Fire Defense Leads to Latest Letdown

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Much of the pre-game hype leading up to the Fire’s tilt with the New England Revolution last Saturday centered on Drogba Watch, as fans waited to see whether an aging striker still has enough magic left to provide some hope for a season that was quickly sinking into oblivion. Discussion regarding Didier Drogba’s effectiveness was the perfect fodder for debate while having a pre-game beer. That discussion, unfortunately, missed the point about what ails this Fire team far more acutely than adding more firepower up top, and that is the atrocious level of defending. Amateurish mistakes were on full display at Toyota Park on Saturday, as the Fire and Revs shared the spoils in a 2:2 draw.

Coach Frank Yallop spent the off-season loading up on attackers. That was an intelligent enough approach, as the Fire offense in 2014 was largely devoid of soccer smarts and creativity. Although he didn’t forget about fortifying the backline, Yallop didn’t exactly pull out all the stops to make his defense stronger. Joevin Jones is the only newcomer who has shown any promise, and he can at least say that he has put in more good games than bad ones. But when we look at Eric Gehrig, we see a bench player from Columbus being thrust into a starting role. When we look at Jeff Larentowicz, we see a stud holding midfielder being asked to plug a hole at centerback. When we look at Adailton, we see a player whose best days are behind him, and one can question how good even those days were. Is it any wonder that the Fire have been leaking goals all season?

Only six teams in MLS have conceded more goals than the Fire this season, and the Fire’s goal difference is worse than all teams but one, Philadelphia.

With his confidence in MLS veteran (and mostly a bench player for Real Salt Lake previously) Lovel Palmer’s fitness put into question, and lingering back problems for Larentowicz, Yallop has tinkered by plugging Matt Polster in at centerback, and most recently, at right back. Polster has eagerly jumped into his new role, but his effectiveness has been severely reduced, as defensive midfield is clearly his best position. The knock-on effect of playing Polster in defense is the increased playing time for Matt Watson and Chris Ritter, neither of whom are up to scratch for the requirements to play starter’s minutes in MLS.

On Saturday, the Fire lined up just that way, with Polster at right back, and Watson pairing with Razvan Cocis at midfield. The return of Jones from Gold Cup duty was a welcome sight, but apparently not enough to prevent sticking Polster in the back.

In midfield, the Fire sent Harry Shipp and David Accam to flank Shaun Maloney, and Kennedy Igboananike started as the lone striker. It was a rare occasion where all three Fire Designated Players were in the starting 11.

After the encouraging display against Orlando City in midweek in the US Open Cup quarterfinals, the Fire now had the challenge of replicating that effort against a rested opponent.

Given that the Revs took a cautious approach to the match right from the jump, the Fire failed miserably to seize the advantage. Against Orlando, the Fire brought a high-spirited attack and put the visitors on the back foot immediately. There was no such aggressiveness towards the Revs. Whatever possession the Fire created did little to trouble goalkeeper Brad Knighton. Calling the Revs’ back four a fortress would be unduly flattering to them. A fortress repels incursions; the Revs were more like a wall no one had any ambition to scale.

Predictably, this passive mindset would come back to bite the Fire. In the 27th minute, the Revs calmly moved the ball up to the halfway line to Steven Caldwell. Three Fire players, Accam, Maloney and Cocis all converged on the ball, and none were able to gain possession. The Revs recognized the lack of balance in the Fire and quickly switched the ball to the left wing for Chris Tierney. Caldwell sprinted into space behind Polster, who has moved up to engage Tierney. Of the three Fire players who made a halfhearted challenge on Caldwell, only Cocis makes an attempt to track back. But he got a late start and Caldwell gets all kinds of time and space. Caldwell centered the ball to no one in particular and Sean Johnson dove to punch the ball clear. The ball wound up at the feet of Lee Nguyen, who buried the opportunity into the empty net. Naturally, no one tracked Nguyen during the entire sequence.

The Fire then got a reprieve when David Accam was tripped by Jose Goncalves in the penalty area, leading Ricardo Salazar to point to the spot. Maloney did the honors, knotting the affair at 1:1. The Fire’s equalizer might have been a fortunate turn, but an even scoreline was an accurate description of a lifeless match.

The taffy pull continued into the second half and the Fire looked like they might be able to bag all three points in the 75th minute, following a wild scramble after a corner kick. A header landed at Jones’ feet, just inside the 18. His attempt with the outside of his foot was blocked and the ball spun crazily into a pack of players. Accam headed the ball over to Watson at the left post, and he swatted the ball back into the middle. Cocis stuck out a leg and knocked the ball home just inside the right post.

The Revs needed only two minutes to get that one back. It was the crucial time to turn the screws on defense and the Fire failed yet again. Tierney controlled the ball on the left touchline with little pressure from the Fire. He threaded a diagonal ball to the far post for Kelyn Rowe, who ghosted into an open spot for the simple tap-in. No one from the Fire paid any attention to Rowe who ran right into the box from 35 yards away. Jones had his eyes on the ball and Rowe simply came in from the back.

All of the talk about adding more scoring punch is little more than idle chatter. The Fire are in a position where they cannot afford to give goals away. This same story, however, seems to repeat itself every weekend.

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