Chess fans sometimes talk about how the number of possible permutations in a game outnumbers the number of atoms in the observable universe. Every game starts the same, they say, with the pieces set up exactly so, but from there on it’s almost impossible to predict. And that’s with pieces that are limited to certain movements and don’t have independent decision making capacities! Surely in soccer there are many, many more possible permutations in a game.
It seems like this Fire season is full of unexpected permutations. Shots that don’t go in, sucker punches, surprise goalscorers, the Nyarko-Rolfe partnership, 11 different starting lineups in 11 games, it goes on. And then there’s the season as a whole, which, if it were a chess game, would still be in the first stages with no clear path to victory or defeat.
Then came the news last week of two bona fide MLS starters joining the squad in Bakary Soumare and Mike Magee. In defense, where Soumare’s experience and size will fit right in, and up top, where Magee’s six goals this season matched the Fire’s entire team total until Saturday night, the Fire are hoping to take away some of the frustrating unexpectedness of the season thus far. To keep the chess analogy going, the Fire’s front office is castling 11 moves in, which makes perfect sense. They’re moving pieces into a more recognizable system, complete with pawns staggered to protect the king in defense and positioning other players to be poised in attack.
Chess fans also like to talk about the three phases to a game: the opening, middlegame, and endgame. Within individual games, everybody’s been talking about the Fire’s endgame problems in front of goal. But there’s been less discussion about middlegame and opening. How are the Fire positioned when they get the ball? How are they moving towards goalscoring positions? And so on.
After going down a goal in the second half on Saturday night in Salt Lake City, coach Frank Klopas started throwing players forward in a way we haven’t seen all season. The Klopas Gambit was bold, necessary, and ultimately successful in helping the Fire steal a point against the always well organized RSL.
Two images show the difference. First look at this shot from a Fire attack in the first half:
Some context: Soumare won the ball, it fell to Dilly Duka in the center circle, and he floated a ball forward towards Chris Rolfe. But nobody except Nyarko and Rolfe are forward, they’re surrounded by eight RSL players! Compare that to this image, after the Klopas Gambit:
This is right after Sherjill McDonald came on as the last sub, joining Quincy Amarikwa and Alex. Now it’s six attackers on seven RSLers up top. It’s no surprise that the Fire’s tying goal came just a minute later.
OK it’s not totally fair to take snapshots because so little in soccer happens in a vacuum. It makes perfect sense for the Fire not to commit too many players forward in the opening minutes of a game at the formidable Rio Tinto stadium, etc. But the point is the flexibility of the team. This team is definitely still being built. Despite having played 11 games, Klopas found success with something he hadn’t done all season, there are two new starters, and it’s clear that the Fire are still in the opening part of the season.
For the Fire this season, the board is still open. The game against RSL should allay the worst fears of Fire’s faithful: If the season’s opening is as tough as the opening at RSL on Saturday, there’s always the middlegame and endgame to come. New pieces are being introduced and mobilized, and if these images are anything to go by, there are many, many, many more permutations for this team to go through before the season’s end.
Quotes from newly acquired Fire forward Mike Magee and head coach Frank Klopas following Monday's training session at Toyota Park.
Chicago Fire Forward Mike Magee
Reaction from friends and family to his return to Chicago…
“People are coming out of the woodwork. I moved away when I was 15 and I haven’t moved back since. I got a lot of family here, I’ve kept in touch with all my friends so its good to be back to say the least.”
Realizing the trade was a possibility…
“It’s been on my mind pretty much since I left. I tried to get back [here] a couple times in the past and then I think throughout the process with Robbie Rogers, that whole saga with him trying to get to LA, it crept in my mind that somebody had to go to Chicago and I raised my hand.”
On if he thought he would be the player traded…
“No, I didn’t [think it would be me]. I have to thank the Galaxy. I had a good talk with Bruce, mentioned I’m from here and that it was long past due that I get home. The Galaxy were great in facilitating that.”
On if he expects to play this weekend…
“I hope to play on Wednesday. I haven’t spoken to them about what the plans are but they brought me here to play.”
On if the Fire can still make the playoffs…
“Of course. We’re trying to catch Philly who I believe is 10 points ahead of us and we have two games in hand. We have to start getting some points. It’s still a very young season. Even watching the guys, they played well and things aren’t going their way. Little finishes and they’re getting punished for all their mistakes and sometimes that’s how it goes. We’ll get it right.”
On how much he’s watched the team recently…
“Not as much as I’d like to. Obviously I watched the game in Salt Lake and I’ve seen them here and there but I need to catch up quick.”
On if he’s talked to Frank Klopas about his role…
“No we had a general conversation. We were more talking about Chicago things but he knows I like to play forward and midfield. I’m the kind of guy that just wants to be on the field.”
On which spot he prefers playing more…
“It really doesn’t matter to be honest.”
On if he feels pressure coming into a team that hasn’t scored a lot this season…
“I put enough pressure on myself just to perform anyways. It’s obviously added pressure when you’re on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Instantly when the trade became official I felt that pressure but there’s no added pressure to score goals and do anything different than what I’ve done. The main focus is to starting getting points, starting catching Philly.”
On the first time he walked in the Fire locker room…
“It was the first time I was nervous in a while. Obviously there’s awkward conversations and kind of meeting some guys, catching up with some old guys. I haven’t had that feeling since I went to LA.
“Everything was great. It was more than I expected and there were a lot more faces I knew than I thought I would. They have a great environment here but unfortunately the points aren’t showing it.”
On how many guys he knew before coming to the Fire…
“I’ve known Rolfie and Logan [Pause] for a while. [Mike] Matkovich – I’ve known him since I was young. I played for the Sockers and he was a Magic guy so I hated him then. Not so much now.
“I’ve known Frank as well since I was a Fire fan. As cliché as that is, Frank’s a guy I’ve always loved as a player and we’ve kept in touch. Maicon [Santos] from his Chivas days, Wells [Thompson] from us being in the league forever. There’s just a bunch of good guys to be honest.”
On translating his MLS Cup winning experience to the Fire…
“I hope so. It’s weird coming in. I have to cut the cord with LA and try not to mention anything about that. Nobody wants to hear me talk about any of that stuff. Obviously there are certain things that we had there and I’ll try to implement some of those things. I played with some pretty cool players in LA so hopefully I’ll try to take some of the things I learned from them and teach some of the young guys here. They have good leadership here. Larentowicz and Logan are two good guys – good locker room guys.”
Chicago Fire head coach Frank Klopas
I just think there’s opportunities to bring quality players in who with any team, you start the season and obviously you look at situations you have to address. [Bakary Soumare and Mike Magee] are two quality players, I think those are two quality players. They’ll make our team better and add more depth to the squad. There are a lot of games left to play. There was a need in the back with our injury situation so getting a guy like Baky with his experience, I feel he’s missed a lot over the year but every game that he plays once he gets back to his form and fitness level. You saw it the other day and he’s not at the level he should be [yet].
Mike obviously you know his experience but he’s just a quality player. Plus this is a guy from Chicago, here. The pride that he has with the team and what it means for him to be back. I think that’s important – bringing two quality guys that have ties, with Baky starting his career here and Mike being from here, I think that’s important.
On if Mike Magee will play in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match at Charlotte…
“I can’t give you my scouting report because everybody’s watching. [Laughs] I think the chances are pretty high.”
On where he envisions Magee playing…
“Goalkeeper, goalkeeper. I’m going to invert positions. Sean’s going to go forward, Mikey’s in the back.
“I think you get him around the goal, that’s where he’s played. Depending on the need, you can move him around but I think around the goal, with his ability to combine and finish plays is quality. I think its important to get him closer to the goal but obviously things can change depending on what happens or the circumstances with injuries because he can play out wide also or in the midfield.”
On taking momentum from Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake into Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup match at Charlotte.
“It’s one game but it’s something to build on. Cup games – you look around the world, you can’t underestimate them. They’re difficult matches if you approach them in the wrong way. We need to be very focused and serious and it’s a tournament that we enter because we want to win. I think there are four banners up there that show the success the club has had and we want to do everything that we possibly can to try to put ourselves in a position to win. We start Wednesday and we need to be very focused and not underestimate anyone. You see upsets all over the world with games like this. The guys understand that, they’re focused and ready and we’re going to put out the best squad to give us a chance to win.”
On if Mike Magee’s MLS Cup championship experience is something that can translate in Chicago…
“For sure. With his experience and also being in games like that. He’s been around different teams and played with a lot of great players that he’s benefited from but also they’ve benefited from him. You can put some guys to play next to Messi but you have to have some quality too. For sure that experience will help but he’s just a quality player. He’s easy to play with but also makes everyone around him better and he’s from Chicago.”
On if Soumare and Magee’s ties to Chicago will help with the transition process…
“Í think that helps a lot but also these are guys within the league. They know the league well but also they feel at home here. Baky started here, Mike grew up here, his family is here and Baky has a lot of people here he calls family. I think that’s important but more than anything they’re guys that really care about the club.
"There’s a deep meaning to these guys and there’s a pride when they put the jersey on. You have to care, it’s gotta be something that hurts inside when you don’t do well. It might not be the same for any other club but for us, that’s what it means here. When we walk around, we have a lot of passion for the team, the city and soccer here in this town. For me and my staff and guys like Baky and Mike and the rest of the team, that’s how we feel. You gotta care, you gotta be honored to put that jersey on and that’s what it means to these guys.”
Frank Klopas, Chicago Fire Head Coach
Overall thoughts on the game
“That it’s a good result. You get a point over here, it’s not an easy place to play. Obviously, you know, we wanted to be better with the ball in possession with a team that kind of controls the game. You know, we gave up a lot of possession, thus we had to chase a lot of the game. But I thought our guys, even going down one goal, showed a lot of heart and character. Again, the point here was something to build on.”
If this will change the situation for the Fire
“Well, we hope so. It’s one game. We’ll take it a game at a time. But, you know, any time you can pick up points on the road – especially in this place here, it’s a very good team – It’s something to build on, it’s positive. We have a long way to go, it’s a long season. But for us right now, it’s one game at a time and continue to keep working. My team showed a lot of character.”
If injuries were the difference
“No, it’s ok. The guys have been good, you know. I mean, they didn’t give up when Saborio came in and scored a great goal and that’s going to happen. I thought Sean made some great saves and guys gave everything on the field. We had some chances, but like I said, it’s not an easy place to play and obviously getting a point, we’ll take that and look to build on this.”
On Sean Johnson’s performance tonight
“Yeah, you need that. When you’re on the road, you know, you obviously need to defend well as a team and need your goalkeeper to step up big, which Sean did and when you get your chances, you know, put them away. I thought we had some not good looks, but we got in good spots and some final pass execution, this or that, we weren’t as clear in the final third or as good in the final third. But we found a way to come back and, obviously, a big key to that was Sean. With the saves that he made and with that team working extremely hard, especially when we didn’t have as much possession in the game. Like I said, it’s something to build on, it’s a difficult place to play. It’s a really good team.”
On making adjustments after the Saborio goal
“We had to push the game. We took out Logan, who’s a little bit more defensive minded, we put another forward out, we dropped Alex, who we thought would give us a lot more in the final third so we had to push the game at that point.
On snapping the scoreless streak
“No, it’s a point. It’s difficult, you know, when you don’t score goals in six games to get a positive result. The good thing is that in those matches we created opportunities. We just got to concentrate and our focus has got to be better in the final third. I think any time you can score, I think again, even tonight coming from behind shows a lot of character. That it’s good if you can take leads early on, takes a lot of pressure from the team. But being able to score and get a point here, like I said, in a difficult place against a very good team is something to build on for us.”
On the Fire’s two new players
“Yes, one played tonight and Baky’s [Soumare] an excellent player and I think he just needs time. He had a minor injury that kept him away for a long time and now he’s getting in a little bit of a rhythm playing. I think the more games he gets under the better he’s going to get, but he brings a lot of quality to us. Same as Mike Magee, a kid from Chicago, he’s done extremely well. He’s a quality player, someone that’s going to add to more quality in the final third for us.”
Joel Lindpere, Chicago Fire Midfielder
On the team’s performance
“I think we pulled it out and it was a team effort, so I think we continued to battle. They come home to play and I haven’t tied or won here in my career so always when I come here it is very tough with the altitude and they play very good here at home so for me they are one of the strongest home teams in the league. We were down 1-0 and I think today the subs helped us out. We have many games and we always use three subs and we pull out starters and bring fresh guys in. I think today they really helped us. It shows that we really are one team and we fight in very tough situations, as we are in now. We are capable of earning three points and we have to start somewhere. Everybody hopes that this is the start where we can move up so we are going to keep going and concentrate on D.C. United who has also been in a very difficult situation, so it’s going to be an interesting game for both teams.”
Jeff Larentowicz, Chicago Fire Midfielder
On the team’s performance and what the result means for the team
“For us it’s a good result. I think that for any team to come here and get a point is good. They’re a tough team to play at Rio Tinto and we’re a team that’s struggling so for us to get a point on the road is good.”
On the addition of Mike Magee
“You know we’ll see. I’m not sure what the coaches have planned for him but you know when he comes in we’ll welcome him. He has shown he can score goals this year so at the moment we’ll welcome him.”
Select shots from the Fire's draw with Real Salt Lake
The Fire head west to Utah on Saturday night after dropping two games against the Union both at home and in Philadelphia. The team is without a goal in three games and face a daunting task against \ in-form Real Salt Lake (7:30pm CT on My50). RSL swept Chivas aside last weekend, cruising to a 4-1 victory. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
The return of Soumare – more changes for the Fire back line?
On Thursday, the Fire acquired former player Bakary Soumare from the Union. Soumare will provide some much-needed depth at the center back position with the long-term future of Arne Friedrich in doubt.
Soumare’s return comes at a good time for the Fire who are without a number of players due to injury and suspension. With Wells Thompson suspended, Frank Klopas could choose to move Jalil Anibaba to the right side of defense and slot Soumare in alongside Austin Berry.
Athletico Coaching Corner: Real Salt Lake
The injury to Friedrich has meant a longer than expected spell in the middle for Anibaba and in his absence, the right-back position has changed hands on numerous occasions this season.
Though right-back isn’t Anibaba’s natural position, the defender has played there for a lot of his Fire career and is comfortable in it.
Against a team like Salt Lake who are known for their aerial prowess, another big body on the back line like Soumare’s in addition to Anibaba and Berry would be very useful.
Getting some consistency in defense is very important from here on out and a starting four of Anibaba, Soumare, Berry and Segares would appear to have the right blend of youth and experience.
The Fire’s attack – pace vs possession
In both games vs. the Union, coach Frank Klopas started Patrick Nyarko up front with Chris Rolfe in an attempt to bring some speed to the forward line.
Against Salt Lake however, a more logical tactic would be to use a bigger body who can hold the ball up and can be used as an outlet to relieve pressure.
Sherjill MacDonald is fit again after an illness and could start up front as the target forward. This would allow the Fire to move Patrick Nyarko back to the wing, possibly in place of Joel Lindpere who has logged a lot of minutes this season.
Though Nyarko’s creativity and pace in the attack worked well against Philly, his desire to track back and help the defense could prove very important, especially against a team with a wealth of attacking options who are so offensive minded at home.
The problem with starting MacDonald up front is that he can oftentimes be left devoid of support and it will be up to players like Rolfe, and Duka to get forward and support the Dutchman.
If he does get the nod, the battle between him and the RSL center backs such as Kwame Watson-Siriboe will be very interesting to watch.
RSL’s midfielders – tracking runs into the box
RSL plays with a diamond midfield system with Kyle Beckerman anchoring and Javier Morales playing at the top of the diamond. Morales is the team’s playmaker and oftentimes acts as a third striker, getting forward to support the front two.
Duka, Larentowicz preview Real Salt Lake
Though Morales is an obvious target, players like Ned Grabavoy and Luis Gil who play on the flanks cut inside on a regular basis, making runs into the middle when joining in the attack.
With this many players getting forward, the Fire must be aware not only of who is marking who but must prevent RSL from getting second ball opportunities.
Similar to the Fire for most of the season, RSL likes to play with at least one mobile striker while the other tends to play higher up the field.
The mobile striker, oftentimes Joao Plata, drifts into wide positions, usually on the right hand side. His moves out wide open up more space for players like Morales, Grabavoy and Gil to move into.
Plata has four assists this season and is a good crosser of the ball. His crossing ability was displayed earlier this month against Vancouver where he put in a perfect ball Gil to head home the winner.
Staying tight with runners from midfield and not allowing second ball opportunities will improve the Fire’s chances of getting a result on the road dramatically.
Prediction: Rio Tinto Stadium is one of the hardest places in MLS to get a result in. The Fire has had no luck this season and perhaps Saturday night will be the night. 1-1 with Chris Rolfe scoring the Fire’s goal from the penalty spot.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
UPDATE - Segares clarified his comments following training on Wednesday.
"Its always an honor to be called up to the national team and represent your country. Regretfully at this moment the injuries the team is suffering along with the Open Cup game and league game against Real Salt Lake prevents the team from allowing me to go with the national team. If it was my decision, I would love to go with the national team but regretfully its just not the right moment. My door is always open for a national team call-up."
Last week, Chicago Fire defender Gonzalo Segares was summoned by Costa Rica for next week's international friendly against Canada in Edmonton.
With Segares having mostly gone unselected by the Ticos the last few years, the call-up was a welcome one. With the Fire experiencing a high amount of injuries, Orrin Schwarz reports the Fire left back turned it down in order to stick with the Men in Red through Saturday's game at Real Salt Lake and Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup match at Charlotte Eagles.
"We have important games coming up, and it's not a FIFA date, so I cannot leave my team right now," Segares said. "We need to stay together. It's not the right time for me to go."
Should the Chicago Fire come away victorious over the Charlotte Eagles in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup next Wednesday, the team is guaranteed to host its fourth round match against either the Columbus Crew or Dayton Dutch Lions on Wednesday, June 12 at Toyota Park.
I'll have a full play-by-play of the draw later today on Chicago-Fire but until then, see below all fourth round U.S. Open Cup matchups:
#1 – New England Revolution/Rochester Rhinos hosts Reading United AC/New York Red Bulls winner
#2 – D.C. United/Richmond Kickers winner hosts Ocean City Nor’easters/Philadelphia Union winner
#3 – Chicago Fire hosts Dayton Dutch Lions/Columbus Crew winner
-or- Columbus Crew host Charlotte Eagles
-or- Dayton Dutch Lions host Charlotte Eagles
#4 – Sporting KC host Colorado Rapids/Orlando City winner
-or- Colorado Rapids/Orlando City hosts Des Moines Menace
#5 – FC Dallas hosts FC Tucson/Houston Dynamo winner
-or- Houston Dynamo hosts Ft. Lauderdale Strikers
-or- Ft. Lauderdale Strikers vs. FC Tucson (Host TBD)
#6 – LA Galaxy/Carolina Railhawks winner hosts Chivas USA/LA Blues winner
#7 – Atlanta Silverbacks/Real Salt Lake winner hosts San Jose Earthquakes/Charleston Battery winner
#8 – Seattle Sounders will host Wilmington Hammerheads/Portland Timbers winner
-or- Portland Timbers will host Tampa Bay Rowdies
-or- Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Wilmington Hammerheads (Host TBD)
“There was thunder in our air; nature, as we embodied it, became overcast -- for we had not yet found the way. The formula of our happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal...” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Be wary of people who throw around Nietzsche quotes. His writing is so punchy that it’s easy to find good quotes inside of paragraphs about almost anything. Notice: I can take a line from a book Nietzsche wrote called The Anti-Christ and make it about soccer.
But if I can take a quote about anything out of context and pass it off as fair, it’s a quote about goals, right? Goals, too, have a way themselves of coming out of context. Ask the Fire about it recently.
Where do goals come from? In no sport is scoring as mystifying, and, as a result, as satisfying. Goals are rare enough to be special, but common enough to drive the sport completely, and their origin remains a mystery. What fickle furnace forges them? They come from the heavens, where so many players give credit in their celebrations, and from an entire team’s psychic connections. They come from perfect timing, impeccable technique, and acts of brilliance. They also come from deflections, bad refereeing, and those mis-kicked crosses that loop into the back post.
Where do goals come from? Don’t ask the Fire right now. A team that hasn’t always had problems scoring, the Fire find themselves in goal purgatory. For whatever reason, goals hate the Fire right now. They played well enough to at least earn a point out of Saturday’s game, and absolutely dominated the first matchup against Philly last week -- but the Fire couldn’t score. The drought has become confounding, almost like a natural disaster, something to marvel at in awe and horror.
It hurts even more to play against Jack McInerney twice in a row. McInerney has more goals this season than the entire Fire squad. He’s so hot that goals are showing up in his bed at night. He’s waking up next to goals he doesn’t remember meeting.
Okay, okay. The point is that goals are not to be trusted. They’re misleading. Goal stats rarely tell the story of a game, especially when teams control a game without scoring, like the Fire did two weeks ago and in periods on Saturday.
After a few unlucky breaks and a scuffed chance or two, it can feel like everything is conspired against you. The ref hates you, the ball and the vagaries of its deflections hate you, the goals themselves, they look so small now, even with their giant looming posts and their soft, welcoming nets -- don’t trust them, they definitely hate you. Meanwhile, set plays executed perfectly in training don’t come off. You start to over-think simple five yard passes. Your shoelaces untie themselves. It’s excruciating. You can work, you can run, you can do everything you can, but nothing works.
Where do goals come from? Can Klopas and Pause go on some sort of vision quest to find some? The Fire are getting shots (22 over the last two matches vs. Philly), managing games, and getting chances, but the payoff is late.
Well, maybe there's more in the Nietzsche about goal-droughts that I thought. Much of The Anti-Christ is in response to Arthur Schopenhauer’s cycle of desire and dissatisfaction, the cycle that defines
goals humanity. But like the Fire, Nietzsche is concerned with how we overcome our contemporary (~1880s) problems. He says that despite the fact that we once found happiness, we lost it. “We grew dismal; they called us fatalists.”
But once “there was thunder in our air” and surely we’ll recover it. “A Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal...”
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
Select shots from the Chicago Fire Rec Soccer league Final at Toyota Park on Sunday