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.
Select shots from the Fire's match with the Union
Credit: USA Today Sports Images
The Fire head to Philadelphia on Saturday night to take on the Union for the second time in seven days (Coverage begins 6pm CT on My50). The Men in Red dropped a heart breaker 1-0 at home last week despite creating a number of chances. Philly played LA at home at midweek and lost 4-1 after a second half defensive collapse. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Rolfe and Nyarko up top – repeat the first half of last week
In the first half against the Union at Toyota Park last week Patrick Nyarko terrorized the Philly defense, running at them with pace and creating a number of opportunities.
Rolfe and Nyarko combined well and were very close to each other on the pitch. The movement of the pair dragged the Philly center backs out leaving massive pockets of space in behind for the Fire to exploit.
WATCH: Nyarko, Berry Preview Philly
This happened on a number of occasions and NBC analyst Kyle Martino pointed it out over and over again on the broadcast.
In the second half however, the duo were too far apart and then Rolfe was moved out wide later. It goes without saying they’ll need to play closer together on Saturday.
When Rolfe and Nyarko force the center backs out of position, players like Dilly Duka and Joel Lindpere need to do a better job of tucking in and taking advantage of that space, something the team didn’t do enough of last week.
Philly were unable to deal with the pace of Nyarko last week and the Fire should look to get the ball to the Ghanaian as much as possible again Saturday.
Kleberson – keeping an eye on the “unknown” Brazilian
In Philly’s game against the Galaxy Wednesday night the Union gave a first start to Kleberson in midfield. In the first half, LA was unable to deal with his movement and defense-splitting passes.
Kleberson got forward constantly to help out Jack McInerney and Sebastian Le Toux in the attack and was allowed two or three shots from just outside the box. He also dropped deep and found the strikers with some brilliant through balls.
In the second half, LA was a lot tighter on the Brazilian and he was less effective. Though he may not be fit enough to play the entire 90 minutes against the Fire, I would expect him to start after his excellent full debut against LA.
Logan Pause and either Daniel Paladini or Jeff Larentowicz must track Kleberson's runs and be wary of balls played in behind. Logan did a fantastic job of cutting out through balls in last weekend’s match and the Fire will need a similar effort from the captain on Saturday, especially if Kleberson gets the start.
Focusing on Philly’s left side – opportunities for Duka and Thompson
I spoke last week about the weaknesses of Philly defender Raymon Gaddis who filled in on the right for the suspended Sheanon Williams last weekend. Against LA on Wednesday night, Gaddis returned to left back and was again caught too far forward on a number of occasions.
On the one hand, Gaddis and Keon Daniel combine very well in the attack and are certainly a threat but both players fail to track back defensively when the Union turns the ball over.
On a number of occasions on Wednesday night Bakary Soumare had to come over to almost the left wing to cover for Gaddis who was nowhere to be found. LA took full advantage of this, attacking down Gaddis’ side for most of the match.
Against Philly last weekend, right back Wells Thompson looked somewhat reluctant to come forward despite the fact that Dilly Duka was constantly coming inside and leaving space for Wells to run into. Both Thompson and Duka should be looking to attack Gaddis at every opportunity on Saturday night.
Prediction: 3-1 Fire with goals from Nyarko, Rolfe and Lindpere
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.
Saturday was rough. You could almost feel the sucker punch coming, and it still hurt. Bad. There were a few interesting moments in the game but I couldn’t stop thinking about the wind. It’s one of the identifying characteristics of footy that you play in basically any condition, and it affects the way you play, the way you think about playing, and, obviously the results.
For all its stripped down, no pads, anyone-can-play humanity, the NBA is sterile in this regard. Every court is exactly the same and predictable (unless you have a bad shooting night, then you can blame the stadium’s depth perception, or lighting problems). Football has to play in weather, but they ruin the fun by putting Super Bowls in safe weather cities. Baseball has to play in weather too, but they cancel games if anyone gets mud on their shoes.
No, soccer has to deal with the elements in every way, from bee attacks to snow to pitch problems to wind.
Saturday against Philly began as a perfect example. The wind was strong enough to blow the froth off your beer. I saw a garbage can at Toyota Park get blown over and almost tumble down an aisle. Meanwhile, Philly could hardly get the ball in the air, and when they did, the wind held it up like the perfect alley oop. Austin Berry and Jalil Anibaba were able to measure the long balls up easily and win them consistently, even over Connor Casey.
But as the game developed, it was interesting because the wind didn’t seem to influence the game as much as it could have. It was irritating for the players (I’ve never seen Gonzalo Segares overhit so many crosses), and definitely a factor (it made Sean Johnson look like superman, I swear he could’ve kicked a goal kick into a bags game on the Party Deck in the first half if he wanted to), but it wasn’t the storyline.
Anibaba and Berry kept winning headers off goal kicks and clearances going both directions, and neither team were obviously playing out of the back on the ground the way teams do when they’re avoiding long balls into the wind. It seemed like a stalemate between the wind and the two sides. If only the wind could’ve pushed Patrick Nyarko's second half chance just an inch or two left, we’d be here sipping champagne joking about the wind, but we got sucker punched.
Let’s take the funny with the tragic, here. The Fire were clearly robbed of three points, and the good news is that there’s plenty of time to recover these lost points. The Rolfe/Nyarko partnership is promising, the weather’s getting better, and at the end of the season we’ll look back at plays like this one from Anibaba and laugh.
Our Team for the World partner Club America took a big step towards their first domestic title since 2005, defeating Pumas UNAM 2-1 in the second leg of the Liga MX Clasura quarterfinals on Saturday at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Heading into the match, America already held a 1-0 aggregate lead after Raul Jimenez struck in the 28th minute of the first leg on Wednesday.
Pumas pulled the series level by virtue of Robin Ramirez' classy one-time volley past Moises Munoz in the 21st minute.
Club America would re-take the lead as Ecuadorian international Christian Benitez finished from close range following a redirected shot in the 56th minute.
With the hosts already looking like they'd advance, Benitez put the final nail in the coffin deep into second half stoppage time, beating Pumas 'keeper Miguel Palacios inside the post to clinch a 3-1 aggregate victory.
With the win, Club America moves on to the Liga MX Clasura semifinals and will vist Montrerrey in Wednesday's first leg before welcoming los Rayados to the Azteca for leg two Saturday night.
The Chicago Fire face Club America in an international friendly on Saturday, July 10 at Toyota Park.