Fire, NYC Fail to Light the Lamp

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York City FC

(Photo courtesy Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

The Fire extended their shutout streak to three games on Sunday when they managed a 0:0 draw versus New York City FC at Yankee Stadium. Although it’s nice to pile up the clean sheets, the draw also extended the club’s winless streak in road games, now at 27 games, tying a league record. Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson turned in his best performance in a Fire uniform so far, repelling several dangerous scoring chances by the home team. The Fire have six points from their five matches.

The overall quality of the contest was unimpressive, especially in a chaotic, shambolic first half, during which neither team were able to maintain  possession for long stretches. The number of errant passes that landed at the feet of opponents became too numerous to count. Both teams were able to create something resembling scoring situations in the second half, but off-target shooting dominated.

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic has gotten his players on the same page with regard to defending. This is an important aspect of team organization because a team that cannot defend will never win anything. At the same time, a team that cannot score will never win anything either. During this three-game shutout streak, the Fire have scored just one goal. Against NYC, none of their eight shots found the target.

Paunovic elected to stay with the same starting lineup that led to the team’s first victory of the season over Philadelphia, maintaining his 4-2-3-1 formation. Notable by his absence was John Goosens, who provided energy and commitment during his 28-minute stint against the Union. That Paunovic preferred his trio of Razvan Cocis, Matt Polster and Michael Stephens was curious, as Goosens might have provided the creative spark that was missing. Paunovic eventually inserted Goosens for Arturo Alvarez in the second half, but the benefit of Goosens’ presence might have had a greater impact had he been part of the first eleven.

Fire

The narrow field dimensions at Yankee Stadium were not helpful for playing artistic football. With less space available, players were forced to make quicker and better decisions on the ball. The resulting avalanche of unforced turnovers was painful to watch. The Fire were also guilty of being offside on several occasions, which only helped to disrupt their rhythm.

NYC lined up in a 4-3-3, with Spaniard David Villa playing a wider position up front on the left side. This pitted him against young Rodrigo Ramos, who acquitted himself admirably in containing the striker. Villa’s best moments came when he ventured into the middle of the field.

The moribund first half provided two real scoring chances, both for NYC. In the 29th minute, Villa fired a shot from 18 yards, aiming for Lampson’s left-hand post. Lampson at first leaned right and then quickly reacted to his left to parry Villa’s shot wide.

Shortly thereafter, scandalous marking by the Fire left Villa alone on the left side of the penalty area. Four Fire players marked no one as Villa set up on the corner of the 6-yard box. He tried to beat Lampson at his near post, but the keeper blocked the shot.

It was the sort of a match whose outcome could hinge on a solitary goal and the Fire thought that they had it in the 59th minute. Stephens swung a free kick from the left wing into the mixer, where mayhem ensued. His cross was headed along by Gilberto to Jonathan Campbell, who stretched to nod the ball past goalkeeper Josh Saunders. Before the Fire could get too deep into their celebration, they learned that the referee’s assistant had raised his flag for offside and Campbell’s goal was wiped out. Examination of the replay showed that Campbell was definitely in an onside position when Gilberto headed Stephens’ cross. Johan Kappelhof, who was positioned behind Campbell at the right-hand post, was caught offside, but not otherwise involved in the play. Fox Sports later provided a fuzzy screenshot from behind the NYC goal that inconclusively suggested that Kappelhof might have gotten the final touch on the ball, as Campbell’s header glanced off of Kappelhof’s chest. There was no way for the assistant to be certain that Kappelhof was involved in the play, given his distance from the play and the number of players in a crowded penalty area.

NYC quickly turn around on the counter, with Tommy McNamara dishing to Mix Diskerud at the top of the area. Diskerud sidestepped the overanxious Polster and forced a diving save from Lampson.

Goosens replaced Alvarez just prior to the disallowed goal and his entry into the match perked up the Fire attack, if only briefly. NYC began bringing on fresh legs also and the Fire slowly began to shift into a more defensive stance. Tony Taylor replaced the ineffective and invisible Patrick Mullins in the 66th minute and Andrea Pirlo made way for Federico Bravo six minutes later. The latter change was something of a head-scratcher by NYC coach Patrick Vieira. With his team needing a goal, why remove the best playmaker? Pace may well have been on Viera’s mind and the new players put extra pressure on Fire players who were getting fatigued. The substitutions resulted in Villa taking up a central position, leaving Ramos to deal with the surging runs of Ronald Matarrita along the left wing.

NYC dominated possession for the final 15-20 minutes. They managed to carve out a few openings in the Fire defense, but had no answer for Lampson’s heroics. The Fire netminder did an excellent job of controlling his penalty area, the best example coming in the 84th minute, when he charged out to the top corner of the box to snuff out a Villa shot created by a long ball over the top of the Fire defense.

Moments later, a flurry in the Fire penalty area put NYC on the verge of breaking the ice. Lampson came off his line to pinch out a cross from the right side, and blocked Diskerud’s follow-up from close range.

Lampson has been under a bright spotlight of scrutiny all season. Paunovic’s decision to bench veteran goalie Sean Johnson was a shocker, especially when it was not obvious why Johnson had lost his spot. Before arriving in Chicago, Lampson had primarily been a benchwarmer for Columbus, and nothing about his Crew career suggested that he was ready to unseat a proven MLS goalkeeper who has had a cup of coffee with the US National Team. But after contributing to the defensive debacle in the season opener, Lampson has become a steady figure behind the Fire’s back four. Clearly, Paunovic worked hard to get the Fire’s defensive problems sorted, and improved team defense has been the main reason for the current goalless streak. Honestly, Lampson didn’t have lot to do in the Columbus and Philadelphia matches. Any reliable MLS goalkeeper would have been capable enough to get those clean sheets. Against NYC, the breakdowns in defense were more numerous and Lampson came up big to bail out his teammates. This is the sort of play that inspires defenders to have increased confidence in their goalkeeper. Without Lampson, the Fire would have left Yankee Stadium with nothing. Following the March 6 opener, I opined that Paunovic created a goalkeeper controversy of his own making. Following yesterday’s match, Lampson took some big steps to eradicate any notion of a controversy.

The Fire showed guts and gritty teamwork to secure a point against NYC, but it’s clear that what they have shown so far is not enough to propel them into contender status  in MLS. The Fire’s attack has been borderline impotent in the absence of David Accam. Neither Gilberto nor Kennedy Igboananike (despite his two goals so far) have consistently tested opposing goalkeepers. And the underlying cause may go deeper; rarely can a goalscorer create his own opportunities. Behind every great scorer is a great provider. The Fire don’t have a great provider right now. None of the midfielders that Paunovic has deployed in the playmaker’s role have been the proverbial straw that stirs the drink, the player whose inch-perfect pass splits the defense and sends the strikers in alone for scoring chances. And the Fire will struggle to improve on their pace of roughly one point per game until someone can step up and conduct the orchestra.

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