Select shots from the Fire's draw with the Portland Timbers
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.
Fire Homegrown talent Victor Pineda is away with the US U-20 squad at the Toulon Tournament in France. The tournament is a prep for the FIFA U-20 World Cup taking place in Turkey later this month and could be make or break for players hoping to make that roster.
Coming off a right ankle injury, Pineda did not make the field in the Americans’ first two matches against France and Colombia (both losses) but started and went 60 minutes in the U.S. win over the Democratic Republic of Congo Saturday. Here are my observations of Victor’s performance:
Victor started on the right of a three man attack, wearing the number 7. He spent most of the first half playing almost on the touchline on the right wing.
Around the fifth minute, Pineda controlled a cross-field ball, cut inside and hit a tame shot on target with his left foot. He combined well with FC Dallas right-back Kellyn Acosta with the pair exchanging numerous one-two passes.
Pineda also tucked inside, allowing Acosta space to move into on the wing. The U.S. team applied a lot of high pressure on the DRC back line and at one point Pineda almost blocked a kick by the DRC keeper.
Coach Tab Ramos switched Pineda to the left wing and it was from this position that he created the U.S.'s best chance of the half. \
On 35 minutes, he got the ball wide and beat a DRC defender with pace before breaking into the box, faking right and cutting back left with a Cruyff turn, beating another defender before shooting with his left and forcing the keeper to make an excellent save. This was the last major action of the first half (40 minutes) for Pineda.
In the second half he continued on the left wing, cutting inside and demanding the ball off his teammates, displaying his strong self belief and confidence. He displayed another neat bit of skill 15 minutes into the second half when he allowed the ball to go in between his legs before turning away from a DRC player who could do nothing except foul him.
On 60 minutes, Victor was substituted, not surprising for a player who is only just coming back from an ankle injury.
In conclusion, Pineda was heavily involved during his time on the field and certainly made the case for a start in the US's last group match against South Korea on Wednesday (9:55am CT on beInSport).
Check back later this week for a recap of Victor’s next match with the U-20s.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
Select shots from the Fire's 2-0 win over D.C. United
CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire
Select shots from the Fire's 2-0 win over the Charlotte Eagles
Credit: USA Today Sports Images
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.
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.”
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.