MLS Regular Season
Buzz buzz buzz. Inside the Fire this week, if you put your ear real close, you could catch what you’d swear was a little optimism, a little sunshine, a little buzz. And goals! After breaking their goal drought late at RSL, the Fire added two new starters, cleaned up their first U.S. Open Cup game 2-0, and duplicated that score Sunday at home against DC United.
Last week I said that, like a developing chess game, this season is very much still developing an identity. It was obvious in the last 20 minutes of the RSL game, when the Klopas Gambit succeeded in providing the Fire more attacking options than we’d seen all year.
So when captain Logan Pause went down to a groin strain midweek, Klopas had a choice to make with his starting line-up against D.C. Continue with the blocky set up that’s been stable but struggling or take advantage of the modicum of momentum and take a risk. He put an attacking player in for Pause, moved Jeff Larentowicz into Pause’s old spot anchoring the midfield, and suddenly, right away on Sunday, the Fire had five attacking players coming at DC from unexpected directions. Patrick Nyarko and Joel Lindpere popped up centrally and combined with Rolfe and Magee who were moving between United’s midfield and defensive lines, and Alex found himself running through in support.
After what was admittedly a fortunate first goal, though, and as the game progressed, Klopas found himself in an unfamiliar position. Here were the Fire, ahead, with five attack-minded players on the field. It didn’t matter that they weren’t exactly bossing the game. Eventually Daniel Paladidni came on to help lock down the result. It worked.
What was interesting was the refreshing feeling of closing out a game in the lead. There’s something less stressful about being ahead and having the choice of continuing what’s worked or moving to add structure and keep D.C. at bay. Compare that to the stressful, semi-desperate feeling of being behind and scrambling to find the right balance of attackers that can even the game without giving up any more goals.
Klopas balanced his team expertly. They remained dangerous, a feeling confirmed as the game concluded with Magee and Nyarko running into wide open spaces on counterattacks and keeping United pinned back (and eventually grabbing the clinching second goal). Meanwhile, D.C. never put together a few minutes of attack that made them look like they could get back into the game.
There’s a lot to fear when you change too much in a team too quickly, especially when part of that change is removing a player like Pause, who for years has been a linchpin for the whole team’s play. And yet the Fire capitalized on the buzz and instituted a change of attitude from the very beginning of the game yesterday, a change that resulted in the super important first goal.
At just five minutes into the game, look at how many Fire players are forward. Look at how central Nyarko is, and how far up Alex is. It’s worth asking if, in the old set-up, either Pause of Larentowicz would ever be this far forward this early in the game. Yes this moment came from a Sean Johnson dead ball, so players were able to push up, but the example holds.
And so what if this set-up only led to a botched cross from Lindpere, but just three minutes later, D.C. gave the ball away and the Fire jumped on it. Alex got forward right away, combined with Lindpere out wide, and the winger drew the foul that led to the first goal.
The faint buzz you’re starting to hear from Bridgeview isn’t a roar, not yet anyway, but with a clearly different approach, an injection of new players and optimism, we’re getting a lot closer to a Fire squad that will pick up points all over the league.
Select shots from the Fire's 2-0 win over D.C. United
CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire
The Fire’s Athletico Injury Report has become much shorter with a number of players coming off the list in the last week.
Daniel Paladini (left calf inflammation), Maicon Santos (right shoulder sprain), Hunter Jumper (right groin tightness) and Yazid Atouba (right ankle sprain) all came off the report over the last week and will be available for selection by Frank Klopas in Sunday’s showdown with D.C. United.
The one addition to the list this week is captain Logan Pause who is listed as questionable after suffering a left groin injury just before halftime of Tuesday’s 2-0 victory over the Charlotte Eagles.
Should he be unable to go, Paladini will most likely step back into the Fire midfield in his stead.
Arne Friedrich is back in Germany again receiving treatment for his hip problem while Steven Kinney remains out with a right quad strain.
The Fire entertain lowly D.C. United this Sunday at Toyota Park (LIVE 4pm CT on My50/UniMas) after a week of very positive results in MLS and U.S. Open Cup play. The Men in Red got a credible draw at RSL before traveling to South Carolina to take on the Charlotte Eagles, winning 2-0 and advancing to the fourth round of the Cup.
D.C. dropped a 2-0 result to Portland at RFK Stadium last weekend and squeezed by the Richmond Kickers on penalties in the Cup at midweek. Here are some tactical things to look out for during Sunday afternoon’s game.
Magee and Rolfe – a budding partnership to continue up front?
Rolfe and Magee looked to get each other involved in the attack and tried to play as close to one another as possible.
Coach Frank Klopas indicated after signing Magee that he feels his best position is playing up front and because both he and Rolfe are so mobile, it makes sense to continue to start the pair against a D.C. team
that has struggled on the defensive end this season.
Soumare, Rolfe preview D.C. United
Magee’s move up front also allows Patrick Nyarko to slot back into a wide position which allows him to be more creative and take players on.
This new partnership has the potential to blossom into a very successful one and the more time both players get to spend on the field together, the better.
Exposing the Kitchen/DeLeon partnership – taking advantage when one gets forward
In D.C.’s last game against Portland the team played Nick DeLeon and Perry Kitchen together in the middle of the field, similar to how the Fire play with Jeff Larentowicz and Logan Pause.
When D.C. attacked, either DeLeon or Kitchen would get forward to support Chris Pontius and Carlos Ruiz.
This left the team with only one holding midfielder and Portland took full advantage of this, breaking at every opportunity and opening D.C. up with either a long ball into space or attacking through the middle where they only faced one holding player.
Portland’s stretching of the field during the counter attacks opened up huge pockets of space in the middle and players like Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe were able to get forward and put real pressure on the United defense.
Kitchen is a more disciplined player than the sophomore DeLeon and the Fire must look to try and take advantage of this when D.C. turn the ball over in an advanced position.
Keeping an eye on Kyle Porter – DC’s tricky winger
I admit that the Portland/DC game was the first time I had seen Kyle Porter play and he impressed me a lot. Porter reminded me of a young Justin Mapp, a player with great promise but who can also be very frustrating at times.
Porter is very good in 1v1 situations but sometimes tries to do too much with the ball and not make the simple pass. Porter’s crossing ability is also very impressive and he put numerous free kicks into dangerous positions.
Porter combined well with veteran James Riley on the right wing and Fire left back Gonzalo Segares will be tested on Sunday night. That being said, Porter can also be a bit naive on the defensive side of the ball and the Fire should look to exploit the space behind him if he is slow to track back.
Prediction: Statistically, D.C. is the weakest team in MLS and with the Fire playing at home, three points is a must. 2-0 Fire with goals from Chris Rolfe and Dilly Duka.
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