Hard-Working Fire Earn Their Point Against Rival Columbus
In a reversal of the endgame of their last match, the Chicago Fire pulled out an equalizer deep into stoppage time and grabbed a vital point at Columbus. Substitute Jason Johnson headed home Eric Gehrig’s cross with almost the last touch of the match and the Fire nabbed a 2:2 draw. Columbus had taken a commanding 2:0 lead, thanks to a pair of goals from ace sniper Kei Kamara. The Crew failed to put this one to bed, unsuccessfully bunkering their team for the final quarter hour.
Coach Frank Yallop brought back his best attacking foursome to start their second straight match together: Harry Shipp, Shaun Maloney and David Accam backing up lone striker Kennedy Igboananike in a 4-2-3-1. Yallop, however, made two changes in the back, raising eyebrows when he selected Jon Busch in goal over regular starter Sean Johnson. There was no indication of injury to Johnson, and his recent play, while not stellar, certainly would not have earned him a benching. The Fire do not lose any quality at the goalkeeper position when they bring in Busch. Gehrig also replaced Lovell Palmer at right back.
The Fire’s tactical focus in this match had to center on keeping Kamara in check and making sure that playmaker Federico Higuain did not have room to roam in midfield and shred the Fire with his precision passing. The Fire did poorly with Kamara, but full credit to Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster for their job on Higuain.
The match started at a brisk pace for both sides and an open, aggressive approach portended a contest that would feature good goalscoring chances. The teams combined for 27 shots and each keeper made four saves.
The Crew opened their account after just eight minutes and atrocious marking by the Fire played a big role. Although the Fire had nine men defending within 35 yards of their goal, the marking was inattentive. The Crew took full advantage of the laxness. Justin Meram turned into open space 30 yards rom goal and none of three Fire players got in to close him down. Joevin Jones, nowhere near Meram, got caught ball-watching as Ethan Finlay loped into the space behind him. Meram sent a tantalizing through pass into the space and Finlay squared the ball for Kamara to tap home. Neither Jeff Larentowicz nor Gehrig paid enough attention to Kamara during the build-up and their recognition of his dangerous position came far too late. When you’re going up against a red-hot striker, you absolutely have to account for his presence at all times, and this was a miserable failure by Chicago.
The Fire were trying to play a speedy brand of soccer, seeking to get the ball on frame as quickly as possible. They did not have much success breaking down Columbus, as goalkeeper Steve Clark was seriously challenged just once in the first half. A Fire corner kick was cleared to Accam in the 27th minute and the winger drove a high-velocity volley from the arc. Clark went full stretch to knock the ball to safety.
Cocis was the most active attacker for the Fire in the first half, consistently winning balls and making smart passes to his teammates.
Columbus doubled their lead ten minutes into the second frame. Sustained pressure led to a couple of corner kicks, and it was the second one in this sequence that proved fruitful. Higuain floated a cross towards the near post, where Kevan George headed along to Kamara, who crushed an open header past the helpless Busch. Kamara positioned himself at the top of the 18 as Higuain took the corner and was marked closely by Larentowicz. A quick sprint towards goal left Larentowicz second-best and Kamara made short work of George’s ball.
The Fire replied shortly thereafter to bring the deficit back to one. Igboananike, who consistently tormented Crew defenders with his speed and impressive work rate, carried the ball along the left flank and sent a cross for Accam. A Columbus player deflected the cross, but Accam adjusted his run and drove a strong header past Clark.
The Fire got back into this match because of their commitment to defensive pressure higher up the field for the first 20 minutes of the second half. The Crew and their methodical approach had earned them a significant possession advantage, but the Fire reversed that trend in the second half. Thus, their comeback was a product of increasing their work rate.
The other thing that the Fire need to increase is their shooting accuracy. They created several excellent opportunities in the second half and were undone by errant shooting. They might have totally overcome the two-goal deficit with better marksmanship.
The match went level on almost the final touch of the ball, four minutes into stoppage time. Joevin Jones had the ball at midfield on the left wing and switched the play to the right side of the Columbus penalty area, where Gehrig had made an unnoticed incursion. He crossed the ball into the mixer, and there was the resourceful Jason Johnson, who was left unmarked by two Crew defenders. Johnson’s precisely placed header just inside the left post eluded the fingertips of Clark and the Fire brought home a point no one would have expected a half hour earlier.
Hard work does matter and the Fire showed plenty of desire to roll up their sleeves and get after it, once they had gone two goals behind. Unfortunately, the Fire’s defensive failings are occurring with a maddening frequency. It is this part of their game that needs to improve, because stoppage-time rescues cannot be counted on week after week.
OTF contributor George Gorecki has been involved at amateur levels of soccer as a player, coach, referee and administrator.