“The Smiles Are Back in Bridgeview …”

2017-05-13 CHI v SEA

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

Those were the words of Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic following his team’s 4:1 demolition of the Seattle Sounders at Toyota Park on Saturday. Nemanja Nikolic tallied two goals and an assist, while David Accam notched a goal and an assist. The Fire and Sounders engaged in a back-and-forth scrap in the first half and the Fire exploded for three goals after the break, as Chicago won the game in style.

And it wasn’t just the four-goal outburst that was impressive, it was the manner with which victory was achieved. The overall possession numbers favored Seattle 52%-48%, but the Fire dominated for long stretches in the second half. They moved the ball rapidly from player to player, always seeking the easy, open pass. After the Fire had scored the third and fourth goals of the match in quick succession, they broke the game down into an 11 v 11 keepaway exercise.

The catalyst for this attitude was Bastian Schweinsteiger, who installed himself in the role of orchestrator. The midfielder seemed to be everywhere on the field; whether it was leading the build-up from the back, or making the incisive pass to send a teammate into open space. For anyone who thought that Schweinsteiger would be superfluous on a roster seemingly crowded with central midfielders, he showed precisely why any team would benefit from his combination of technical skill, vision and leadership.

Paunovic stuck with his familiar 4-2-3-1 formation to start the match. The only change from the squad that started versus Los Angeles in the previous match was Michael de Leeuw replacing Juninho, who had picked up an ankle injury. Drew Conner retained his place at right back, as did Matt Lampson in goal..

Conner was tested early, as former Fire fullback Joevin Jones was marauding down the left flank. After a few nervous moments, Conner rethought his positioning and Jones became a non-factor as an attacker for the remainder of the contest. Conner’s improvement over the week was noticeable; his ceiling appears to be high.

The game turned in Chicago’s favor in the 23rd minute, when de Leeuw pounced on a poor giveaway by Jones in front of his own penalty area and slid a pass to Nikolic, who had slipped behind the Seattle defense. Tony Alfaro slid through Nikolic to win the ball and referee Nima Saghafi did not hesitate when he pointed to the spot. The conversion of the penalty kick spurred further controversy. Accam’s feeble attempt went directly at Stefan Frei, who calmly dove to his right to make the save. Saghafi, however, ordered the kick to be retaken, citing encroachment by the Sounders. Nikolic took the ball from Accam and did the job on the second try.

To be fair, encroachment and goalkeepers moving off their line occur in nearly every penalty kick situation, but are not always called. Frei definitely jumped off his line early and Schweinsteiger and Cristian Roldan both encroached. Should the kick have been retaken? Frei gained an advantage by coming out early, but players from each team encroached. Accam could have obviated the controversy a better penalty conversion; kicking the ball straight at the keeper is no way to score a goal. That this was the second consecutive penalty kick by the Fire that had to be retaken may be an indicator that MLS officials are cracking down on encroachment.

The Sounders rebounded quickly, as Clint Dempsey broke free of McCarty’s marking and curled a tantalizing shot from outside the box into the upper corner of Lampson’s goal in the 28th minute.

Seattle continued to pile on the pressure for the remainder of the first half, but got no closer to a second goal. On the night, only two of Seattle’s shots found the target.

Paunovic and his players pushed all of the right buttons at halftime, and the Fire’s improvement sent the sellout crowd into delirious celebration. It was the first sellout at Toyota Park since September 2015 and the energy in the stadium was palpable, with the fans seeming to get louder with every Fire goal.

The score went to 2:1 at the hour mark after a clever bit of interplay in the right-wing channel. De Leeuw played the ball square for Schweinsteiger at the corner of the penalty area and then sprinted towards the goal line. Schweinsteiger returned the ball to de Leeuw, who centered for Accam. The flat-footed Sounders stood and watched as Accam fired past Frei, beating him at this near post. It was simple soccer at its best and the Fire fully deserved their lead.

Conner and de Leeuw made way for Jonathan Campbell and Matt Polster in the 71st minute, transforming the Fire defense into a five-man backline. But the Fire were not interested in going into a defensive shell in an attempt to kill off the match. Instead, the Fire started circulating the ball all over the field in search of more goals.

It didn’t take long to find those goals. In the 73rd minute, Brandon Vincent served up a cross from the left wing, finding Nikolic in front of the six-yard box. The ball was too long for Nikolic, but he flicked it along to the far post for Luis Solignac, who banged the ball past Frei from close range. The scandalously lazy marking by Jones made this an easy opportunity for Solignac to convert.

Seattle’s defending became downright comical three minutes later. Centerback Johan Kappelhof dribbled at speed through the heart of the Seattle midfield, emerging in a 3 v 5 situation, with Accam and Nikolic on either side of him. Seattle midfielder Gustav Svensson could not catch up to Kappelhof, which initiated the fall of the dominoes. Kappelhof played the ball through to Accam as soon as Alfaro had left Accam to step up. Chad Marshall, who had been marking Nikolic, slid over to engage Accam, who neatly squared the ball for Nikolic, who  netted past Frei for his eighth goal of the season.

Those two goals caused the Sounders to capitulate. The Fire spent the rest of the game playing simple and easy one- and two-touches passes all over the field. It resembled a cat playing with a dead mouse in an attempt to revive it. Finally, the Fire made sure that a beaten opponent stayed beaten.

Even though the Fire crushed the defending champions, post-game comments from the players indicated that they were not satisfied and that more work remains for the team to improve further.

If the last couple of weeks are an indication of the Fire’s ascendancy, now would be a good time to start climbing the table. Except for Toronto (and Dallas in the West), no team’s form is consistently good right now. The Fire have a great opportunity to rack up the points against Colorado and DC United in the next two matches before hooking up with Dallas at Toyota Park on May 25.

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