Breakdown: Fire vs. Timbers
OTF’s Mark Rogers ponders the Fire’s direction after a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Portland at home…
Well, for those of you who watched the Men in Red take on Portland last Saturday night, that sure was something wasn’t it?
The Fire looked down and out early on, but managed to claw their way back for a draw.
It felt like a win, didn’t it?
The players on the field seemed fired up, the crowd was jumping, and a point was salvaged. I hate to use the old adage, but it really was a “Tale of Two Halves.”
Hell, it was a tale of two different Fire teams, two mentalities, two different midfield pairings, and seemingly, two different coaches.
For some reason though, it seems like Fire fans are all satisfied to celebrate a draw against a top side in MLS at home.
To be fair, it was a hard-fought second half, and the comeback was incredibly exciting. But the question we must ask ourselves is how Chicago got itself in a hole in the first place.
More importantly, why does this trend of going down early and making comebacks continue to persist under Frank Klopas? The Fire clearly have the players capable of playing crisp, attacking soccer for at least 30 minutes, so why not 45, or hell, 90?
For my money, the problem continues to exist because the Fire skipper, Frank Klopas, plays scared until it’s no longer an option.
If Logan Pause was healthy, we would have seen a midfield pairing of Jeff “Big Red” Larentowicz alongside Pause in the “empty bucket” midfield. I can understand and appreciate a defensive approach, especially against a team that possesses the ball as well as Portland does. What I struggle to understand is why we have to watch the Fire do this over and over.
With Pause out and Bakary Soumare still getting acquainted with his new teammates on the back line, why would you invite pressure from the Timbers?
It barely took Portland a minute before Sean Johnson had to make an acrobatic save to protect the Fire net. In the first 10-15 minutes, the Timbers should have found themselves up by two, but between Johnson and the goal posts, the game stayed level.
It was crystal clear early on the Fire lineup was simply outmatched, evidenced by how the Timbers easily knifed their way through the midfield. On the surface it may seem unrelated, but this is part of the reason I was hesitant to applaud the deal for Mike Magee.
The Fire, under Klopas, has almost always fielded a target forward to whom it could launch long balls upfield. Now though, Magee is up top alongside Chris Rolfe. Magee’s not a big, bulky target forward, nor is Rolfe.
As such, with these two “mighty-mites” on the pitch, the Fire midfield is forced to keep the ball on the deck, and possess it. The passing has to be crisp and clean, and find feet in the midfield until an opening is available to hit one of the forwards.
Against Portland, the Fire struggled time and again in the first half just trying to get some possession moving forward.
A counterattacking team (something the Fire clearly want to be) requires certain elements to be effective. It either needs an absurdly fast striker up top who can chase down impossible balls, or it needs a big guy who can battle and hold up play. Right now, Chicago plays without either of those, but still went with a counterattacking style in the first half. Unsurprisingly, the Timbers frequently forced the Fire attack wide to the wings, which led to hopeless crosses to what is perhaps the shortest attacking duo in the league.
Just take a look at the Fire successful pass chart, and you’ll see how the Men in Red were forced to vacate the center of the pitch in front of the Timbers goal.
While the Fire struggled to string threats together in the first half, Portland enjoyed quite a bit of possession. Surprisingly though, their opening goal didn’t come from a bit of beautiful possession and passing, with the ball calmly passed into the back of the net.
Instead, a booming ball sent down-field was flicked on by Frederic Piquionne to Diego Valeri, who calmly dribbled into the Fire 18-yard box. Soumare and Anibaba did their best to make Valeri’s life difficult, but he beautifully threaded the ball between the two defenders, off the inside of the near post, and into the back of the net in the 33rd minute.
To be fair, it’s hard to be too upset by what should end up being a Goal of the Week candidate.
What’s more upsetting is Chicago didn’t respond immediately to the opposition’s first goal as it has in the past. We all expect the Fire to go down early, but we also expect a pretty quick change in attitude.
As the second half wound down, the Men in Red had a few more streaks down the wings, and a few more hopeless crosses, but nothing threatening. We saw nothing that led us to believe a comeback was in the making after the two teams headed into the dressing room at the half with the Timbers up by one.
As the second half began, it was clear we were about to be subjected to more of the same. The Timbers continued to possess the ball well in the midfield, and the Fire attack continued to look a bit lost, with one exception: Alex.
The Brazilian midfielder was the Fire’s biggest weapon in the first half, and continued to look lively in the second. When Logan Pause gets healthy, he should replace Jeff Larentowicz, but Alex needs to remain on the pitch. Alex simply wants it more, and instantly makes the Fire attack more dangerous with his sharp passing and dogged determination. Sure, he over dribbles at times, but Marco Pappa was loved, and Alex surely isn’t that bad.
As the Fire continued to struggle to string together passes, the Timbers found another opening in the 58th minute.
It all started with Chicago trying unsuccessfully three times in a row to find an outlet pass to a striker up top. The Timbers picked up a loose ball and found Frederic Piquionne wide on the right. Piquionne came off the byline, juked two Fire defenders, and maintained possession just long enough to find a wide open and trailing Ben Zemanski. Zemanski cooly fired the ball into the bottom right corner of Johnson’s net to put the Timbers up 2-0.
I must stress: this goal was the fault of poor coaching. Firing long balls up top simply doesn’t work with small strikers. I’m fine with counterattacking, route one soccer, but you have to put the right players on the pitch for it to work. Here, Klopas’s tactics opened up a counter for the Timbers, who left the Fire looking silly.
Finally, after 64 minutes of watching his mistake, Klopas decided to take action. He subbed Chris Rolfe off for Maicon Santos to give the Fire some size up top.
While you can’t directly attribute it to him, Santos’s presence was important on the goal that Mike Magee found in the 68th minute.
It all started off a well-timed tackle in the middle of the pitch by Gonzalo Segares, which led to Alex gaining possession. Alex then played a perfect through-ball forward to Magee, and thanks to the Timbers keeper, Milos Kocic, bobbling the ball, Magee was able to collect and fire into an empty Timbers net.
I can’t help but feel that if Rolfe was on the pitch, that play would have ended very differently.
Santos found himself near the penalty spot when Magee was collecting the ball to fire, which ensured that a defender would mark him. If Rolfe’s on the pitch though, he would have been deeper, and a Timbers defender could have provided the backup coverage that Kocic needed.
Either way, with Rolfe off and Santos on, the Fire attack immediately looked more threatening. Offensive pressure was aided by two more substitutions in the 70th minute: Jeff Larentowicz for Daniel Paladini and Dilly Duka for Sherjill MacDonald.
Suddenly, the Fire attack had some teeth. They had the big men up top to receive long balls and crosses, and they had the speed down the flanks to get in behind the Timbers. On top of that, with Paladini in the midfield, they were able to possess the ball with a calmness that Larentowicz simply couldn’t provide.
The Fire pressure continued to mount as Magee was brought down outside the box in the 81st minute to setup a free kick. Magee and Paladini stood over the ball, and what followed is a must see goal and clear Goal of the Week candidate.
Paladini sent a beautiful, bending ball over the wall and into the back of the net. Kocic never had a chance, and the Fire found themselves stealing two points from the Timbers.
What does this all mean for the Fire?
The first half team is slow, somewhat lost, and sure, defense is the first thought, but that doesn’t seem to work too well anyway. I really like this second half Fire team though. They’re exciting to watch, threatening when going forward, and sure, defense is somewhat of an afterthought, but you need to score to win.
The Men in Red currently have two drastically different identities. It’s strictly the job of Klopas to determine the style of this team. Right now, that style is “Go down by a goal early, and make dramatic comebacks.” That worked for the Earthquakes last year, so maybe Klopas should give Frank Yallop a call. Given that Yallop is now unemployed, I’m sure he’ll have plenty of time to talk.
Klopas needs to make the tough decisions and decide what his team’s identity will be going forward. Now.
Magee and Rolfe up top together simply won’t work over the long haul. Larentowicz and anyone but Pause clearly doesn’t work. These are the two most important pairings on the pitch, and Klopas needs to get them right and stick with them. He has a very real chance to solidify this team, and make a true playoff push if he gets it right.
Tactically, Frank Klopas appears to have it backwards. Flip the script, and the Fire may be able to get back in the hunt.
So far, 2013’s been a story of man-mismanagement. Even when they were riddled with injuries, the quality of their personnel did not reflect Chicago’s results.
Thus far though, I’ve loved what I’ve seen out of Magee, despite the problems he creates for the Fire midfield. He definitely needs to be playing up top, just not alongside Rolfe. Instead, I want to see Santos up top with him.
Give Magee a target forward to play off of, and he’ll start to really shine. As for Rolfe, I’m not even sure what to say anymore. It seems while he was in Europe, the talent in MLS improved while he stood still.
Meanwhile, in the midfield, Klopas has the toughest decision of his coaching career to make. Will he stick with the tried and true empty bucket, super-defensive midfield pairing of Larentowicz and Pause? They’re both strong, defensive veterans who, when paired together, can totally disrupt the offense of the opposing team. Neither will generate much offense though, and both require quick outlets because neither can dribble through any real traffic.
Alternatively, the gaffer can go with Alex and Paladini in the midfield. It’s a scary proposition with the back line being rather porous, and neither of them being fully honest on the defensive end of the pitch. The thing is though, these two will hold possession, make smart passes, and dribble their way out of problems often.
Frankly, if Klopas goes with these two, they’ll certainly be responsible for giving up some goals, but that’s the risk he must take. An Alex/Paladini CM pairing will also require Klopas to take the reigns off.
At this point, Alex and Daniel Paladini are the Fire’s best hope in the center of the park. They don’t have defensive depth, and the back line is unlikely to get patched up much more than it already is, so why not just go full-bore? One thing’s for sure, it would put butts in the seats.
Clearly, going for clean sheet, 1-0 victories isn’t panning out. Why not just unleash the offense and try to run your opposition into the ground?
Sadly, I don’t see Klopas doing it, so prepare for more Dr. Jekyll: the empty bucket with Pause and Big Red.
I guess we can get excited about the late-game heroics that earn a point here and there though. Also on the upside, the Fire’s match this week is against Columbus in U.S. Open Cup play.
Hopefully, Columbus scores early so Chicago fans can see the Hyde side of its team.
OTF’s Mark Rogers is a St. Louis to Chicago transplant, statistics nerd, and faithful Fire fan. Follow Mark @f4nt