Dispatch: Chicago Fire at Real Salt Lake

Finally, a reason to smile. (photo: twitter.com via @jefecrandall)

Finally, a reason to smile. (photo: twitter.com via @jefecrandall)

OTF’s Mark Rogers finds hope during the Fire’s trip to the mountains for a 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake…

Wow, what a difference a week can make in MLS. Last week, I brought up the idea of firing Frank Klopas, and our Roundtable discussed the possibility even further. Then, all of a sudden, the trigger was pulled on a trade that brought Bakary Soumare back to Chicago. And to top it off, the Fire traded the rights to sign Robbie Rogers to Los Angeles in exchange for Mike Magee.

Magee wasn’t able to play for the Men in Red last night at Rio Tinto, but thankfully Soumare got the start for the Fire. Before the Soumare deal, most figured this match against RSL would be a surefire loss. That said, it’s amazing what a difference four true defenders in the back line makes.

You always know what Real Salt Lake is going to give you, especially when they’re at home. They’re going to possess a lot of the ball, play fairly narrow, and slice your midfield apart with pinpoint passing. The big question mark for RSL lately had been who would score their goals, since Alvaro Saborio had been injured. RSL certainly has a number of players who are more than capable of scoring goals, but none of them are as consistent as the beastly Saborio. Still, they hung four on Chivas USA last week without him, so the Fire looked to be in for a potentially long and depressing night.

The match started off mostly how one would expect, RSL controlled possession and the Fire sat deep to defend. A number of Fire games have started off this way this season, but something was different this time.

For the first ten minutes the Men in Red didn’t see much of the ball as expected, but the usual panic was missing. They didn’t appear to be scrambling to prevent disaster. Chicago looked composed and kept its shape. After the initial ten minutes, the Men in Red even strung together some passes off their own. One of the bright spots, even though he wasn’t wildly effective, was Joel Lindpere.

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 10.49.13 AM

(image: mlssoccer.com)

As you can see in his heat map, Lindpere stuck fairly hard to the left side of the pitch and got a bit of chalk on his boots. One of the best ways to get at RSL is to get wide and stretch them out. This tactic has two main points.

First, and most importantly, since Salt Lake plays pretty narrow, their opponents are generally able to find some space out wide. Secondly, when they do end up regaining possession, RSL find themselves out of their normal shape – one that usually allows them to hold possession so well. Their opponent’s width throws them into a bit of disarray, which lends to RSL passing the ball along the back line to regain their shape. That leaves their opponents time to regain their defensive shape as well.

While Lindpere didn’t devastate RSL in any major way that shows up on the stat sheet, he helped keep them honest by threatening down the flank. I know Fire fans aren’t really high on Lindpere, and I don’t blame them. But if he can be an honest left midfielder for Chicago (like he was Saturday night) he should cause some to change their minds. I do think the Magee move means we’ll be seeing a whole lot less of Joel though.

The Men in Red were fairly solid throughout the first half, giving the majority of possession to Real Salt Lake. They defended well, and managed to keep Salt Lake from netting any goals. Of course, Sean Johnson had a lot to say in defending the Fire’s net from RSL’s constant pressure. Johnson had another huge game. He recorded eight saves and kept the Fire back line organized.

The first half saw some of Johnson’s best work this season, and it carried straight into the second half. Watching the game, I couldn’t help but feel that the Fire had a real chance. They kept it tied at zero through the first half, Johnson batted everything out of the box, and the back line looked organized and alert. With an offensive break, it seemed like the night could go their way.

With Nyarko up top as the lone striker, I suspect Frank Klopas and crew were hoping they’d have chances to catch RSL on the break. RSL does tend to commit a lot of men forward when they possess the ball, but the fact of the matter is they don’t give away possession cheaply very often. More often than not they’re going to give possession back in a manner that doesn’t lend itself to a break. Opponents are more likely to get possession back from them via a throw in or a goal kick.

Still, it’s hard not to like the idea of Nyarko as the point man when the Fire’s other option is the lethargic Sherjill MacDonald. Nonetheless, Nyarko and his teammates weren’t able to put together anything terribly dangerous.

Looking back, I wonder if this would have been the game to put MacDonald back into the starting lineup. Like I already said, I’m not upset with the decision to go with Nyarko up top, and I totally understand why Klopas did it.

A target forward could have made a difference in this game. Nyarko wasn’t able to provide much of an outlet; once again he was completely mismatched in the size department. Nat Borchers is an incredibly good defender and fairly physical as well. Patty didn’t stand much of a chance against him. It’s hard to say whether MacDonald would have fared any better, but he could have brought a more physical presence up top for Chicago.

(source: facebook.com/chicagofire)

Bakary Soumare making one of his many clearances at RSL. (photo: facebook.com/chicagofire)

With the Fire unable to generate any offense, it was, perhaps, only a matter of time until the wheels fell off. For some reason though, it felt different this time. It didn’t feel quite so hopeless as it normally does. The reason for the change in Chicago’s tune was Bakary Soumare.

Soumare slotted into the left side of the central defense, moving Austin Berry over to the right. I’ve often wondered if Berry would be more comfortable at right center back, given that he’s right-footed. I can’t say if that’s the case, but Berry and the rest of the back line looked more composed on Saturday night.

Bakary shined above the rest though. He always popped up in the right place at the right time, broke up RSL attacks, cleared the ball out of the back, and most importantly, dominated the aerial battles. With his head alone he cleared the ball out of the 18 four times.

Soumare’s dominance in the air is something the Fire has sorely lacked in the back line, but it’s not simply his big frame that helps him get the job done in the air (after all, Berry’s not exactly tiny). Instead, Baky’s positional awareness is was what helped Chicago’s cause most. Berry tends to play a lot better with a veteran alongside him who can command him into position, and Soumare certainly appears to be that guy.

Of course, the joyful ride couldn’t last forever. Saborio came on in the 63rd minute for Real Salt Lake. Initially, the forward had very little impact on the game, but that’s almost always the case with him. It’s hard for me to not think of Tim Duncan from the San Antonio Spurs when I see Saborio. Quiet, composed, crazy smart, physical, and so unassuming. As dominant athletes, both Saborio and Duncan have an uncanny ability to quietly deconstruct their opponents without them being aware of the impending doom.

So, the impending doom came to fruition in the 78th minute for the Men in Red. Ned Grabavoy delivered a perfect cross into the box from the left flank, which Saborio drilled into the back of the net off his head. Sean Johnson was in beast mode all night, but there was nothing he could do about this one.

It’s almost difficult to blame any of the Fire players for the goal. Obviously, someone is always to blame when a goal goes in, but on this one (unlike past games) no player went to sleep on the play. In this case, solid defense simply got beat by better offense. It happens.

Going into Rio Tinto and getting any points at all is tough. When you’re shooting for a one/nil win or nil/nil draw, you’re always at risk of being one mild slip away from defeat. Still, you can’t go into Salt Lake guns blazing without a death wish.

Down a goal with roughly ten minutes to go, the Fire were in a bit of a jam. Frank Klopas had already used two of his subs, bringing on Alex for Chris Rolfe and Quincy Amerikwa for Dilly Duka. Before the goal, I really liked these two moves. Duka and Rolfe had been tasked with a lot of defensive responsibilities on the evening and were both looking gassed and ineffective offensively. After the goal was scored though, I worried about how the Fire would recover.

Duka has been an effective offensive spark for Chicago lately, and Amerikwa has yet to prove himself as a striker in this league. On top of that, RSL isn’t a team that is going to get a lead and simply sit back to defend it. Their possession is their defense. Getting out from underneath them is brutal, especially at Rio Tinto.

Again though, something felt different this night. Lately, when I watch Chicago games, I start questioning whether I’m an alcoholic or a Fire fan by the 75th minute. Their body language was different this time though. As the clock ticked ever closer to 90:00, the Men in Red didn’t look defeated. They didn’t look finished. Then, an uncharacteristic substitution came that took Logan Pause off the field in exchange for MacDonald.

It’s not terribly often that Klopas opts to take Pause off the field, but last night he did. Again, different.

As the 84th minute approached, the Men in Red earned themselves a throw-in deep in the RSL half, and Jalil Anibaba stepped up to take his typical long throw.

Jalil launched the ball into the RSL 18-yard box, where Austin Berry battled to win the header. Berry flicked it on towards the frame of goal, and then Amarikwa did something I’m not even sure how to describe.

As the ball was careening towards goal, Quincy lept upward like some frog-like ninja. He flung his right foot at the ball (which had to be near shoulder-level height), connected, and blasted it into the back of the net. Seriously, go watch the highlights, it does the whole move much better justice. Amarikwa’s was an absolutely insane goal that came mostly out of nothing – from a player off the bench of all places.

The only thing I can say negative about the move is I hate long throw-ins, and this will only encourage the Fire to try them more often. If they keep scoring off of them like this, I guess I’ll have to change my tune eventually (I won’t).

All of a sudden, this night of change came full circle for the Men in Red. The Fire players looked energized and happy to be playing soccer. RSL on the other hand looked a bit dejected, out of sorts, and as if they had been defeated.

From there, it was just a few short minutes until Chicago calmly recorded a draw at Rio Tinto. It wasn’t always pretty, but Chicago looked confident throughout the 90 minutes. It was a look we hadn’t seen on the Men in Red in 2013.

It’s hard to say where the Fire go from here, but let’s call this a potential upswing for now. I don’t want to go too far into the Magee move, as he wasn’t involved in the game last night. Going forward, I’m interested to see how he impacts this Fire squad. Magee’s not a bonafide striker, and he’s not going to drive the offense from the midfield. Honestly, I don’t see how he fixes the Chicago offense.

The Bakary deal means Chicago has time to figure it out though. This is a back line to build from. Chicago now finds itself with a solid back line that can keep clean sheets, allow the midfield to push up higher, and build confidence. All of those bonuses will lead to more goals for the Men in Red, with or without Magee. You don’t always need a new striker to find goals. If you have stability in the back, it allows your offense more freedom, which can generate goals.

Next week Chicago will be at home against DC United. That match can’t be described as anything but a must-win game for the Fire. I know it’s still early in the season, and calling games “must win” this early is usually a faux pas, but this game will be about pride.

It’s about proving that Chicago isn’t the worst team in MLS and that DC is. It’s about building on the solid draw in Salt Lake City. Most importantly, it’s about reminding the Fire faithful that this team isn’t going to roll over in 2013. Since the match at RSL saw the Fire move forward, I’m going to be optimistic and throw down a prediction. Chicago will pick up three points at home vs. DC, and they’ll do it handily.

OTF’s Mark Rogers is a St. Louis to Chicago transplant, statistics nerd, and faithful Fire fan. Follow Mark @f4nt

6 thoughts on “Dispatch: Chicago Fire at Real Salt Lake

  1. I think Mike Magee means a lot less of Chris Rolfe b/c you can but Nyarko up behind the main striker and play Magee on the right. Or just play Magee behind the main striker.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nyarko and Magee up top together. I still think it means less Lindpere, though. Rolfe’s played a few games on the left wing under Klopas already, and I think Klopas will take Rolfe over Lindpere.

  2. I think Klopas will go with the same back line but put Duka at left mid, the Ginger Ninja and Pause at center mid, Nyarko at right mid, and Magee and Rolfe up top. That being said, Rolfe is one of my favorite players, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Amarikwa get the start. Amarikwa is a scrapper who has a knack for creating chances because of his athletic ability.(Seriously, the guy’s not that tall, but he can jump!) I like Nyarko at right mid because he can beat guys off the dribble and get crosses in. Same with Duka on the left for the most part. Now your probably wondering why MacDonald or maybe Santos(assuming he’s healthy) wouldn’t play up top as a target man now that Nyarko and Duka will hopefully be whipping in crosses all day. My argument is that both are better suited for the “sub” role. Let’s face it, neither of them could really last at full speed for a full 90mins. Finally, the last point I want to make is that it looks like we will finally have some week-in week-out consistency to the lineup. Yes, we all know that Chicago has good team chemistry off the pitch, but that chemistry has seemed to be somewhat lacking on the pitch as of late. Having players that understand how each other operates on the pitch is an important yet subtle aspect to the game that is often overlooked, an that chemistry comes from playing with the same guys over an extended period of time.

  3. Magee and Soumare are what the Fire needed, cover in the back line and an offensive spark up front. You add a fully fit Arne and you got yourself a freaking wall!!!! I do agree with Stephen play Magee on the right or behind the main Striker.

  4. I think this is one of those psychological season changing moments. It may have been a fluke (Amerikwa’s goal) but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Management’s decision to make some needed changes appears to have been the impetus for motivation for both the players and, I believe, for Kid Kloppas.

    I’ve been waiting all season to see what I saw Saturday Night – finally a spark of football confidence! I suspect that in a few months we will look back to this past week as the week we got the spark that finally lit the Fire.

    Onward lads!

    • I agree, and this team always responds well to midseason acquisitions. With the back line looking more solid, hopefully the offense can find its footing and start getting some goals. Still not sure the Fire can raise too far past mediocrity this season, but at least they should make things interesting going forward.

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