Dispatch: Chicago Fire (2) at Columbus Crew (1)

Magee plays the hero once again (photo: chicago-fire.com)

Once again, Magic Mike plays the hero. (photo: chicago-fire.com)

OTF’s Mark Rogers gets critical on the Fire’s slow starts after another comeback victory over the Crew…

Last season, I became incredibly intrigued by the San Jose Earthquakes and their “never say die” attitude. While quite a few soccer fans were enamored with the “Goonies,” and thought nothing could stop them, a quiet few of us wondered when the bottom would drop out. In the end, San Jose’s luck finally dried up in the 2012 playoffs, and in the midst of an underwhelming 2013, it seems unlikely they’ll regain the form that led them to the league’s best record. Now, when I look at the Men in Red, I see a lot of similarities to the Earthquakes team of 2012.

San Jose was so captivating with their late-game heroics. That said, they caused fans and reporters alike to completely overlook how often they put themselves behind the proverbial eight-ball. They scored a staggering 72 goals, but allowed 43 — the third highest goals against total of the ten 2012 playoff teams. The ‘Quakes had the Supporters Shield all wrapped up, but the team was fatally flawed. Defenders fell asleep on plays early, they had a penchant for committing cheap fouls, and occasional lazy play in the midfield often left them chasing the game. Sound familiar?

I know this is a Chicago Fire blog, and the game last night in no way involved San Jose (who, by the way, happens to be the Fire’s next MLS opponent), but the parallels are rather interesting. More to the point, it’s important that Fire fans stay smart and realize while the Fire are on a bit of a hot streak, there are consequential issues plaguing this squad. Last night served as yet another example of this Jekyll and Hyde Fire team.

Before the showdown even kicked off, you knew it was going to be an interesting evening. It was the second of three games for the Fire in the span of eight days, which led the gaffer, Frank Klopas, to put out a peculiar lineup. He opted to bench Alex, Jeff Larentowicz, and most shockingly, Patrick Nyarko. Nyarko is frequently the ignition to the Fire attack and tends to start almost every game. His omission from the starting eleven was surprising, even given the number of matches in such a short time span.

With Alex, Big Red, and Patty on the bench, we were treated to a midfield of Logan Pause and Daniel Paladini. On the flanks, the Men in Red started off with Dilly Duka out on the right and Joel Lindpere on the left. I can mostly understand these moves, but I’m puzzled why Chris Rolfe got the starting nod yet again.

Rolfe’s been incredibly unproductive this season, and one would assume fatigue is a concern for him as well. Perhaps the only thing keeping him in the starting eleven is how awful Maicon Santos and Sherjill MacDonald have looked off the bench lately. The three of them seem to be in a bizarre battle to see who deserves the bench the most.

The issue with Rolfe and Mike Magee up top together is the severe lack of height. It forces the midfield to play the ball on the ground, hold possession, and allow the forwards time to work an opening. Pause simply isn’t going to give you a pinpoint pass from the back, nor is he going to push forward much. That’s just not his game. Paladini can make those passes, but he needs a midfield partner (read: Alex) who can work with the ball at his feet and connect with him. Again, not Logan Pause.

This all led to the Fire midfield struggling from the outset to connect with their forwards and maintain solid possession. As a result early on, the Fire found themselves passing along the back line, and it was revealed once more that Austin Berry won’t ever earn the nickname “Pillow Feet.” Berry failed to receive a pass cleanly and Dominic Oduro pounced with a steal and sprinted towards goal. Berry has logged every possible minute this season and looks fatigued as a result.

Does the "Cincinnati Kid" Need a break? (image: chicago-fire.com)

Does the “Cincinnati Kid” Need a break? (image: chicago-fire.com)

Bakary Soumare made a great recovery run to cut off a far post shooting option in the box as Sean Johnson came out to meet Oduro. Johnson went diving in on Oduro just inside the box, and Oduro dove over him, dragging his foot to ensure contact before he hit the deck.

Had Oduro not gone down, Soumare had the play covered without issue. Instead, the Crew was awarded a penalty kick. I know the broadcast announcers and many Fire fans felt Oduro dove, thus a penalty kick shouldn’t have been awarded. Even watching the replay again and again, it’s tough to tell if Johnson gets a piece of him or not, and even if he did, there wasn’t much in it.

Truth be told, the referee can’t make that call unless he’s given the opportunity. If Berry didn’t flub the pass, or if Johnson didn’t go diving in on a guy he knows loves to dive, then the call wouldn’t have been made. But, in the end, if Oduro wouldn’t have tried to jump over Johnson, and instead kept his feet under him, Johnson would have cleaned him out for a clear penalty anyway.

Unsurprisingly, Higuain stepped up to the spot and calmly finished the PK in the 7th minute.

1-0, Crew.

Federico Higuain celebrates his cool penalty kick finish. (photo: thecrew.com)

After play resumed, the Fire continued to struggle to string together passes that amounted to anything useful. Routinely, they played long balls out of the back either out wide or up top to their strikers. Columbus has one of the tallest, if not the tallest, rosters in MLS. Thanks to its height, and Chicago’s lack thereof, the Crew was able to easily win the aerial battles.

In the 26th minute the Fire were forced to burn a substitution for Logan Pause, who went down with a knock. It’s hard to tell what exactly happened, but it seemed as though it might have been another concussion for the Fire captain. Hopefully that’s not the case, but nonetheless we wish him a speedy recovery.

Jeff Larentowicz took over for Pause, as Klopas continued to stick to his guns by fielding a true defensive-minded midfielder at all times. The change didn’t really make a difference for the Men in Red in the first half though, as they went into the locker room down by one.

The second half — as is often the case with this team — is where the game found its stride. I’d absolutely love to know what happens in the Fire locker room during halftime. Does Frank bust out some Saturday Night Fever disco moves to get the team riled up? Perhaps it just takes awhile for Austin Berry’s Call of Duty gaming hangover to wear off? Maybe this team just doesn’t know how to win unless its back is against the wall?

Whatever the case, it needs to get straightened out. Give the halftime talk before the game instead, Frank!

At Toyota Park, can the guy running the scoreboard purposely (erroneously) put the opposing team up by one? Can the technical staff set all the players’ watches to the eastern time zone so they’ll wake up in time for the first half?

Whatever they chose to do at the half last night obviously worked. Chicago came out better, played the ball on the ground, and worked it wide through Duka and Lindpere. Interestingly enough, the Fire’s equalizing goal came just seven minutes into the second half.

Lindpere found himself out wide on the left flank, and he whipped in an amazing ball with precision to Duka near the far post. The ex-Columbus player just managed to get a boot on and popped it into the upper netting. Columbus ‘keeper Andy Gruenebaum never stood a chance of making a save, nor could he have picked off the cross before it reached Duka. It was a beautifully worked goal that came out of nowhere. 

1-1.

Then, roughly two minutes later, Lindpere again found himself on the left wing with space, happy to provide. Surprisingly, the Crew back line came down with an acute case of amnesia and failed to remember what happened 120 seconds prior. In déjà vu-like fashion, the Estonian whipped in another beautiful cross and found Mike Magee darting into the box.

The ball barely snuck around a defender before Magee redirected the cross off of his chest and into the back of the net.

2-1, Fire.

Initially, I was skeptical of the Magee deal. Obviously, it was silly for me to not have more faith in his ability to be a difference maker. However, the Fire still need to find a bona fide strike partner for Magee. Chris Rolfe (who came off in the 59th minute for Maicon Santos) simply isn’t cutting it. If Javier Leon can get a deal done for such a player during the upcoming transfer window, imagine how much more magic Mike could produce for this squad.

For such an allegedly fierce rivalry between these two squads, large patches of the match were uneventful. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity? The Fire happily played on the counter after they gained the lead, and were moderately effective in doing so.

Thanks to work from Lindpere and Duka, the Men in Red were able to create chances for a third goal, but could not finish. In the end, Chicago calmly finished off Columbus 2-1.

Dilly Duka was a constant presence on the field for the Men in Red throughout the full 90 minutes. His teammates consistently placed the ball at his quick feet, which allowed him to run at defenders. Encouragingly, Duka improves with each successive start. At just 23 years old, it’s safe to say he hasn’t even begun to scratch surface of what he’s capable of doing on the pitch.

Dilly Duka continues to make his case for a starting spot. (photo: chicago-fire.com)

Unlike the striker situation, there is now a legitimate battle for the wide midfield positions. Nyarko is more than likely safe, but Lindpere and Duka will fight for starts on the left side for the rest of this season.

A few weeks ago, it wouldn’t have mattered if you flipped a coin when it came to choosing the left winger. Now though, the Fire can give teams two incredibly different looks with either Duka or Lindpere. They both play similar styles, but Duka provides a bit more of a scoring threat with his long-range shooting ability and speed. But, if Chicago acquires the true target forward this new 4-4-2 system truly needs, Lindpere may be the better option with his precision crossing.

More importantly, unlike last Wednesday versus Colorado, Columbus had very few chances to equalize late in the second half. When the Fire defense wakes up, it’s a serious force to be reckoned with. Let this be a lesson to other MLS teams who must play Chicago: Score early and often, because the Fire shuts down opponents in the second half when its back line’s alarm clock goes off.

Looking ahead, the Men in Red will face a red-hot Orlando City SC on Wednesday at Toyota Park in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal. Frank Klopas’s starting eleven for this one will be interesting, to say the least. If he wants to win the Cup, he’ll have to use a bona fide starting eleven.

Orlando may not play in MLS, but they have MLS quality in their squad. Moreover, the Lions just had a friendly tune-up this weekend at home vs. Rio’s Fluminense, one of the Brasileirão’s premier clubs. Chicago’s next opponent, a third division USL Pro side, only lost by a goal, 4-3. Orlando City will come into Toyota Park with something to prove and must not be taken lightly. 

The Fire are nearly halfway through the MLS season now, so it’s time to lock down the key pairings throughout the squad. Hopefully, the club will spend wisely up top and in back to solidify this team to allow it a true shot at a playoff run. Things will get very interesting come July 9th when the MLS summer transfer window opens, so stay tuned…

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

ADDENDUM

News broke Sunday morning in Chicago of Arne Friedrich’s retirement. For the details, check out our friend Guillermo Rivera’s post at the Fire Confidential blog.

OTF extends a warm “danke schön” to Arne for his fine performance and class while he wore Fire red. Glück Arne!

7 thoughts on “Dispatch: Chicago Fire (2) at Columbus Crew (1)

  1. I’ve never thought much of the “rivalry.” Columbus is the closest, yes, but when we entered the league, they were really concerned with DC United as their big rival. They were in the East and we were in the West. We developed a rivalry with Dallass. Then obviously we got put in the Central and now the East, but there haven’t been many games of import against them. To me, New England, DC, Dallass, even NY and LA are bigger games than Columbus. Have we ever played a significant game against them?

  2. Not counting the US Open Cup match last week. That one was at least a bit more important than an average league match.

  3. Agreed all around. I hate to be pessimistic, but I think it’s important to realize that this is still a pretty weak team. Yes, we’re riding an unbeaten streak, but our wins have come against similarly struggling teams, and most of our games have been relatively ugly, our goals coming on lucky breaks.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited by some of our current squad, like Magee, Nyarko, and now Duka. But this is not a team that can compete with the big boys. Looking at the rest of the schedule, I see 8 wins at most, IF we beat all the teams we SHOULD beat, which probably isn’t enough to get us into the playoffs, unless Houston or SKC has a complete meltdown.

    Hopefully, I’m wrong, but I also don’t see the addition of one premier striker making all the difference. Do we need one? Absolutely. But these last few matches have exposed a very mistake-prone back line and a midfield that can’t hold on to the ball.

    I feel much better about this team than I did in April, but like all fans, I want Chicago to be one of the dominant teams in the league, from year to year. I want us to have the reputation of a Seattle, or a Los Angeles. Chicago used to be one of those teams before the De Los Cobos Era, and I’m itching to get back to that place in the minds of MLS fans. I’m just not convinced this squad can do it for us, not yet.

    • Totally agree, there are glaring flaws in this team. This unbeaten streak will have to come to an end eventually, and the upcoming schedule is not favorable. They should be able to pick up 3 points against San Jose. The SKC match though, that’s going to be interesting. Under Klopas the Fire have always parked the bus against SKC, completely conceded possession, and merely hoped for a draw. I’m eager to see if that’s the case again (my money says it will be).

      I do, however, think that a premier striker solves a lot of problems. If the defenders have an option up top to lump the ball downfield to, they’ll (hopefully) spend less time passing it along the back line. In theory, that should cut down on some of these costly errors that have plagued the team as of late. It certainly doesn’t solve everything though.

      If the Fire had another defender on the bench, Berry would have to worry about his mistakes and slight dip in form. Instead, he has to feel pretty secure knowing that there simply isn’t anyone on the team that can take his place. The Fire are still flirting with disaster by not having any defensive depth to speak of, and eventually, someone on that back line is going to have to miss a game. It might be an injury, but more than likely someone’s going to accumulate too many yellows, and then what? Wells Thompson at right back again? Ugh.

  4. A few weeks ago one of my daughters made this suggestion. I think now it the appropriate time to propose it for serious consideration.

    From the mouth of babes: “Dad, I think that the Fire should make a deal with Dairy Queen. Anytime Dilly Duka scores a goal D.Q. should give away a free Dilly Bar to anyone with a Fire ticket. I think that would be ‘cool’.”

    *Sigh*

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