Preseason Dispatch: Chicago Fire (2) vs. Chivas Rayadas (0)

Last night marked successive preseason trophies for the Men in Red (photo: chicago-fire.com)

Saturday night’s win marked consecutive preseason trophies for the Men in Red (photo: chicago-fire.com)

OTF editor Scott Fenwick wraps the Fire’s preseason with a look at their final warm-up in the desert… 

I find it hard to get excited about preseason trophies. They’re nothing more than empty vessels that, at times, simply provide false hope. Take last preseason for example. Right about this time a year ago, pundits regarded the Men in Red as a top team in the Eastern Conference, and most thought Frank Klopas and company were a playoff lock. Indeed, when the winter session was said and done, Fire Nation was rejoicing in the scene below.

Then captain Logan Pause hoists the 2013 Carolina Challenge Cup (photo: @ChicagoFire)

Then captain Logan Pause parades the 2013 Carolina Challenge Cup (photo: @ChicagoFire)

Don’t get me wrong, I reveled in last year’s Carolina Challenge Cup win. Its matches were played against a solid USL PRO side (Charlotte Eagles) and two MLS sides that made the playoffs the previous season (Houston Dynamo and Vancouver Whitecaps). It felt good.

After a successful preseason run, most fans were excited about 2013’s prospects. Back then, even the skeptics couldn’t have imagined the disaster that would be Chicago Fire’s first ten matches — a run of such utter futility that their MLS-best record in the latter two-thirds of the season couldn’t lift them into a playoff spot.

Similarly, this year’s preseason tournament in Tuscon was played against lesser competition (fourth-tier FC Tuscon and a Mexican developmental squad), as well as playoff-caliber MLS foes (Colorado Rapids and New England Revolution). In the end, Chicago went 7-1-0 overall this winter, including a 3-1-0 record in Arizona, and lifted the Desert Diamond Cup. Now, like last year, most fans are looking forward to success on the pitch in 2014.

Now captain Jeff Larentowicz hoists the 2014 Desert Diamond Cup (photo: @ChicagoFire)

Now captain Jeff Larentowicz parades the 2014 Desert Diamond Cup (photo: @ChicagoFire)

Certainly, today’s hopeful sentiment is no more unreasonable than last year’s. I’m excited too. Thing is though, I cannot put any credence in preseason results, nor preseason silverware. When I walk by the trophy case in the Stadium Club in Toyota Park, and look at the 2013 Carolina Challenge Cup, it does nothing but make me cringe and shake my head at memories of failure and unmet expectations.

To be fair though, that was then and this is now. Now, it’s time to give credit where it’s due and have a look at Frank Yallop and his boys’ final success of the 2014 preseason: a 2-0 win over Chivas de Guadalajara’s U-20 development squad down in the desert.

After heavy rain gave way at dusk on Saturday night, Yallop sent what looks to be his preferred XI, sans Mike Magee (Chris Rolfe), onto the windy pitch at the Kino Sports Complex in his now de rigueur 4-1-4-1:

fire xi vs chivas rayadas

The first ’45 pitted Fire veterans vs. Chivas kids, with the latter side composed of 17 to 20 year-olds who ply their trade in Mexico’s third division. Chicago looked lively and compact from the outset and, aided by the wind at their backs, were able to score within the first 15 minutes.

Shortly after nearly missing a header goal off a fine long ball from Lovel Palmer, Juan Luis Anangonó opened the Fire’s account. Patrick Nyarko pounced on an errant, lazy Chivas pass out of the back that rolled left-to-right in front of the box. Nyarko, with plenty of time and space, dished to Anangonó, who curled one into the back of the net with authority. 1-0 Fire.

While Chicago’s side of the scoreboard didn’t continue to light up, the Fire attack certainly didn’t let up. Led by Alex, who played like a man feeling pressure behind him on the depth chart, the Fire maintained their high-pressure game and easily snuffed out Chivas counterattacks. The Brazilian epitomized a box-to-box center midfielder and worked tirelessly on both sides of the ball.

While wind played havoc with Chivas’s ability to defend and get the ball out of their own half, Fire scoring chances came steadily, with Jeff Larentowicz, Lovel Palmer, Chris Rolfe, and the aforementioned Alex in the attacking mix. Two quality chances came just before halftime, with JLA heading to crossbar, and Rolfe’s follow-up back kick hitting the right post; the sequence initialized by a nifty chip from Lovel Palmer.

While the Fire showed well in the first half, Chris Rolfe, despite flashes of competence at the #10 position, regressed into ghost mode too often. Like last season, Rolfe just doesn’t appear to want it as much as the other attackers. He had too many giveaways and was frustratingly inconsistent.

This guy came out to play on Saturday night (photo: chicago-fire.com)

This guy came out to play on Saturday night, and showed his versatility (photo: chicago-fire.com)

Aside from a number of successive substitutions, the second half didn’t differ much from the first. Chicago controlled the run of play and constantly pressured the Chivas goal throughout the latter ’45.

A missed opportunity for a second goal came around the 52nd minute after lazy defending by Chivas gave way to the Fire’s press. After a turnover, Patrick Nyarko dribbled into the area and was tripped up just outside of the six-yard box. Unfortunately, Jeff Larentowicz proceeded to telegraph a penalty kick into the hands of a diving Chivas ‘keeper, whose deflection Nyarko collected. Nyarko crossed to Rolfe, whose direct shot was easily saved.

The 65-minute mark began a 20-minute slew of Chicago substitutions, beginning with Harry Shipp for Nyarko on the right-wing, and followed minutes later by Mike Magee for Chris Rolfe at CM and Quincy Amarikwa for Anangonó up top. Magee immediately set forth with directing traffic up front, while Shipp slotted in next to the Magic One in the middle.

Alex subsequently moved to left-wing, while Dilly Duka (eventually replaced by Benji Joya) switched to the right side. Logan Pause relieved Larentowicz in the 85th minute, the latter of whom was lucky not to be sent off after a reckless, two-footed challenge.

A sight for sore eyes (photo: @ChicagoFire)

A sight for sore eyes (photo: @ChicagoFire)

Late in the game, Quincy Amarikwa put the bow on Chicago’s preseason with a 90th minute left-footer, set up by a Magee header and Joya through-ball. Amarikwa showed patience to wait for the Chivas ‘keeper to commit, and quickly slotted the ball into the back corner of the net with his off foot.

Overall, the 2-0 win was marked by a solid defensive effort from the Fire that limited Chivas’s scoring opportunities. The back line kept its shape and, for the most part, kept pressure off Sean Johnson. On the offensive side, the Men in Red created a number of scoring chances, including a handfull of hit crossbars and posts. Turn the missed Larentowicz PK into a goal, and it’s likely an in-form Chicago side puts four or five on the board against the youngsters from Guadalajara.

And for good measure, Juan Luis won a trophy for his personal collection…

JLA MVP (photo: instagram.com/chicagofire)

JLA MVP (photo: instagram.com/chicagofire)

So what are we to make of the 2014 Chicago Fire? With the MLS regular season opener only days away at Chivas USA, what are some encouraging signs to take solace in? Moreover, what concerns should perhaps check our unabashed enthusiasm?

Encouraging signs

  • Shape & tactics: Frank Yallop’s 4-1-4-1, high pressure game seems to suit his personnel and will certainly make for enjoyable viewing.
  • Coaching quality and philosophy: Yallop and C.J. Brown are experienced leaders and winners who will likely get maximum effort out of each player.
  • Roster depth: Competition at most positions will push starters to up their respective games. Squad rotation should occur without a drop in overall efficacy. Young players should see a good number of minutes.
  • Defensive improvement: While it may be foolish to use preseason performance as a barometer for what’s going to happen starting March 9th, the Fire defense only yielded two goals in eight friendlies this winter. In any case, things should be better than last year.

Causes for concern

  • Jeff Larentowicz’s ability to be a controller, not just a destroyer, as the lone defensive midfielder
  • Sean Johnson’s ability to effectively distribute the ball out of the back while under pressure in an attacking, possession-based system
  • Chris Rolfe’s ability to be an effective, reliable reserve player
  • Alex’s ability to put in consistent, quality shifts as the box-to-box center midfielder
  • The length of time it will take Mike Magee and Juan Luis Anangonó to click up top as the central attacking duo.
  • Dilly Duka’s ability to keep his head up and willingness to dish to his teammates during the attacking run of play

Can’t wait until Sunday…

****

Scott Fenwick founded On The Fire in 2012 and is its Executive Editor. Scott co-hosts the On The Fire Soccer Radio Podcast, contributes to the Guardian’s (UK) MLS fan previewsThe Cup.usPickles Magazineand is America’s #1 Rapid supporter.

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