Nikolic, Schweinsteiger Lead Evisceration of Revs
The Chicago Fire extended their unbeaten run to three matches on the heels of a dominant 3:0 victory over the New England Revolution at Toyota Park on Saturday. The Fire treated the Revs the way a dog treats a fire hydrant, and made them like it. Nemanja Nikolic scored twice to complement Bastian Schweinsteiger’s opener, as the Fire climbed to third place in the MLS Eastern Conference.
The Fire played like a steamroller on overdrive. They established a commanding position from the start and just kept piling it on when New England’s Je-Vaughn Watson was cautioned twice in the span of six minutes in the middle of the first half. The Fire finished the match with a gaudy 90% completion rate on their passes and had 76% ball possession. New England tried to hang on for dear life after Watson’s dismissal, but Schweinsteiger’s goal just before the halftime interval essentially sealed their fate.
With eleven points so far, the Fire have their highest point total after six matches since 2008. Yes, it’s been that long since the Fire have gotten off to such a good start. Any Fire fans who are brimming with giddiness must be forgiven; Toyota Park has been bereft of good news for far too long.
Coach Veljko Paunovic reverted to his typical four-man backline versus the Revs: Michael Harrington, Johan Kappelhof, Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent in front of netminder Jorge Bava. With Juninho back from suspension, the magic troika with Dax McCarty and Schweinsteiger was reunited. Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac flanked Nikolic up front. Solignac was preferred to David Accam, who was working through some minor injury issues during the week. Accam did make the 18 and wound up being a significant contributor in the latter stages of the contest.
The Revolution have traditionally been a poor road team. They earned just ten points away from Foxboro in 2016 and now have just one point from four away matches so far this season. That they would sit back and defend was hardly a surprise, but their near-total abdication of ball possession even before the red card was pathetic.
Both of Watson’s cautions came as a result of clashes with Solignac. In the 21st minute, Watson lashed out with his right arm as Solignac poked the ball past him, hitting Solignac in the nose. Six minutes later, Watson demonstrated the naivete of an amateur player when he took Solignac’s legs out from under him with a crude challenge from behind.
New England coach Jay Heaps sent his team into full bunker mode, hoping to get back into the locker room at 0:0 and then regroup. The Fire torched that plan just before the break with a simple passing sequence that tore a big hole into the left side of the New England defense. Juninho slid a pass to Solignac 30 yards from goal. Schweinsteiger, unmarked as he roamed in the middle, made a sharp into the box and Solignac delivered the exquisitely timed pass. Schweinsteiger split two defenders and fired a low shot that beat goalie Cody Cropper at the far post. It was a deserved goal for the Fire and the job of unlocking the New England defense in the second half would be that much easier.
Any plan that Heaps drew up at halftime to craft an equalizer went right out the window when the Fire doubled their lead in the 47th minute. Juninho controlled the ball on the left flank and floated the ball to the right side for Solignac. He brought the ball down with his chest and waited calmly for the play to develop. He hit a square pass for de Leeuw, who had made the near-post run. He seemed to stumble over the ball slightly, leaving it loose inside the goal area, where Nikolic swooped in like a vulture to punch the ball home. Whatever faint optimism the Revs conjured at halftime had been officially crushed. The only question left to answer would be the margin of victory.
Paunovic brought on young Daniel Johnson for de Leeuw at 60 minutes, giving the rookie an extended shift. Johnson did not disappoint, although his decision to shoot late in the match following some fancy footwork near the goal line likely left Nikolic, unmarked at the far post, a bit bemused when Johnson chose not to deliver the easy pass across the face of goal.
Accam replaced Solignac in the 72nd minute and made an instant impact, accelerating past the tied legs of the beleaguered New England backline. He tore into open space on the left flank and supplied an inch-perfect pass into the box for Nikolic. The pass found a path between two defenders and Nikolic made easy work of the chance with a first-timer past the sprawled Cropper.
Paunovic then made his final change with 12 minutes to go, bringing on Drew Conner in a straight swap for Harrington at right back. In what might be considered an in-game audition for Harrington’s spot in the lineup, Conner put in a creditable performance, save for a poor giveaway in the back third of the field. With Matt Polster finally up and running (and making the 18 on Saturday), Paunovic may have more than one option when seeking an upgrade over Harrington.
For this stretch of three consecutive home games, the Fire wanted to rid themselves of the ugly stench of the defeat in Atlanta and establish themselves as a competitive team. They certainly showed improvement with each successive match, although it must be noted that all of their opponents arrived at Toyota Park with injury./suspension/dismissal problems. This, of course, is out of the Fire’s control; a team can only play the opponent who is in front of them. But the next stretch, three consecutive away games against quality opponents, will prove crucial for a Fire team that has struggled on the road for such a long time. If the Fire’s strength in the middle of the park is legitimate, this will be the opportunity for McCarty, Schweinsteiger and Juninho to prove it.
Basti takes down a ball, patient in the box, centers ball for long-range Juninho shot…
Second long-range crack from Juninho….
Header from New England corner goes wide…