Postmortem: Chicago Fire (2) vs. Real Salt Lake (3)
OTF’s Brian Howe Battle looks at Saturday’s Fire meltdown at home…
If drawing when you could have lost feels like victory (as the Fire did in Utah last year), and drawing when you could have won feels like defeat (as we’ve seen many times so far this year), what do you make of losing a match you were winning in 88th minute?
It renders players, staff, and media speechless. Flabbergasted. No pre-scripted TV narrative is equipped to make much sense of such a confounding, enraging, beguiling experience in real time. Making sense of this monumental meltdown is the equivalent of asking a victim “what happened?” as they’re still crawling out of a burning wreck.
Saturday night’s match was a wreck, a slow-motion car crash that bystanders recognized from 30 minutes out, but still seemed inevitable. Granted, if the game was a car crash, the vehicle was a slick, agile machine for most of the game — a fact that makes its breakdown all the more spectacular.
The end score isn’t so much a surprise as it was a march towards the predetermined.
Frank Yallop’s tactics were actually working. US National Kyle Beckerman, who spent most of the first half on the RSL side of the field, was shaded everywhere he went. As the turn-key of Real Salt Lake’s attack, the Men in Red were aware of his movements and for the first 45′, his influence was nonexistent.
With Beckerman neutralized, RSL’s attack was very un-RSL-like. The high Fire back line minimized Salt Lake’s space and forced an unusually high number of lob passes over the top, which Fire authoritarian Baky Soumare relished.
When there was an attack it focussed on isolating left back Chris Winger against Fire right back Lovel Palmer. And Palmer, as we’ve seen all season, gets caught out of position but is able to recover just as quickly. Additionally, the end-to-end play of Patrick Nyarko snuffed out those chances.
In between Real Salt Lake’s unreal possession stats (67.3% in the first half as the visitor), Chicago’s attack was as dynamic as they’ve been this year. The first scoring sequence involved Jeff Larentowicz heading a fifty-fifty ball to Harry “Holy” Shipp, who danced around midfield pressure before placing a leading pass onto the feet of an advancing Palmer, who tapped it on to Patrick Nyarko. Nyarko threaded his pass back between two defenders to Benji Joya, who reacted quickly to the off-target ball and nudged it over to a waiting Shipp, who took a good low shot on goal. Then Mike Magee, who always finds himself in these positions, put the Nick Rimando deflection easily into goal.
Once again, the Fire found themselves up early, but they continued to push. A sequence just minutes after saw Magee chest trap a ball to the ground and then loop a pass to the foot of Juan Luis Anangono, whose one-timer flew wide right. Minutes after that, JLA made good on a lovely header that hooked in from an advancing Greg Cochrane, and the game was quickly two-nil.
The lead, and the crowd, felt comfortable. But what was collectively forgotten was RSL’s persistence. Up top Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata were causing real problems, but the fact that they failed to net any of their myriad of chances had the home side feeling a bit better than they should have.
By half, Chicago had retained their two-score advantage thanks to tremendous stops by ‘keeper Sean Johnson, but there was a half to go, and three points were hardly in the bag.
Real Salt Lake, with the lion’s share of possession as well as a far-superior passing accuracy (82.6% compared to Chicago’s 67.3%), were owning every facet of the game aside from the score. As the second half started, Javier Morales continued to pop up all over his attacking third, and Saborio’s gamesmanship and Plata’s raw speed did not fade as the seconds ticked on.
At this point Yallop was the first to make a move, subbing in the reliable Matt Watson at right mid for Patrick Nyarko who, again, put in a “lunchpail” type effort for the club.
Even in the 63rd minute, as a Magee breakaway resulted in a yellow card for the striker and not a penalty kick, the momentum had clearly swung to Real Salt Lake. Beckerman, who in the previous half stayed back as a caretaker, trotted forward into the Fire’s half and further compounded the Morales-Saborio-Plata threat.
A Salt Lake goal felt inevitable, and it was soon to come. The open play crosses landed like mortar on the Fire back line (14 of them in the second half) and energy, or perhaps just mettle, began to dwindle.
Chances were tried and squandered by RSL, and into the 70th minute the Fire were pock-marked with deflected tries and near-misses. The first breakthrough came from an otherwise mundane sequence, as Plata found a surprising amount of space at the top of the box, and put one through. There were plenty of culprits for poor defending, and one has to wonder, when Yallop claimed in the post game that some of his “guys ducked out of it,” if Plata’s first goal was the first of many events he was referring to.
RSL kept coming. More action from the wings found Cochrane and Palmer scrambling, but with no further damage done. With five minutes left, Yallop removed Magee from the game for Victor Pineda, but the change did not help. With the clock at 89:53, Rimando at midfield recovered a Shipp clearance and fed the ball up the left wing, where an overlapping run was not covered by either Watson or Palmer. The crossed ball drifted just over the head of Soumare and onto the chest of Cochrane, where Saborio found it at his feet and quickly tied the game at 2-2. It seemed, as Jhon kennedy Hurtado slammed his fists into the turf and Larentowicz clutched his hair, that the Fire were destined for another draw.
Just three minutes later though, the inconceivable happened. Again on the left flank, lax defending (or communication) between Pineda and Watson found Morales with an unseemly amount of space just outside the 18-yard box and his cross found the foot of Plata for the winner — the third goal of the half, and the second in the dwindling minutes of the game. The replay clearly shows Plata offside, but Cochrane’s mistimed header will nonetheless remain the culprit for the Fire’s second loss of the season.
Breaking Chicago’s run of ties in the worst way, the atmosphere post game was dour. Press was held outside the locker room longer than usual and Yallop had no post-game summation for the media before opening it up for questions. The skipper described himself as sickened, labeling his squad’s play as “naive,” and assured changes to the lineup before next week’s difficult away matchup with New York Red Bulls.
No doubt, there is plenty to be said behind closed doors, but after such a self-destructive second half, the Fire have no easy answers, and a multitude of questions leading into a difficult string of games.
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OTF Contributor Brian Howe Battle is a Chicago local, burgeoning cynic, and soccer nOOb. You can find his other soccer musings at the Owen Goal blog. Follow Brian on Twitter at @OwenGoal.