Fire Have That Sinking Feeling

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(photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

The Chicago Fire, floundering in last place in MLS’s Eastern Conference, have passed the midpoint of the regular season and basically face must-win situations in almost every match. It really should be too early to think about results in those terms in July, but the hole that the Fire have dug for themselves has become awfully deep, leaving very little margin for error.

The Fire might have hoped for a turnabout to their fortunes with two encounters versus Columbus within the span of five days. The scheduling provided an opportunity to climb up the table. And with only 18 points on their account, a minimum of four points from this pair of games would be the absolute minimum.

Instead, the Fire returned home from Columbus with those same 18 points, following 1:0 and 3:1 defeats to the Crew. At Toyota Park last Wednesday, the Fire were played off the pitch in the first half and were extremely fortunate to be down only a goal. Their moribund attack, however, ensured that the lone tally for the Crew would be sufficient for them to chalk up their first road victory of the season. The Fire looked livelier in the rematch in Columbus on Sunday, but glaring defensive errors doomed them almost from the start.

In the first match, coach Frank Yallop faced significant absences in his back line. Matt Polster replaced the suspended Adailton and Patrick Doody got the start at left back. By playing Polster in the back, Yallop had to choose between Chris Ritter and Matt Watson in midfield, and neither have impressed this season. Ritter got the nod, pairing with Razvan Cocis. Mike Magee and Kennedy Igboananike formed Yallop’s forward tandem. Given the players who were unavailable, it was probably Yallop’s best 11.

The Fire were overrun in the first half. They were unable to maintain any sort of coherent possession and the Crew wasted little time piling on the pressure. They eventually broke through in the 41st minute, and the goal was a classic example of the Fire’s lack of defensive fundamentals. The Crew recognized the weak spot for the Fire and ruthlessly exploited it for a well-deserved goal. Doody had pushed forward to join the Fire attack and certainly had all of the right intentions. However, he was dispossessed deep in the Columbus end and the turnover was the ignition point for a counterattack executed with precision.

The Crew immediately saw that Doody was out of position after the turnover and no one from the Fire had shifted over to cover the space that Doody had vacated. This left acres of green grass for Ethan Finlay, who raced into Fire territory. With no balance on the left side of their formation, the remaining Fire defenders scrambled to control Finlay’s movements. Finlay had other ideas. With plenty of time and space, he crossed the ball into the middle for Kei Kamara, who demonstrated trampoline-like spring in his legs to outjump everyone and crash a header into the back of the net.

The mistakes on this goal were pathetic. Once Doody pushed forward, someone needed to shift into that space to cut off a potential counter. The slack marking on Kamara was abominable. He is, after all, the league’s leading scorer. In the middle of a counterattack, there is plenty of space to exploit. That the Fire did not account for Kamara is inexcusable.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson certainly brought his A Game to Toyota Park. His heroics were the only reason that the final score did not reach embarrassing proportions.

Yallop made two changes before the hour mark, bringing on Patrick Nyarko for Michael Stephens, and Jason Johnson for Igboananike. The game evened out somewhat after that, but no comeback was in the cards for the Fire.

In Sunday’s rematch, Yallop reformatted his lineup in unconventional fashion. His approach of putting his fastest players on the field at the start was definitely different. And why not, as the Fire are quickly approaching the point where doing the same thing over again every week simply won’t work. Yallop’s hand was forced in part by a knee injury sustained by Magee on Wednesday. It appeared to be a minor knock for the striker, but it still prevented him from training leading up to Sunday’s contest.

Polster’s versatility was put to the test, as he shifted to right back, allowing Adailton to pair with Eric Gehrig. Matt Watson rotated into the holding mid spot alongside Cocis. Nyarko and Accam took up the flanks, while Harry Shipp and Jason Johnson got the nod up top.

Things could not have started worse for the Fire. Columbus quickly sent the ball towards goal from the opening kickoff. The Fire were caught unaware and Sean Johnson was caught in no-man’s land as Finlay flicked the ball past him and then tumbled to the turf after colliding with the goalie. Referee Chris Penso pointed to the spot, and that was that. Examining the replay showed that the contact was more of an incidental collision than a takedown by Johnson. Regardless, a higher sense of alertness at midfield at the kickoff might have prevented the Crew from such a direct path to the Fire penalty area. Gonzalo Higuain fired the penalty past Johnson and the Crew were already in the driver’s seat.

The Fire’s speed advantage was evident, as Accam and Nyarko were finding dangerous spaces behind the Columbus defense. Better finishing could have pushed that advantage in the Fire’s favor.

The Fire leveled the affair in the ninth minute, when Accam drilled a free kick from the arc past keeper Steve Clark. Accam benefitted from a slight deflection by a Columbus player in the defensive wall, but he struck the ball sweetly, achieving an enterprising trajectory from a difficult location for a free kick.

The Crew continued their opportunistic ways in the 17th minute, as the Fire were unable to clear an innocuous ball from their penalty area. Sean Johnson came far off his line to punch the ball clear and failed to get there in time. The ball fell to Waylon Francis on the left side of the penalty area, who crossed back to right side, where Kamara outjumped Johnson to head home for a 2:1 lead. When Johnson failed to clear the initial cross, he was immediately out of position and Columbus struck quickly. In that situation, Johnson must be absolutely sure that he wins that initial ball. Had he stayed back, he would have snared Francis’ cross before Kamara could have reached it.

Things only got worse for the Fire when Jason Johnson received his second caution in the 50th minute. Penso’s decision was a harsh one. A player should be cautioned for embellishment only when he tries to con the referee into thinking a foul occurred where there was none. Tyson Wahl did collide with Johnson, and one can debate whether it was a foul. But what exactly did Johnson embellish? No one can deny there was contact, and even Wahl was expecting the worst when he heard Penso’s whistle.

Yallop had to put away his master plan when Nyarko and Accam were subbed off for Igboananike and Guly do Prado midway through the second half. Both of those players were definite downgrades from the players whom they replaced. Neither substitute had any substantial positive impact on the match.

The seriousness of this team’s problems was underscored in this home-and-away series. Injuries affect all teams, but roster depth is the way a coach can see his team fight through the adversity. At this point, the Fire’s bench players are simply not good enough. It would be great to see a Fire 11 with all players healthy and available. Will we see it this season? Will it be too late to salvage something out of this nightmare?

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