Postmortem: Chicago Fire (1) at Vancouver Whitecaps (3)
OTF’s Brian Howe Battle returns to review the Fire’s latest disappearing act…
After a string of June successes, Chicago’s playoff aspirations look less promising following a 3-1 embarrassment at the hands of the Vancouver Whitecaps last Sunday evening. After going unbeaten in six straight MLS contests, the team’s future must once again be called into question after two consecutive toothless losses to playoff-caliber teams.
The Fire played a strong (if spotty) first 45 and left the field at the half with what seemed like a chance to steal some points from the home side who, like Chicago, failed to capitalize on its goal-scoring opportunities.
It was a different story after the break though.
The ‘Caps stepped up their aggression and shelled a Fire defensive line that looked increasingly flimsy. A Goal-of-the-Week-worthy effort by Vancouver attacker Camilo Sanvezzo in the 66th minute opened the floodgates. Sanvezzo, a newly-minted all-star forward, netted another five minutes later, putting him ahead of Magic Mike in goals scored this season.
A frustrating game-sealer by substitute Kekutah Manneh made it 3-0 ‘Caps, and lefty Kenny Miller sprayed excellent chances while Vancouver pummeled Chicago into submission. Patrick Nyarko notched his second “junk time” goal of the season to cut the deficit to two in stoppage time, but the scoreline betrayed a sound beating for the Fire.
Criticism can be lobbed at many for the loss, but the story of the match was the atrocious Fire defense. The back four played a very high line during the first half, with both Bakary Soumare and Austin Berry intercepting long passes and bringing them back up into the attacking third. It was a positive development at the time, but a high work rate may have not been the best game plan for two centerbacks who were noticeably gassed after starting so many consecutive games the past two months.
With Gonzalo Segares suspended for yellow card accumulation, newcomer Shaun Francis complicated matters by being caught on the wrong end of the field during a number of counterattacks — a pattern that caused left winger Dilly Duka to track back for support and not push the agenda in Vancouver’s defensive half. Francis also had some possession and control difficulties throughout, and received what one might call a “posterization” on Camilo’s first goal.
The Brazilian forward took down a long ball that was the taller Francis’s to give up. Camillo then cut inside towards goal past Francis (and a lazy Chris Rolfe challenge) and juked Chicago’s new left back on a fake left-footed effort before switching to his right, and zipped it past a visibly frustrated Paolo Tornaghi.
To be fair though, Francis hadn’t played a full match as a Fire defender yet — an excuse the rest of the back line (Jalil Anibaba, Berry, and Soumare) cannot make.
Berry, playing through what looked like a shoulder injury, volleyed multiple balls into his own goal’s line of fire. Soumare’s lackadaisical treatment of possession and distribution continues to unnerve, but most troubling is the shot that gave Camilo his second goal. “Individual” mistakes have been the culprit for many goals this year, but this was clearly a group meltdown — one the Fire couldn’t recover from even after an amazing first effort by Tornaghi kept out Camilo’s first attempt.
Anibaba didn’t have a terrible game, but his attacking skill leaves much to be desired. His crosses don’t seem to connect, and it’s obvious he’s not going to beat anyone one-on-one (see: Graham Zusi schooling him last Sunday). Perhaps most-discouraging though is that opponents have solved the riddle of the Anibaba-to-Berry throw-in at the corner of the 6-yard box. Nothing even close to a decent chance has come off this move in some time.
But enough about the defensive end of things, let’s talk about the offense.
The Fire attack was, um… not good. Vancouver plays a 4-3-3, so there should have been more opportunities to attack from the flanks. Nyarko and Duka did have their moments in the game, but there were not enough approaches up the sides and too few balls were pushed to the byline.
It’s clear the Fire attack has ideas and creativity, but few have connected lately. Balls are continually put behind advancing teammates, back heels roll to no one in particular, and the group’s lack of size makes holding the ball up a Sisyphean task.
The first half showed some promise. An early Mike Magee cross was brought down by Chris Rolfe in the box, who showed good on-ball skills to bring it down and was able to pivot and strike, but the ball landed squarely in the hands of goalkeeper Brad Knighton — an occurrence all-too-common throughout the game. Magee put a similar lob into Rolfe early in the 2nd half that was headed over the crossbar.
The interplay between Rolfe and Magee is productive at times, but at 5’8” and 5’9″ respectively, the Fire clearly lacks a target man to compliment its mighty-mites. Maicon Santos has the physique and tools, but can’t be depended upon for consistent play. And the DP Dutchman who should be playing the role is more into selfies than soccer these days.
Without the suspended Daniel Paladini, Joel Lindpere came in and showed some promise with two late crosses — both of which could’ve been goals. Other positives were Alex’s defensive work rate and Quincy Amarikwa’s spark off the bench and knack for providing danger.
All-in-all, the Fire appeared to regress to pre-Magee form in this one. Particularly, Sunday’s performance resembled Chicago’s no-show against Chivas USA (also a Tornaghi start) — a game that was within reach and full of opportunities until a second half goal catalyzed a total defensive meltdown.
It’s a bit premature to declare their MLS campaign D.O.A., but it sure feels like the Men in Red are slipping. Unfortunately, their 2013 clock is ticking.
The window of opportunity to improve and bring in reinforcements during the transfer window is closing fast. Regardless, given the form and quality of the seven teams above them in the Eastern Conference table, it may already be too late to think about the playoffs.