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
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.
Select shots from the Fire's draw with Real Salt Lake
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.