And for good measure, I’ll throw a little hubris into the mix.
When the Chicago Fire take a (needed) deep breath and look at Wednesday night’s match film, they’ll realize what transpired was not indicative of an exceptionally dominant and skilled DC United side. Rather, it was due to the poorest effort thus far this season from a Fire squad that looked gassed, flat, and uninspired. To quote Hot Time in Old Town‘s Mark O’Rourke, “I have no idea what I saw on the pitch Wednesday.”
The Men in Red have no one to blame but themselves after a 2-4 loss in front of a paltry crowd of just over 10,000 at RFK stadium. The defeat puts Chicago in danger of falling back into fifth place as soon as Saturday. And if this weekend’s and next week’s results do not favor the idle Men in Red, their hold on the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot will be tenuous at best.
Predict-o-Meter: 1.5/6 = 25%
- The Fire did score on a set piece. Pavel Pardo looped a 30-ish yard back post free kick to an unmarked Gonzalo Segares, who headed one home for Chicago’s second and final goal of the night. Check
- Marco Pappa did start, but not for Patrick Nyarko. Half check
- Neither Pappa, Fernandez, nor Oduro scored for the Men in Red. Fail
- Sherjill MacDonald played the entire 90+ minutes. Fail
- The Fire lost 2-4. Fail
- No journalist worth his salt will give respect to the Fire when it’s not due. And after last night’s debacle, none is. Fail
More than anything, this match exposed a chink in the Fire armor – a back line that is tired, has no definitive (if any) rotation, and contains a player out of position. The first big question asked in On The Fire‘s pre-match piece was whether Chicago’s back line would tighten up, play disciplined soccer, and keep their shape. Answer? A resounding and disappointing no. Poor marking by the entire defense led to DC’s first goal and continued to hurt the Fire all night. And sure enough, ample space was left on the wings when defenders Jalil Anibaba and Gonzalo Segares were caught out of position in the offensive half. In particular, the fullbacks’ marking on set pieces and high, looping crosses into the penalty area was especially bad.
Gonzalo Segares was AWOL on United’s third goal, as he just stood still in the box and watched an unmarked Brandon McDonald pop a header over an outstretched Sean Johnson. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Fire’s (especially Jalil Anibaba’s) inability to properly clear the ball out of danger zones also contributed to the loss. Frank Klopas’s tactical alignment – with the fullbacks pushing far up field into the offensive third – has Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry (despite his youth) looking over-stretched and fatigued, constantly defending against counterattacks with inadequate support. After making a habit of it all night, 34-year old Dwayne De Rosario once again got by 23 year-old Berry on the wing and crossed the ball to an unmarked Long Tan for United’s fourth and final goal in the closing minutes, a goal that encapsulated the Fire’s defensive problems on the night: fatigued centerbacks stretched wide defending a counterattack, combined with late-arriving holding midfielders and fullbacks who failed to properly mark DC attackers. But to be fair, Sean Johnson was a tad sloppy on two of DC’s goals, appearing out of position while he twice fell to the ground in vain as the ball entered his net.
For the life of me, I do not understand why Patrick Nyarko got the start, let alone why he played the entire match. Why on earth Flaco Fernandez was on the bench boggles my mind. Earlier in the week, all reports indicated that Nyarko re-aggravated his long-ailing back. So why did a match-fit Fernandez not get the starting nod? Klopas speaks of his midfield depth as a key strength, so why not exploit it ? Nyarko could have used the rest, but instead he goes into a ten-day break with more wear and tear on his already fatigued and beat up body – having chased young Andy Najar around the pitch in vain all night. Starting Nyarko was a bad decision by Frank Klopas. Flaco was more than capable of playing for 90 minutes. And Alex too for that matter.
And speaking of Frank Klopas’s decisions, his substitutions proved ineffective. In an attempt to inject some life into the Fire attack, Klopas subbed off, in succession, Anibaba for Fernandez, Oduro for Pappa, and Alex for Paladini. In that order you have: a winger for a fullback, a forward for a winger, and a (generally) attacking midfielder for a holding midfielder. Being down 3-1, perhaps Klopas didn’t have a choice. But, these substitutions successively disrupted the Fire’s normal 4-2-3-1 tactical formation and it didn’t seem as if the squad was prepared for such contingencies. Late into the second half when it mattered most the Fire were clearly disorganized.
Despite their behavior last Sunday evening against Philly, United looked disciplined and ready. They played physical soccer, kept their shape, and attacked the ball all night. Andy Najar was all over the pitch and simply torched Chicago on the wing. Dejan Jakovic pretty much owned Sherjill MacDonald. The defender matched his physical strength with MacDonald’s, and prevented the Fire’s lone striker from getting a shot on target. Overall, DC neutralized Chicago’s heretofore effective attack combination of Chris Rolfe and MacDonald, who between them had only 4 shots on goal, with 2 on target from Rolfe.
Referee El Fath didn’t start to whip out the cards until about the 80th minute. Unfortunately, Chicago accumulated three yellows, all justified. The sloppy fouls that warranted caution from El Fath were clearly related to fatigue.
Fun With Chalkboards
Andy Najar Torches the Fire on the Wing
Just look at this man. He was all over the right side of the pitch, which is Nyarko (left wing) and Segares (left back) territory. What is particularly disconcerting is all of those lines and arrows in the final third pointing directly at the Chicago goal .
Now, conversely, look at defender Gonzalo Segares’s distribution and possession. See all that space in the lower left-hand corner around the penalty area? That’s where Andy Najar was, giving the Fire fits and constantly pressuring the goal (see above, upper right-hand corner).
- Chicago allowed 22 attempts on goal, with 12 on target. In their previous three matches, the Fire allowed an average of 10 attempts on goal, with 2.7 on target – that is a staggering difference compared to last night’s match.
- DC had 21 open play crosses to the Fire’s 14. Chicago’s inability to properly mark DC attackers and defend those crosses helped double the Fire’s previous high of 2 goals allowed in a match this season to 4.
I’m sorry, but Dan Kelly and Evan Whitfield’s studio coverage of the match was just awful. I understand that announcing a match is more difficult when you’re not actually there. You can’t see the entire pitch on a screen and perhaps it’s harder to get into it because you’re not feeling the elements and atmosphere. But c’mon guys. There were many long stretches of time (5+ minutes) when Whitfield didn’t say a word.
Props to Daniel Paladini for a solid performance. Daniel notched his first goal as a Fire man, combining with Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa on some beautiful give and go, one-touch attacking soccer. Number 11 was one of the few bright spots on the pitch for Chicago on Wednesday. He played with aggression and pace all night. However, As Gregg Mixdorf said in his post-match piece for Hot Time In Old Town, unlike Logan Pause, Paladini has not yet shown an ability to defend and mark decisively with precision. But this is not his game, and Frank Klopas has yet to make tactical adjustments that compensate for the loss of Pause and allow Paladini to be Paladini without it affecting the defense.
Big props to Patrick Nyarko. Already banged up heading into the match, the Fire midfielder gave it all he had for the entire 90+ minutes. He attacked, defended, took a knock, got back up, and put in an exemplary effort for the Men in Red. And again, all this despite nagging physical problems. Fire fans can only hope that another important player decides to follow Pat’s example…
Reflecting on his ineffectiveness last night, a fan tweeted that Marco Pappa should only start every third match because he’s either a liability or invisible during the other two. Outside of his assist on the Paladini goal I observed a complacent Pappa on the pitch at RFK, someone who clearly wasn’t playing with passion and had little interest in defending. Marco can be a difference maker for the Fire. But perhaps this young man is simply biding his time, his eyes set on bigger and better things in Holland. Again, Mark O’Rourke: “Did Marco make the trip to D.C.? Or is he already in the Netherlands?” I don’t think he actually was there Mark. It must have been his defective clone out there last night. Marco is an enigma, and you can’t take what he says to the press as any reflection of reality. It’s either a bunch of canned clichés or nonsensical remarks. Just look at this quote from Pappa after the match: “Setting the end result aside, this was definitely an attractive match. It was a close game, and both teams had a lot of chances.” ¿Que?
Again, Jalil Anibaba stunk up the joint. See my earlier “What We Learned” piece for more on Anibaba and why Dan Gargan should be in the starting XI at fullback.
I mentioned hubris earlier, and I think everyone associated with the club was guilty of it before the match. From the fans to the players, from the coaches to the media, everyone was puffing their chests out a bit too much this week, including me. That said, it is fun to boast a bit and be proud of your team. But what transpired on Wednesday night was a shocking case of Jekyll and Hyde that’s left many scratching their heads. In retrospect, the result against DC United has proved many journos wise – those who’ve avoided making bold claims one way or the other about the Fire. If a team isn’t fully comfortable with its identity, lineup, rotations, and tactics, why should anyone make confident, definitive conclusions about them? Sure, you’ve got to expect to win to be a top club, but to underestimate an opponent in this league – especially one playing at home – is a mistake. Well, I guess The Main Ingredient said it best. Cue the music fellas…
With ten days until their next match against Houston Dynamo at home, the Men in Red have time to think, rest, and reflect upon who they are and want to be. This squad needs to figure out its identity – now. After leaving the nation’s capital without a result, each subsequent match has enormous playoff implications. Let’s hope Frank Klopas gets his tactics right and the boys in shape by the next time we see ’em. And remember dear reader, comments are encouraged and welcome!