Chicago Fire are World Beaters… For a Half
The Chicago Fire uncorked their attacking power when they took on New York City FC on Friday at Yankee Stadium and were 2:0 up before a half hour had elapsed. But fundamental defensive errors at the most crucial moments proved costly, as NYC conjured goals in stoppage time of both halves and salvaged a point that they had no business winning. For their part, the Fire had an opponent reeling and lacked the knockout punch to bag their first road victory of the season…
Coach Frank Yallop put out his most potent attacking lineup of the season to start a match, finally linking Harry Shipp, Shaun Maloney, David Accam, and Kennedy Igboananike in the first 11. He stayed with his familiar 4-2-3-1, the only other change coming in midfield, as Razvan Cocis replaced Matt Watson as Matt Polster’s partner in front of the back four. Maloney occupied a central role behind Igboananike, and was flanked by Shipp and Accam.
The Fire wasted no time revving the offensive engines, creating three excellent chances in the early minutes. Jeff Larentowicz will rue not converting his volley in the sixth minute, as he made a shrewd run to the back post on a corner kick.
The breakthrough came in the 14th minute. A seemingly innocuous free kick on the left wing became trouble in a hurry for NYC. Maloney alertly put the ball in play before the defense was ready, floating it into the box. Cocis jumped high to send a looping header over goalkeeper Josh Saunders, whose positioning on the play was downright amateurish. He gave no indication that he was coming to make a play for the ball and was too far off his line to do anything about Cocis’ header.
The overall composure by the Fire was the foundation for their dominance. They played smart, simple balls all over the field, and the speed of Accam and Igboananike made NYC’s defenders nervous the entire time. Igboananike was especially active and gave the team something that neither Quincy Amarikwa nor Guly do Prado could provide, attacking prowess that forced the defense to adjust to the actions of the striker.
On the other side of the ball, NYC were a shambles. They failed to string even three passes together and lacked cohesion. Their attacks were either thwarted in the middle of the field or resulted in Chicago Fire goal kicks.
The Fire doubled their pleasure in the 26th minute. Accam stepped in front of a pass intended for a flat-footed RJ Allen at midfield and scampered into a breakaway, with only Saunders to beat. As Saunders came out to engage Accam, Allen clipped him from behind. Referee Ted Unkel pointed to the spot and then sent Allen to an early shower. Larentowicz converted the penalty and the Fire appeared to have the match under full control.
The home side got a lifeline in first-half stoppage time when the Fire defense fell apart for no discernible reason. Striker David Villa teed up a shot from distance and three Fire players converged on him. None could get close enough to prevent his bullet shot, and keeper Sean Johnson dove to make the block. The ball remained loose for Mehdi Ballouchy, who blasted past Johnson to bring NYC back into the contest. That Ballouchy romped into the Fire penalty are unmarked was a criminal lack of marking. It was bad enough that three players got drawn towards Villa, but Lovell Palmer did not pinch in from the right side to help, and neither Cocis nor Palmer took account of Ballouchy running into open space.
The Fire’s approach in the second half was a dramatic turnabout from the first half. The quick-moving possession game was replaced by a counterattacking style. Whether this change was tactical or whether the players simply got too conservative for their own good, the change invited NYC back into the match.
Playing for the counter while a man up is actually an intelligent strategy because it forces the opponent to make hard decisions. And with Accam and Igboananike keeping NYC’s defenders on edge in the first half, a few well-placed passes should have carved up the NYC backline. It turned out that the Fire were often outnumbered on the counter, a situation made more shocking by the fact that the Fire were playing 11 v 10.
With the Fire lagging back in a defensive posture, NYC converted first-half chaos into a possession game of their own. This was the Fire’s ultimate downfall. By scaling back the defensive pressure and choosing to sit back and absorb, they allowed NYC a level of confidence that never should have existed, given what the Fire had accomplished in the first half.
Despite this change in approach, the Fire created several opportunities that could have led to a vital third goal. Unfortunately, the Fire attacks were coming only sporadically, rather than wave after wave, as they did in the first half. Yallop was seeking that third goal, as all of his substitutions were made with attack in mind.
The Fire failed to lock things down in the endgame and suffered mightily. NYC’s equalizer exposed several embarrassing defensive mistakes, all of them mental. And all of the mistakes came from playing a passive style of soccer in the second half.
Khiry Shelton, who had come on in the 60th minute, started the play from the left flank by casually rolling a pass to Mix Diskerud, who was positioned outside the Fire penalty area. When Diskerud received the ball, seven Fire players were in and around the 18-yard line, and five were too far away from any NYC player to be effectively marking anyone. Diskerud easily played a pass inside to Villa, who received the ball at the top of the box with his back to goal. He pivoted past Polster and Cocis and threaded a pass between Adailton and Joevin Jones. Shelton had drifted inside after initiating the play and ghosted behind Larentowicz’s shoulder to receive Villa’s entry pass and fired past a diving Johnson for the equalizer in the first minute of stoppage time.
The Fire’s idea of a lockdown defense to close out the match appeared to be to get bodies behind the ball. While that is the essential first step, just standing as an obstacle is hardly effective. On the equalizing goal, Villa’s turn with the ball and incisive pass to Shelton removed four Fire players from the play. The Fire were active and aggressive in the first half and kept NYC’s midfield in a state of disorder, a stark contrast to the mannequins that ended the game.
OTF contributor George Gorecki has been involved at amateur levels of soccer as a player, coach, referee and administrator.