And here the Fire go into the second half of the season, now suddenly in a losing streak, with as many questions swirling around everybody as there were in March. Last week I wrote about how the Fire have an opportunity to define their season, but it’s games like Sunday’s in Vancouver that show how this Fire team this year, for good or for bad, just refuses to be defined.
There are a million ways to look at games like Sunday’s. I mean, the Fire lost. They didn’t score when they had the chances, they gave up three goals, and they didn’t get any points. Those are the facts that count, sure, but games are never completely comprehensible in a quantitative way, and, especially as we all try to figure out the true identity of this team, the mysteries are confounding.
Was Sunday’s game as bad as the score line looked? Or did the Fire not get all they deserved? Was the lineup wrong? Or was the lineup fine but certain plays didn’t go the Fire’s way, that’s life, etc.? Let’s look a bit closer…
View 1: The Fire died in the second half, gave up three goals in 20 minutes, and couldn’t muster a comeback.
View 2: The Fire stood up against a plastic pitch and hostile atmosphere, dominated the first half and were unlucky not to score, then broke down against Vancouver’s momentum after Camillo’s first goal (which was brilliant and would’ve come off against anyone.)
View 1: The Fire’s defense is too exposed and the additions of Soumare and Francis, as well as moving Anibaba out wide, couldn’t keep Vancouver at bay.
View 2: The Fire’s defense has cut down the blatant mistakes we saw earlier this season, Segares was suspended, first choice goalie Sean Johnson is with the USMNT, defenses take time to gel, it’s hardly the end of the world, none of Vancouver’s goals were due to terrible defending or mistakes.
View 1: Sunday’s result makes sense because the Fire haven’t been strong away from Toyota Park.
View 2: One of the Fire’s best results this year was a scrappy away draw at RSL in May.
View 1: Klopas’ second half subs aren’t making a difference the way they used to.
View 2: The gist of the substitutions - refreshing center midfielders and providing more options up front (see Lindpere, Quincy, and Maicon) - are exactly the same as they were when they changed games in the unbeaten run. Also, without Paladini and Pause in Vancouver, he had fewer options.
View 1: Magee’s hot run is over.
View 2: Magee created multiple chances in the first half, just missed the back post twice in the second, had a shot blocked later, and was generally all over the place and annoying for Vancouver.
And so on...
So - was the Fire’s unbeaten run a fluke? Were the losses against KC and Vancouver proof that the Fire can’t convert against the best in MLS? Did the additions of Magee and Soumare, the resurgence of Duka-Rolfe-Nyarko trio, and the presence of Larentowicz all flame out?
OR: Did tough-fought results against Portland and RSL prove that the Fire can fight against anyone in the league? Maybe back-to-back losses against KC (the best team in the East) and at Vancouver (one of the hardest places to play in MLS) aren’t totally surprising, even for top teams? Maybe the Fire lost to a brilliant goal and a tough atmosphere/pitch, were unlucky not to score a handful themselves, and should just wash themselves of this game and move on?
In other words, there are no answers. I don’t think the Fire were dominated in Vancouver. But they lost. If the Fire had converted one of their first half chances, maybe Vancouver loses some confidence, and the Fire come away with some points. If not for Camillo’s second goal, the ball didn’t manage to squeeze past three Fire players, and the Fire equalize, who knows?
The “if” game is tough. One could say that the best way to address is that is to decisively remove all “if”s, convert the chances, not give up goals and be champions -- end of story. Fair, but maybe the best approach this year is to embrace what this team is. Maybe this year’s Fire is defined by a transient identity, a team finding itself through wins, losses, and draws. Maybe that’s what’s best about them?
Select shots from the Fire's 3-1 loss to Vancouver.
CREDIT: USA Today Sports Images
Select shots from the Fire's friendly with Club America.
Credit: Brian Kersey, Chicago Fire
A mistake is just a mistake, an error, a blip - the definition implies that it’s somehow against what’s expected, it’s notable specifically because it’s not in rhythm with everything else going on. Repeated mistakes, predictable mistakes, they’re no longer mistakes. They’re problems.
After yet another game marked by early concessions (and, at last, without the gritty comebacks that defined the Fire’s breathtaking unbeaten streak) The Fire find themselves approaching halfway through the season with an opportunity to define their year.
Are all these frustrating early goals, the slow starts, the brief moments of futility - are they mistakes, errors, blips? Are they exceptions to the true Fire? Or will they define the Fire as a problem, and we’ll look back sometime in the fall at a team that cost itself a playoff spot?
Pour some out for the exhilarating and dramatic nine-game unbeaten run. After Wednesday’s game against San Jose, everything looked hunky dory. The Fire let in some goals, but they controlled the game, scored wonderfully, and showed just how much of a new team we were seeing compared to the disappointments of the spring. Now, the Fire will have to show whether Magic Mike Magee’s impact is just makeup, MLS cover-all.
The best part of soccer seasons is that, eventually, your strengths and weaknesses are laid bare. There are deserved and deserved results, sure, but there’s no such thing as a lucky season because there are enough games to balance out unlucky bounces, bad call, injuries, and so on. The points at the end of the season tell a complete story.
So, yes, Sunday was hot and humid. KC is stacked, with maybe the best back line in MLS. The Fire played on short rest. It was, in other words, the worst scenario to let in early goals.
But it also exposed the Fire’s tendency to let in these goals that just feel wrong. The only word I can think of to describe the kinds of goals we’ve seen against the Fire is icky. They’re icky. They’re kind of gross. They feel wrong. They’re not well worked, they don’t really break the Fire down or come from great passing or individual brilliance. I’m thinking about Lindpere’s own goal and Gordon’s ridiculous crossbar assist to himself on Wednesday; Feilhaber’s volley off the post and Zusi’s wind-assisted Shross on Sunday. Going back, there are the Austin Berry gifts to Deshorn Brown of Colorado and Dominic Oduro of Columbus. You have to go all the way back to June 8th against Portland to see a really nice goal scored against the Fire in MLS.
That’s a good sign, I think. I think it means that, once the Fire stop letting in these icky goals, Magee and the suddenly more clinical Duka - Nyarko - Rolfe supporting cast will continue to carry the Fire towards a playoff spot. It only seems right.
But with big road games in Vancouver and Houston coming up this month and the games starting to wear people down, the Fire are going to have to prove that their ascent is legitimate. They’ll have to prove that June’s run was no lie, that the early goals were a bunch of mistakes, errors, blips - not what defines them.
Select shots from the Fire's loss to Sporting Kansas City
Credit: Brian Kersey, Chicago Fire
The Fire will host Sporting KC on Sunday afternoon at Toyota Park attempting to extend their unbeaten run to double digits after a dramatic five-goal thriller against San Jose midweek while KC comes to Chicago after a disappointing home draw against Vancouver.
Both teams are not on friendly terms and this looks set to be a thriller. Here are some tactical things to look out for.
Limiting the set pieces – Don’t allow Zusi to work his magic
Sporting KC have a double threat on set pieces with a number of players who are very good in the air and they have Graham Zusi, one of the best strikers of a dead ball in MLS.
At the back, Frenchman Aurelien Collin is not only strong but always makes a nuisance of himself in the box. Up front, they’ve benefited from the return of striker Kei Kamara who spent some time with Norwich in the Premier League.
Dan and Kevin talk Sporting KC
In KC’s last match against Vancouver, Kamara came very close to scoring from headers on multiple occasions not by outmuscling his opponent like Collin does but simply by out jumping them.
Like quite a few teams in MLS, Kansas City also possesses a modified set play – the long throw. Just as Jalil Anibaba deploys the it almost whenever possible for the Fire, SKC center back Matt Besler does the same.
The Fire gave away a silly goal from a set piece last week and better defending will be needed against a team that is well known for their set piece prowess.
Keeping SKC’s attacking wide players at bay – neutralizing Saad and Kamara
Kansas City starts in a 4-3-3 formation with striker Claudio Bieler in the middle with Kei Kamara and Soony Saad supporting him wide. Many teams are so focused (and I don’t blame them) on Bieler and attacking mid Graham Zusi that sometimes Saad and Kamara are overlooked and both players are good at finding space.
Coach Peter Vermes constantly orders the players to switch sides during play which makes picking them up even harder. In Kansas City’s last win against Columbus, Kamara chipped in with two goals, the first coming from a fantastic switch of the field which found Kamara in space that he was able to control and finish.
The attacking nature of Sporting’s outside defenders also gives Kamara and Saad an excuse to get into the middle and support Bieler. There will be some 1v1 battles between Saad and the Fire outside defenders but it will certainly take a team effort to keep the wide men at bay on Sunday afternoon.
Letting the Fire wingers create – creating room for Nyarko and Duka change the game
Anyone who has watched the Fire closely this season will tell you that winger Patrick Nyarko is playing the best the best soccer of his career and if he can overcome the tight hamstring that brought him out early against San Jose and start against KC the Fire have a great chance of winning.
Athletico Coaching Corner with Mike Matkovich
Nyarko has done it all for the team this year, be it tracking back to win the ball from his opponent, beating a man in a 1v1 situation or combining well with his teammates.
In the midweek win against San Jose, Nyarko did something many critics of the Fire often call out for more of, getting into the box to support the strikers. Nyarko not only got in but made a great near post run and finished superbly.
The cross provided for the Nyarko goal came from Dilly Duka who is starting to show his true potential. Duka had a goal and an assist in the win against San Jose and could’ve had a few more if not for narrowly missing a few rockets from outside the box.
In the past few weeks, Dilly has been a major threat from the wide positions, beating players at will and putting in numerous dangerous crosses. Duka has also got into the box to great effect, scoring two goals in as many matches.
The dual threat of attacking from wide areas as well as providing support in the box should cause the SKC back line some major issues on Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: Fire critics have claimed the club has yet to beat an elite team during the side’s nine-game unbeaten streak but I think those critics will be silenced on Sunday afternoon. 2-1 Fire with goals from Magee and Alex.
Soccer in America is still constructing its infrastructure, and we need engineers. People to build the institutions that will support the weight. One of those engineers is here, with us. If you’ve watched a game in a bar in Chicago you probably already know him.
Tall, beer in hand, iconic rockabilly hat - that’s the ubiquitous German Cowboy. His name is Mike Knueppel, and he’s been in Chicago since 2005. You’ll find him often at the far side of the bar in Cleo’s on Chicago, sometimes in the back room, rarely on the patio, but you can always pick him out by his trademark collection of kits, dozens and dozens of them, all with COWBOY 57 on the back.
We were driving to Toyota Park on Wednesday night talking about all those jerseys. I once saw him change from a German kit to an American one at halftime of their friendly in June. How can one support ALL the teams? What happened to loyalty?
“I wear the shirt of who’s playing,” he said. “But mostly if they have a German player.”
This was hard to take. Aren’t we supposed to live and die for a club? That means hating other clubs, wishing harm on strangers in other colors, “You ain’t got no history,” all of that.
But he was saying something different. You watch because, first of all, you want to watch the game. The game is primary. Then, you have your local allegiance. His is German and Hamburger SV (He founded Hamburger SV Supporters Chicago with a few others.) He cares most of all about the German national team and he’s willing to wear shirts of teams he “can live nicely without,” as he says, like Bayern Munich, because of some of their players.
“I even bought a Bayern Munich shirt recently,” he told me. “I mean I really shocked their supporters, they know I don’t like that team, but as a fellow German I support them internationally.”
I said, “This is troubling. You support players as they come and go? They’re moving around constantly. It’s like rooting for mercenaries.”
“I don’t support only the players. That’s why I have COWBOY (or VAQUERO for Real Madrid) on my shirts with my birth year. At least I know that won’t change. But first you support your local club.”
That’s fine too, but the logic breaks down again because what about the organizations with detestable front offices or ownership groups? (I’m thinking about even some of our Chicago teams’ history.) You can’t just support a team willy-nilly.
“It’s true,” he said. “But you have to support your location.”
And Americans supporting European teams in places they may have never even seen in person?
These to me are the tough questions of support and fandom. What exactly are we doing supporting these teams, all over the world? Thankfully, seated in Toyota Park to watch our shared, indisputable, actual home team, we could lay the question aside for 90 minutes or so.
Fun game, too, right? Nice how the rain broke and the night warmed up. Dilly Duka more than deserved the standing ovation he got as he came off in the 87th. The Cowboy and I enjoyed watching him absolutely terrorize Quakes right back Steven Beitashour.
The night was beautiful. Leaving the stadium, I was mumbling about how we fans deserve these nights. Those cold, grinding results early in the season were tough. You could feel the fans’ relief at the result. No disappointment this time. Wednesday night was even better because of the challenge and drama; San Jose wouldn’t die, but the Fire earned the three points with three beautifully worked goals. “They won, that’s all that matters,” the Cowboy said. “Fans love the win.”
There’s a long story for how the Cowboy got to Chicago, a story including four weeks at the Presidential towers in 1987, karaoke, his wife Sharon, the city of Seattle, software programming - it’s a story that he might tell you if you see him at Cleo’s. He’s not afraid to share.
And in some ways, it’s fitting that he’s around. The Cowboy embodies the 21st century globalized soccer paradigm. He can watch his Bundesliga, follow die Mannschaft, and participate in the growth of soccer in America, all from a comfortable neighborhood bar in Chicago. His work developing Cleo’s website and social presence has made it one of the primary soccer locations in Chicago and turned heads nationally. Maybe most importantly, his unofficial freelance soccer ambassadorship has brought people from all over the world together.
You’ll see him meeting with local supporter clubs (some of which he founded himself) like those of Dortmund and Hamburg, as well as Section 8, the Fire, ESPN, and just last week, in the beer garden, you would’ve seen him watching Uruguay and Italy in the Confederations Cup with Hamburg’s senator of the interior and highest ranking police officer.
Ever since he convinced Cleo’s to let him fix up their site and control their Facebook page, and with the blessing and help of Stephen behind the bar, the Cowboy has been our handyman, fixing up games and posting schedules so we can watch American and European soccer at our ease. “I wanted a bar where I know them and they know me and I get there they put the drink on the bar,” he said. “Where I can watch all the games and they’ll open early.”
In other words, it’s not really about the fanaticism of watching games. Going back to our conversation about supporting clubs, it became clear to me that the whole “it’s what’s on the front of the jersey, not the back of the jersey” thing is cheesy and doesn’t apply - just having a jersey is what matters. In this way, the Cowboy is critical in experience-making. He’s not an owner of the bar, or even an employee - he’s one of us. His work setting up games and events at Cleo’s, with just watching the game as the goal, means that there’s less pressure to know esoteric European stadium statistics, or to spew hatred for teams thousands of miles away.
Maybe that’s the answer about why we support who and how. Maybe we just support the game. Watch the game for the game’s sake. Love the game. Talk to people. Drink beer. Amen.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.