Nine-Man Orlando Keep Fire in Check
The Chicago Fire had a superb opportunity to grab three very valuable away points on Sunday night, but failed to find a way to break down a closely packed Orlando City defense and had to settle for a share of the spoils after a 0:0 draw. The home side went down to ten men when Rafael Ramos was sent off in the 26th minute after a clash with Brandon Vincent. Things only got worse for Orlando in the 66th minute, when Antonio Nocerino cleated Matt Polster in the thigh, and was sent to an early shower. The Fire had no answers, however, as Orlando very effectively circled the wagons. The draw allowed the Fire to maintain their hold on second place in the East, with 25 points from 14 matches.
In addition to being a good test against a team who had amassed 19 points from their first eight matches at home, the Fire could also get a look at how their team would perform without Dax McCarty, who had been called in to the US National Team last week. McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger are the players who have fueled the Fire’s resurgent form this season. Coach Veljko Paunovic inserted new right back Polster back to his old position at holding midfielder to replace McCarty. The other new right back, Drew Conner, got the call to start for the first time in four games. Paunovic’s other option at holding midfield would have been Juninho, but he was away from the team for family reasons.
The red cards issued by referee Ted Unkel had a significant impact on the game. Ramos clattered into Vincent as Vincent was collecting a ball out of the air. The challenge was certainly reckless, but appeared to be nothing more than a very poorly timed tackle by Ramos. A yellow card probably would have been a more appropriate punishment. The effect of the red card forced Orlando coach Jason Kreis to shift central midfielder Will Johnson to right back for the balance of the first half. This sucked the life out of the Orlando attack, which depends on Johnson to be the primary ball-winner in the middle of the field. Striker Cyle Larin was consequently bereft of any decent service. (As an aside, the Ramos red card is a way for the Soccer Gods to balance out the egregiously incorrect red card given to Johan Kappelhof in the match at Atlanta.)
As for the dismissal of Nocerino, Unkel got this call absolutely correct. Nocerino came in on Polster from behind and drove his studs into Polster’s thigh. So obvious was this decision that Orlando’s players did not even engage in the obligatory crowding of the referee every time a card is issued. Down two men, Orlando parked the bus and quite effectively blunted a Fire attack that had been firing on all cylinders during the five-game unbeaten streak they brought into this match.
It did not take the Fire long to find an attacking rhythm. Schweinsteiger, as always, was everywhere he needed to be as orchestrator. Both outside backs, Conner and Vincent, frequently pushed into advanced positions, leaving Orlando on the back foot. The best scoring chance for either side in the first half came in the 14th minute, when David Accam received the ball at the top of the area and immediately turned to blast a shot that keeper Joe Bendik did well to block.
The shift in Orlando’s approach after Ramos was given his marching orders clogged the supply lines into the Orlando penalty area that the Fire had established. Nemanja Nikolic, at his best when he is running at the opponent’s goal, was playing with his back to goal and laying the ball off for teammates. This was the first sign that the Fire were going to have a hard time breaking through. Nikolic’s two shots on frame in the first half barely troubled Bendik.
The stifling conditions on Sunday night (75 degrees, 92% relative humidity) likely factored into Orlando coach Jason Kreis’ tactical and lineup decisions. He made five changes to the lineup that started against DC United on May 31, including three of his four defenders. Once his team went down a man, Kreis made a sensible choice to pull back, keep the defense compact, and look for a quick strike via Larin. He could hardly be blamed for going completely into bunker mode once Nocerino was sent off.
And those conditions probably were a factor for the Fire as well. Beating a team that has gone into an extreme defensive shell requires an increase in the speed of play and in the number of runs into whatever open space can be found. Once Orlando conceded the middle third of the field to Chicago, the Fire continued with a patient build-up. They were probably excessively patient, to the point of stifling the attack altogether. In fact, the very best chances for a goal came in second-half stoppage time, when Polster and substitute David Arshakyan saw their shots ricochet off of the crossbar. In both cases, players made dynamic runs into open space. The Fire needed more of that, but didn’t get it. Were they bogged down by heavy legs, borne of the steamy conditions?
The other interesting takeaway from the match was how the Fire coped with McCarty’s absence. Polster put in his usual workmanlike shift as Schweinsteiger’s partner, but was unable to provide the same kind of quality that McCarty has brought to this team. One can wonder whether McCarty might have pushed his teammates into the faster pace needed to break down a packed defense.
Sure, the Fire went overboard on central midfielders in the off-season and could have left Polster at holding midfielder. But that would have left a piano mover in a position that is so much improved by having a piano player there. It’s no insult to Polster that he’s not as good as McCarty; Polster really may become a pretty good right back with solid attacking instincts. That’s far better than having some stiff who can’t mark playing right back.
Orlando went into survival mode because of two red cards, But they inadvertently found a way to neuter the Fire’s potent attack. The only other time that the Fire have been blanked this season was the 4:0 loss at Atlanta. Will other opponents set up trench warfare when they come to Toyota Park?
All teams seek to get a positive result every week; that’s the starting point. The outcome could have been different for Chicago, but all points are valuable points. The Fire continue their unbeaten streak and continue to look down the table at nine other teams in the Eastern Conference.