Toothless Fire Desperate for Goals

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(via Chicago Fire website)

The absence of David Accam and a clinical finisher made apparent in their 2-1 loss.

Real Salt Lake demonstrated remarkable efficiency in front of goal on Saturday at Toyota Park and sent the Chicago Fire to a disappointing 2:1 defeat. The up-and-down Fire started the season with three consecutive defeats, bounced back to win three in a row, and have now dropped their last two. The biggest story continues to be the moribund finishing.

Coach Frank Yallop rearranged his formation, necessitated in part by the absence of suspended winger David Accam, forced to sit out following his late red card versus Kansas City. In the back, Lovel Palmer returned to the lineup in favor of Eric Gehrig. Matt Watson, back from suspension, paired with Matt Polster in the center of midfield, displacing Chris Ritter. Yallop then sent Shaun Maloney and Harry Shipp to the wide spots, leaving Guly do Prado to play the underneath forward behind Quincy Amarikwa. Afterwards, Yallop said that the pairing of do Prado and Amarikwa was an idea that looked good on paper. One can only hope that Yallop has crumpled up that piece of paper and tossed it into the trash.

Offensively, the Fire did a lot of things well. They won the possession battle, 56%-44%, outshot RSL 14-5, and racked up 14 corner kicks to 3 for the visitors. Both Palmer and Jones added an attacking dimension out of the back that provided a new level of creativity. Palmer is far superior to Gehrig in this respect. Jones rebounded nicely on Saturday from a subpar performance in Kansas City and was probably the Fire’s best attacking player.

When your left back is your best offensive threat, it means that your team is lacking in the most important statistical area, and that is scoring goals. RSL only had five shots, but two found the back of the net. On the other side, the Fire’s strikers sputtered like a car destined for the scrap heap. Although 14 shots looks like a decent total, RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando only had to make two saves.

With an attack that struggles to find the finishing touch, the Fire’s defense needs to strive for perfection. Every team out there has flaws, so it’s too much for the Fire to expect their defense to bail them out week after week.

There was plenty of blame to pass around on both of RSL’s goals. The first goal came after 13 minutes and it was an excellent example of what a patient build-up can deliver. In the moments leading up to the goal, RSL worked the ball from side to side with relative ease in the middle third of the field. During this interval, the Fire did a very good job of holding their marks and not leaving any space for RSL to exploit.

A key element of the patient build-up is to recognize a moment of weakness and exploit it quickly. RSL’s left-side fullback, Demar Phillips received a pass from the middle and began a push forward. Shipp was the only Fire player in the vicinity and was suddenly faced with a decision of whether to challenge Phillips or to concede more space. He moved to close the distance to Phillips and this was the first step in the crucial breakdown of the Fire defense. Phillips slid a pass to Jordan Allen, who had run into the space vacated by Shipp. Watson was left marking no one and Palmer was also alone in a withdrawn position near the 18.

Allen loped into the area on the wing and sent a square pass across the top of the penalty area. Both Alvaro Saborio and Luis Gil were potential targets for Allen’s pass, and only Adailton was in the neighborhood to do any defending. When Gil astutely let the ball pass through for Saborio, Adailton was caught on the wrong foot. Polster was late to the party and could not intervene, as Saborio drove a low, hard shot towards Sean Johnson’s right-hand post. Saborio recognized the importance of putting this chance away and showed how a striker has to have surgical precision in order to be effective. The simplicity of how this goal was constructed takes nothing at all away from its elegance.

RSL doubled their advantage in the 56th minute and once again used patience to create the opportunity. When the time came to deliver the killer pass, the Fire were left helpless. RSL moved the ball around the left flank casually and comfortably. The Fire’s marking was conservative and everyone established good goal-side positions. What the Fire needed in this instance was to be disruptive, rather than passive. RSL was ready to pounce.

A quick 1-2 released Devon Sandoval into the penalty area, leaving Adailton a step behind. Adailton was ball-watching when Allen was about to thread the ball through for Sandoval and this was all that the RSL striker needed. The play quickly evolved into a 2 v 1 situation, as Jones was left to deal with the mess. Sandoval passed into the middle for Luke Mulholland, who had drifted into the clear off of Jones’ back shoulder.

Yallop eventually brought on Kennedy Igboananike for do Prado and this injected a bit of life into the Fire attack. Jones crossed the ball into a dangerous position in the box and Rimando did well to block Igboananike’s volley from 12 yards in the 68th minute.

The Fire netted a consolation goal when Maloney was knocked over from behind in the 88th minute and referee Drew Fischer immediately pointed to the spot. Captain Jeff Larentowicz did the honors, driving home the penalty kick with a low shot to Rimando’s right.

After eight matches, the Fire have a scoring problem. They have scored just seven goals in eight games and their leading scorer is Larentowicz. So far, all of the players who have featured at the striker position have failed. Amarikwa and do Prado was the latest duo up front were completely ineffective. Igboananike has started just twice and apparently has not done enough in training to supplant either Amarikwa or do Prado. Maybe now is the time to give Igboananike an extended run in the starting lineup and see whether he can be productive alongside Maloney, Accam and Shipp. So far, this foursome have been on the field together for a total of 52 minutes over three matches, and never with all four as starters. Given the paucity of goals for this team, it would not be a stretch to give young Jason Johnson an opportunity. After all, he came over here from Houston in the hope that a change of scenery would benefit his game. The Fire could hardly do worse if they gave Johnson a chance.

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OTF contributor George Gorecki has been involved at amateur levels of soccer as a player, coach, referee and administrator.

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