Unbeaten Run Reaches an Incredible 9 Matches

2017-06-24 CHI v ORL

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

It was a night of visceral dominance on Saturday at Toyota Park by a Chicago Fire side that came out hungry and did not stop until visiting Orlando City SC had been beaten to a pulp. No Fire player was more dominant than winger David Accam, who scored three times, to go along with an assist in a 4:0 rout. The Fire have reached the halfway point of the season with 34 points, trailing Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC, who are on 35 points.

Orlando dealt with significant problems coming into this match. Leading scorer Cyle Larin was sidelined by the league following a DUI situation and the Lions had made the long trek from Seattle after their match on Wednesday. Although all teams have to deal with these  scheduling nightmares, their impact is unmistakable; teams  who cross two or more time zones after having played a midweek game almost always struggle in that second game. That Orlando played both games away in a span of four days only made things worse for a team that had amassed just five points in their previous seven away matches.

Coach Veljko Paunovic stuck with what has worked so well over the last two months. Accam, who reportedly spent last weekend “recovering” from something in Chicago while the Fire traveled to New England, returned to the starting lineup, displacing Juninho. Michael de Leeuw was the top of the midfield triangle, backed by Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

The Fire showed little sympathy for the visitors. They came ready and determined, and it was quite clear that Orlando’s slim hope of getting anything out of this game would depend on their being able to keep things close for as long as possible. The Fire destroyed that strategy before eight minutes had elapsed.

The first score came after just three minutes. The Fire patiently worked the ball along the right flank. After Luis Solignac dropped the ball back for Schweinsteiger, the German laid a simple pass into space for Matt Polster, who astutely overlapped into the space. Polster took the ball deep and zinged a low cross for Accam, unmarked in the six-yard box. Accam received the ball with his back to the goal and executed a deft back-heel shot that gave keeper Joe Bendik no chance. Bendik had been instrumental in leading Orlando to a goalless draw when the teams last met. On Saturday, Bendik was left on an island by shockingly slack defending.

Bendik was kept pretty busy all night long. Nemanja Nikolic seemed certain to open his account in the sixth minute, but Bendik got his body in the way of a first-time blast.

The slowness of the Orlando backline was badly exposed in the eighth minute, when Schweinsteiger launched a long ball for the streaking Accam. He twisted past Bendik and faked Jonathan Spector into the turf before slamming the ball home to make it 2:0. The play was so simply executed; Accam called for the ball and sprinted into space, while Schweinsteiger delivered an inch-perfect pass over a distance of about 50 yards.

While it may be hard to declare “game over” after only eight minutes, it didn’t really appear that Orlando had much fight in them after that early blitz of goals. On the night, they generated a total of three shots and none on target. Doing the math there, Orlando were unable to generate more shots than the Fire generated goals. That’s called getting your ass handed to you.

That Orlando’s attack was so feeble was easily explained by watching Schweinsteiger mark Kaka. They say that the best way to slay a dragon is to cut its head off. When playing against Orlando,  that means neutralizing Kaka. Schweinsteiger once again controlled the match from his deep-lying role and his close marking of Kaka discouraged passes from Orlando teammates. Soon, the Brazilian started drifting to the wings and deeper into midfield in an effort to find the ball. There was no surer sign of the Fire’s control of the match than to see Orlando’s midfield maestro 65 yards from the Fire goal.

The Fire’s passing accuracy came in at a staggering 90% for the game. When the teams came out for the second half, the only real question out there would be the Fire’s winning margin. The Fire needed just seven minutes to increase their advantage. Accam rumbled through the middle of the field, as Orlando players retreated from him.  His brilliantly timed pass beat three Orlando players and freed Nikolic on the right side of the box. Nikolic buried his shot into lower far corner to extend his lead in the race for the Golden Boot, leading MLS with 14 goals. It was a frustrating night for Nikolic, who earned a yellow card, and who easily could have matched Accam’s hat trick with more accurate finishing.

The Fire put the match out of reach in the 63rd minute. Luis Solignac raced into the area on the right side and dropped a diagonal ball into the middle for Accam, who had been put flat on his back by Scott Sutter as he made the supporting run. Referee Jorge Gonzalez pointed to the spot immediately and Accam did the honors from the spot to make it 4:0.

With ten goals for the season, Accam and Nikolic represent two of the league’s top three scorers.  And they are only the fourth pair of snipers in team history to each have scored at least ten goals in a season. One has to go back to the very early days of the Fire to recall the other three times this happened: 1999 – Ante Razov (14) and Josh Wolff (10); 2000 – Razov (18) and Dema Kovalenko (10); and 2003 – Razov (14) and Damani Ralph (11). If Nikolic and Accam continue their current form, they will easily become the Fire’s best all-time scoring duo.

The Fire’s only misstep in the contest came in the final quarter hour, when Orlando’s Carlos Rivas sprinted clear on a breakaway. Matt Lampson came out of his area to challenge and stuck a foot in late, after Rivas had pushed the ball behind him. Lampson stepped on Rivas’ foot, causing him to severely twist his ankle. Neither Gonzalez nor his assistant even detected a foul on the play. Rivas had to leave the match and Orlando played the remaining minutes with ten men, having used up all of their substitutes. It will be interesting to see whether the MLS Disciplinary Committee will weigh in on this incident. If they do, Lampson may get an unwanted midseason vacation.

No one talks about the Red Line anymore and what kind of miracle scenario the Fire would need to rescue their meager playoff hopes. That’s just so 2016, isn’t it? Nope, the talk now beckons to loftier expectations. Back in the day, the Fire talked about winning trophies as though it were a foregone conclusion. The silverware drought has been so long and painful that we’ve forgotten that trophies are the reward for playing a superior brand of soccer. The soccer on display at Toyota Park these days is just that, superior to nearly anyone else in MLS.

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