Fire and Crew Share the Points in Opening Game Tug-of-War
Both the Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew come into 2017 looking to turn a page and forget about their respective dismal 2016 campaigns. They squared off on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium in the season opener on a chilly afternoon and battled to a 1:1 draw. Based on the soccer on display it’s unlikely that either side learned much about whether 2017 will bring more joy than 2016 did, but both teams have a lot of work ahead if they want to be competitive. The Crew controlled play in the first half, while the Fire were the better team in the second. Given the sparse number of shots that found the target the 1:1 result can be considered a fair one.
Both teams welcomed significant new players into their rosters. The Fire added MLS veterans Dax McCarty and Juninho to their midfield and splashed DP cash on Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic. That trio represent a significant upgrade over the players whom they replaced and expectations are high that holdovers David Accam and Michael de Leeuw are joining a multi-pronged attack.
Well traveled goalkeeper Jorge Bava came in to replace the departed Sean Johnson. The 35-year-old has spent the bigger part of his career with several South American clubs. Bava will need to be at least as competent as Johnson, because neither Matt Lampson nor draftee Stefan Cleveland are ready to assume the #1 shirt.
Coach Veljko Paunovic was set on playing a 4-4-2 this season, which is a sensible formation, given the new assets at his disposal. On Saturday, the Fire started out with Bava in goal, behind a back line of Brandon Vincent, Joao Meira, Johan Kappelhof and Michael Harrington.
It is interesting to note that this back four was the same back four in place at last year’s opener versus New York City FC. McCarty and John Goosens were in central midfield, flanked by Accam and Arturo Alvarez. Nikolic and de Leeuw started up front. Juninho was unavailable due to a suspension that he earned for a red card in his final match for Club Tijuana in Liga MX. The Mexican league asked FIFA to compel MLS to enforce the suspension.
The Fire were disjointed and sloppy in the game’s opening minutes, which is baffling, considering that the team have been training together since late January. The field was littered with Fire giveaways and slack marking. For their part, the Crew were not exactly razor-sharp either, but they happily took over the controlling position in the match.
Bava was called into action in just the third minute. As Columbus comfortably knocked the ball from wing to wing, Ethan Finlay knifed into the Fire penalty area and dropped a diagonal pass into the middle for the supporting Justin Meram, who had floated around the area unmarked. Neither Alvarez nor Goosens bothered to track him and Meram had the entire goal in front of him from eight yards out. Bava went full stretch to deny Meram.
The Fire squandered a terrific opportunity to grab the lead in the 15th minute. Accam took possession at the halfway line, dropped a pass back for McCarty, who one-touched it to de Leeuw, whose first-time pass sent Nikolic into the space behind the last two Crew defenders. Nikolic’s first touch was not clean and his shot from 18 yards went over the bar. Nikolic will be disappointed to not have buried that chance; the Fire need him to be the sniper that scored bags of goals for Legia Warsaw and not the second coming of Chad Barrett.
The loose marking by the Fire continued and Columbus began to build their attack. Their opening goal in the 17th minute had a feeling of inevitability to it. Meram dribbled leisurely along the left wing, with minimal resistance from Harrington. He whipped a cross into the 6-yard box, where Finlay flashed between two Fire defenders and headed over Bava. There was plenty of blame to go around on that goal. It was bad enough that Harrington gave Meram a big cushion, but then he failed to close him down or challenge the cross. The marking on Finlay was also non-existent, so his header was as easy as the ones he puts home in training. Bava also is not without blame, and might have thought about coming off his line to make a play on a cross so close to his goal.
Despite the Fire’s inability to defend effectively or hold the ball for long stretches in the first half, they were able to turn the tables on Columbus as the match wore on. McCarty proved to be exactly what the Fire have lacked in a central midfielder for quite some time: an eager ball winner and a compelling distributor. Time and again, it seemed that wherever the ball was, McCarty was involved. Fire fans will be overjoyed if McCarty becomes the new Chris Armas.
In addition to Dax’s leadership, second-year left back Vincent turned in a solid performance. He was capable in one-vs-one duels against the dangerous Harrison Afful and demonstrated good instincts on when to come forward. With his pass completion success approaching eighty percent, Vincent displayed a strong level of competence in helping the Fire attack.
Paunovic rearranged his players into a 4-3-3 system at the end of the first half, and whether it was plain old hard work or the formations change, their was a clear shift in the Men in Red’s fortunes. In the 42nd minute a centrally-positioned Alvarez sent an midfield air drop into the box for Nikolić to track down but the instinctual finisher could not get a foot on it after the first bounce and as his angle of opportunity closed he skied his second attempt of the half.
The second half brought more chances, and the Fire returned for the second forty-five with renewed vigor. Goosens gave notice of the Fire’s intentions early when his long-range left foot attempt drifted wide of goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s left post. The attempt came from a Dax midfield header which De Leeuw was able to knock on with his back to goal.
The Crew came back the other way and nearly doubled the lead. Federico Higuain sent a tantalizing ball over the Fire defense into the right side of the box. Striker Ola Kamara came in alone on Bava, but a nifty kick save denied Kamara.
Passing and possession improved significantly for the Fire and the momentum was clearly in their favor by the middle of the second half. In the 73rd minute, McCarty took hold of an errant Crew pass at midfield and immediately sent it forward to Goosens. He sprinted to goal and slid the ball to Accam. Harrison Afful tried to intercept, but the ball found its way to Accam, who twisted and turned fellow Ghana international Jonathan Mensah into a pretzel before firing low and just inside the far post. The play represented an economy of effort, as the Fire rapidly got the ball into a scoring situation.
Perhaps sensing Colombus’s vulnerability, Fire continued to push for a winner late in the game with a handful of opportunities missed as time clicked down, namely a 18-yard box melee in 84th minute triggered from Accam winning a fifty-fifty ball and jail breaking the Fire’s fussy but unproductive attack on goal.
A point on the road to start things off is a useful result, even if the Fire were disjointed in the first half. Road points are always valuable, regardless of the quality of play. Improving that quality will be the barometer for success for the Fire. They showed some isolated flashes of their potential, but spent most of the afternoon cleaning up messy play.