Fire Road Win? A Capitol Idea!
The Chicago Fire traveled to Washington, DC on Saturday in search of their first away victory of 2017 and came home with all three points. They put away hapless DC United 1:0, a scoreline that flattered the home team. The Fire created a plethora of chances, and between the heroics of DC goalkeeper Bill Hamid and some of their own poor marksmanship, they missed an opportunity for a blowout win. Nonetheless, the Fire end Week 12 of the MLS season with 21 points from 12 matches, good for second place in the Eastern Conference. They trail leaders Toronto FC by five points, with Toronto having played one more match.
It is certainly gratifying to talk about the top end of the standings, rather than speculating on how the Fire might rise out of the muck and finish above the Red Line. Yes, there’s a lot of soccer left to be played, but this Fire team is doing a good job of ticking the boxes when talking about what it takes to be a competitive team. Their next test comes Thursday versus FC Dallas, who just dropped from the ranks of the undefeated in MLS. If beating Seattle was a “statement game,” a game against Dallas is a genuine measuring stick.
When MLS teams play three games in seven days, coaches often employ a rotation system to combat fatigue. The three-game schedule can be bizarre, with teams crossing three time zones between games. The Fire were fortunate to have played the first two in this set at home, and then took a quick flight to DC for the final match. As a result, skipper Veljko Paunovic chose to stand pat with his lineup, leaving it unchanged from the one that stomped all over Colorado on Wednesday. Over the course of the three matches, ten players started all three.
And although the Fire got the best possible outcome, the quality of their game dipped in DC, compared to the two previous victories. Against Seattle, the Fire completed 87% of their passes, with a 78% completion rate in the final third. Against Colorado, those numbers were 85% and 72%, respectively. The Fire completed 79% of their passes versus DC, and 61% in the final third.
In many instances, especially early on, the sharpness of their passes simply was not there. While some players might have been laboring on tired legs, the Fire did create a boatload of opportunities, peppering the DC goal with eight shots on target.
Hamid was the difference maker for his team. He made four critical saves to deny near-certain scores. Given that the DC attack was hardly more lively than a limp fish, United needed their keeper to stay competitive in the contest. Without his stellar performance, the Fire would have won this game in a cakewalk.
The Fire showed an early spark in the first 15 minutes. Moments after Luis Solignac’s header was denied by the crossbar, Nemanja Nikolic set up David Accam with a delightful through pass that opened the door for the Ghanaian to go in alone on Hamid. The keeper came out fast and hard to deny Accam.
Just before halftime, Fire netminder Matt Lampson snatched a DC corner kick and heaved a long pass to Accam at midfield. The winger led the charge on the break and eventually dished off to Dax McCarty, who carried along the left side of the box. His pinpoint cross found Nikolic’s head, but Nikolic could not beat a full-stretch Hamid.
The Fire scored the only goal they would need in the 52nd minute. Solignac played a ball to the streaking Accam, who easily beat DC’s poorly executed offside trap. United players were screaming for offside as Accam came in alone and fired past the sprawling Hamid for a 1:0 lead. Examination of the replay showed that DC defender Steve Birnbaum pulled up too late on Accam and kept him onside.
The game got stretched in the latter stages and the Fire had some excellent chances to put the result to bed. In the 84th minute, Hamid snuffed out a Nikolic breakaway and then stoned McCarty in the 90th minute after the midfielder had maneuvered through a crowded DC penalty area. In stoppage time, Nikolic drove a sitter over the bar after Bastian Schweinsteiger had fed him a tantalizing diagonal pass from the goal line.
Away victories are hard to come by in MLS. Patrick Vieira rested some players on Wednesday in New York City FC’s match at Real Salt Lake, opening the door for the moribund RSL team to get a win. He was obviously looking ahead to Sunday’s Eastern Conference clash at Orlando, where he restored his first-choice players to the starting lineup and was rewarded with an emphatic 3:0 win.
Was it a big gamble for Paunovic to keep his squad intact? It is early in the season and his players don’t have fitness or injury issues. Maintaining the same lineup is also important for teammates building confidence as a group. Perhaps Paunovic will look at the situation differently when the summer heat is beating down on MLS in August.
For now, the Fire can be immensely satisfied with a nine-point week. They need one more big push on Thursday versus FC Dallas before getting a mini break of nine days taking them into June.