Blog

Between the Lines

30 September 9:16 am

A quick word about points before some Juan Luis Anangono gifs from Saturday.

In all the European leagues this week, fans and onlookers, for the first time this season, started looking at the table in earnest. Suddenly those campaigns feel far enough along to warrant real despair or optimism. From highs at Napoli and Arsenal to the crises at United and Madrid, people spent the weekend frantically counting points, looking up past point totals, tracking average points per match stats, and worrying or gloating about their projected finishes.

That panic and fervor is why I don’t look at the table until at least halfway through a season. It’s too stressful and too small a dataset. But also, you can get a much better idea of a team’s title chances by watching them play a lot of games and watching other teams play a lot of games. Even though the table is king, there’s more to a game than its points.

I swear I’m coming back to the Fire but two quick things about points in general. First, they have a strange way of accumulating over time. You can only get zero, one, or three points, and yet they often feel like they’re coming or going in heaping clumps, like Salvation Army donations. They don’t feel like they grow calmly the way points per match stats indicate. (Anyway those stats are a little ridiculous. What do we really learn from a two-point-something line?) Points feel at once impossible to gain, then coming down in sheets.

But this is why the collection of points feels so good in soccer leagues all over the world, so much better than a regular season NBA win, to name the obvious example. You “steal a point” or “earn three points,” week in and week out. You figure a point saved is a point earned and the point savings account will pay off at the end of the season. You figure.

Points, despite their bewitching growth patterns, don’t lie when schedules are balanced and you know everyone’s playing everyone. At the end of the season the team with the most points is deservedly top. End of story. With the same points available over so long a time, it’s impossible to hide under a quick run of wins the way a team can in a playoff.

In MLS, it's a bit strange because most teams in the East play each other three times over the course of the season so qualifying for the playoffs will show who did the best against each other in the conference, not necessarily the best teams overall. Still, those teams deserve the chance to extend their season because they earned it from March to October. It's a huge dataset. No matter what happens between the Eastern Conference teams vying for the final playoff spots (Houston, Philadelphia, New England, and Chicago), I think that even with the imbalanced schedule, the points will have proven that over the long haul they were one of the top five teams.

Unless it’s the 2013 Fire. The 2013 Fire are doing their best to undermine the cold faultlessness of the point system, driving fans crazy with their fluctuating quality from half to half and game to game. Forget the table, at this point I’m convinced we won’t know if the Fire have made the playoffs until the final whistle of the final game in New York. They will continue to tease out points here and there until then. The others will slip, there’s nothing invincible about any of them, and the Fire either will or will not take advantage.

What I mean is that even though at this stage of the season it’s natural to whip out the calculators and do your Playoff Math and all that, it’s possible that even with just twelve points up for grabs, it’s still too early to talk conclusively about points. We should still be talking quality. If the Fire play the way they’ve shown they’re capable of, and as they did during parts of the second half on Saturday night, the points will come and they’ll make the playoffs. You don’t need a calculator to see that. Despite the despair of some fans and one player who called Saturday night’s game “heartbreaking,” I like Mike Magee’s comment: “We have four games left and we’re going to make the playoffs.”

Not a single one of the (what, eight or nine?) media and Twitter-hyped “MUST WIN” games have really been must-anythings so far. They’ve been opportunities to tweak and grow and get some points. The Fire now need points everywhere, but except perhaps for their ugly away record, the 12 points are actually quite feasible. DC will be coming off an emotional Cup Final, Dallas like the Fire has 40 points and all but out of the Western playoff race, Toronto is beatable, and NYRB may have clinched and have little to play for.

Of course, the Fire could also lose all four games. Who knows? The only sure thing is that there are twelve points for four teams to fight for, and the 2013 Fire has to earn it this year, conclusively, finally, or not. And that will be the measure of this team.

______

Saturday. I loved Frank Klopas’s adjustments at half. I loved the second half in general. But the first half was rough. In the first 15 seconds we have Juan Luis Anangono not quite focused yet:

Cut to the second half though, and Anangono, again symbolizing the entire team, was everywhere. He reacted quickly and had a point blank shot blocked before the ref whistled for that ill-fated PK. He was running at people (not always successfully, but still) and creating space for Chris Rolfe, Alex, and Magee to connect. But my favorite was in the 82nd minute: His super well-worked though unlucky chance that Rolfe created and Troy Perkins saved off the post. Anangono didn’t give up, he got the rebound and set up Magee, whose shot was cleared off the line:

More of that please, and with more of that we won’t even have to look at the table to know the Fire have extended their season.

23 September 9:54 am

We knew it was too early to get cocky. Although the Fire managed to overcome, at least in a cathartic sort of way, all the season’s travails in the dramatic comeback-into-playoff-spot win last week against New England, we knew there were six games left to hold onto, improve upon, or lose playoff position.

At that point, four of the six remaining games were away from Toyota Park, which was a scary prospect for the Fire. Like the rest of MLS, the Fire are much worse away from home, and one couldn’t shake the feeling that the Fire would play drug smuggler, in and out of safety every week.

Saturday’s thumping in Columbus didn’t make fans feel any better, and still, three of the five remaining games are away from Toyota Park. But why are the Fire playing worse away from home? A quick run through the stats:

- Overall record: 11-12-6
- Away record: 2-8-4
- Home record: 9-4-2
- Overall goal differential: -7 (36 for, 43 against)
- Away goal differential: -14 (10 for, 24 against)
- Home goal differential: 7 (26 for, 19 against)

Not sterling, it’s true. Goal differential in soccer can be a little overblown as a telling statistic but since it could count in playoff contention it's worth paying attention to. And one thing it shows is that all of MLS is struggling away from home this year. Every team except Kansas City (+1) and Real Salt Lake (0) have road goal differences in the negatives. Seventeen teams are shipping goals away from home!

It’s a strange phenomenon in MLS, and seems to go against the general feeling that, with MLS parity so prevalent, there would be less domination, more draws, etc. Not so, at least not anymore. According to some numbers crunched over at SBN, “MLS has become a league were the home team wins about 50 percent of the time and the road team pulls out three points somewhere around 25 percent.”

But why? There are a few explanations in other American leagues. Grueling travel in the NBA, noise in the NFL, explicit rule advantages in MLB and the NHL - but those factors aren’t so relevant in MLS.

There’s the harder to calculate factor of home vs. away referee decisions, or momentum, or what at least one writer calls the “best sports fans in America,” which, I mean, great, but even if there was a way to prove that, it would be hard to connect fans’ performance with players’.

So let’s accept the mystery for a second. Let’s chalk it up to some combination of discomfort or unfamiliarity with playing surfaces (hi Revs), climates (hola Houston), atmosphere (ok Seattle, we see you), various travel and hotel-related distractions and fatigue (seems like a cop out but ok), refereeing decisions (impossible to prove), and the elusive, metaphysical effects of momentum.

The thing is that MLS is not alone in home team dominance. England has it too. Maybe the issue has less to do with American this-or-that than soccer itself. I would love to find data showing that home team dominance comes from the non-physical aspects of the game. I think something about the invisible, spontaneous, and rapid morphic connections between teammates (the connections that translate into the action we see) make them occur in a smoother way at “home.”

At the very least, it's an apt way to think about the Fire’s away form this year, where even after a dominant home game they can leave town and look like they’ve never played with each other before. Saturday night in Columbus, for example, it seems they left whatever elixir Jeff Larentowicz passed around at half time back in the locker room at Toyota Park. But we’ve seen the Fire turn it the other way around too, as in July, when they lost 3-1 in Vancouver only to beat DC 4-1 at home the next week.

Obviously the Fire will be looking to do the same against the suddenly beatable Montreal at TP on Saturday. Here’s to the morphic energy going as smoothly as possible.

16 September 9:38 am

So now we have a different sort of perspective. Now suddenly the Fire are sitting in a playoff spot. Now the fight has paid off and the double comeback on Saturday night has everyone high and talking about “attitude” and “mentality” and there’s a different feel. Can you tell? Off-field issues, on field disappointments, coaching decisions, refereeing - it all feels a little irrelevant right now.

Now the approach is different. Now the Fire have in some way reached their goal, they’ve come back and got into a playoff spot. Now the team has a little momentum again, a little confidence, a little faith in this season’s various experiments.

Suddenly the Arevalo Rios/Jeff Larentowicz partnership looks as good as the Alex/Larentowicz partnership, while Alex has excelled as a utility attacker (center/left/right) off the bench or filling in for Rios on international duty.

Juan Luis Anangono finally finished and is beginning to look like a player you would spend transfer dollars on, while some healthy competition between Patrick Nyarko, Dilly Duka, and Joel Lindpere for outside midfield spots will only push them more and mean more service for Anangono.

Suddenly, the Fire look like a deep, experienced, full squad that can bring players like Chris Rolfe and Logan Pause off the bench if need be.

I just mean to say that the feeling after a dramatic and total team victory like Saturday’s is so much different from the panic, terror, and anger that fans felt on and off for most of the season. Toyota Park was more energized after Alex’s goal on Saturday than at any other time all year.

It feels like some fans and commentators have been calling games “must win” for the Fire since the spring, in a way that - deserved or not - everything felt like it was on the edge of a complete and utter disaster. That’s sports, especially in Chicago, but now that a goal’s been reached, there’s a feeling that you could almost call pride, back again.

So forgive us, playoff gods, for looking to the calendar because, as Mike Magee said Larentowicz told the team down 2-1 at halftime on Saturday, “the season gets shorter and shorter now and business has to be done.”

How will the team deal with being in 5th place looking down, instead of the other way around?

The Fire still have to improve on their away form if they’re going to hold their position despite tricky trips to Columbus, RFK, and Dallas, before finishing the season at first place New York. And the Fire still have to take the seemingly easier points against Toronto and DC. But it’s just six games and they hold their own destiny.

We know the playoff spot is the Fire’s to lose, and the fans can sense that this team, with its three different phases this year, and its hot streaks and cold streaks and other hot streaks and other cold streaks - this team might just have found enough consistency to not only make the playoffs but, well, if it was too early to panic about making the playoffs, it’s probably too early for the overly optimistic thoughts too, right?

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

13 September 1:06 pm

For all the talk of the Fire’s possession problems, you wouldn’t have known it in the first 20 minutes of Wednesday night’s game in Toronto. The Alex/Jeff Larentowicz partnership hummed along like it did during the squad’s hottest streak this year, a fresh looking Patrick Nyarko did his havoc-creating thing, and it all culminated with a deserved goal.

Of course, at the final whistle it was obviously a shame they didn’t get one or two more during that period. But that’s what this Fire does. They pull off the tough results and tend to drop the seemingly easier ones. Even on short rest, away from home (where they’ve struggled all year), Toronto was the perfect opponent.

And in the first 20 minutes, the Fire pretty much had their way with the ball and the field, pressing hard to win it up field, running off each other -- it was yummy. It’s hard to pick one sequence but there was one down the right side in the 15th minute I loved. The Fire won the ball and played a couple fast one-touch passes before Nyarko just missed Chris Rolfe, wide open past midfield. It didn’t come off, but just look at the wide open spaces in TFC’s team shape.

TFC started bad. Really bad. They misplaced more balls than a dog with amnesia and the Fire took all the space they wanted. It was a veritable buffet for Rolfe, Dilly Duka, and Mike Magee, enjoying constant service from midfield as well as the enterprising Gonzalo Segares.

TFC’s goal shouldn’t have been the last goal of the game but it was and thankfully other results held up so the Fire are still in perfectly okay position for the playoffs. They need to pick up points down the stretch, yeah, but they’re all of one point out of fifth with seven games to play. I still don’t understand the doomsayers calling the season off already.

If the 14th minute, free-flowing Fire example showed everything this team can be when it flows right, Quincy Amarikwa’s 78th minute chance showed what’s sometimes dispiriting about them. They let points get away from them.

Off a TFC attack, Magee got the ball in his own half and turned through the midfield to play Rolfe, who spotted Amirakwa’s dash inside. It was a great run because he timed it later than Juan Luis Anangono’s, which was a bit too early so his defender could recover before Pause pushed close enough to goal.
 
Amarikwa’s run came directly in front of his defender, giving Pause the angle and target he needed, and Quincy was in. He had the choice of laying off for Anangono, who was beyond the goalie and just a simple touch away from giving the Fire the lead, but he went himself. Against his own team, in on goal, Amarikwa went himself and shot right at TFC keeper Joe Bendik. Anangono (and Fire fans) were furious.

It’s not outrageous for a striker in that position to go himself; actually, it’s probably the right thing to do versus risk an extra pass. But it was a moment the Fire couldn’t quite grasp, the kind of moment they’ll need to in the next seven games if they’re to keep their season going into the playoffs.

03 September 10:32 am

Gut punched again! Maybe not as bad as the Philly gut punch game from May, definitely not as painful as the Open Cup gut punch, but Houston’s smash and grab draw is the kind of result that could shake a team. That said, we’ve been here before this season. The Fire have proven they can rebound from disappointing results and it’s too early for the playoff panic, there are too many games left to play. Games like Sunday’s hurt, but now, a few days after, it doesn’t seem like any sort of total season KO.

What it is: another example of this team’s schizophrenia and oft-infuriating inconsistency. I mean, how delicious was that first half?

READ: Playoff Math - Still only two points out

Dilly Duka was terrorizing, Alex has taken his move to the outside with relish, Arevalo Rios and Jeff Larentowicz are working well together, Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee keep popping up in annoying positions to track, and the Fire broke down a solid Houston defense, creating chance after chance after chance.

But because this game rarely if ever makes sense the way it should, the Fire let their guard down for a crucial period and relinquished a few points at home. It’s not the result of a dominant team, but then, that’s not what this Fire team is. It’s a team still trying to lock down its identity and self-expectations and the good news is that there’s still some time to do it.

One thing the team has to get used to is Frank Klopas’ efficiency approach. “They had possession,” he said after the game, “but we are the ones that created the better chances.” This is a common adage for Klopas this year. He’s proven time and again that he’s comfortable ceding to possession to the other team, letting them play with it and knock it around sideways as much as they want - as long as, when the Fire have the ball, they make use of it to be dangerous.

Before you scoff, remember that it’s the same approach that Jose Mourinho used at Chelsea and Inter Milan to beat Barcelona. It means counter attacks, quick passing, explosive breaks, all of which we saw against Houston. But it also means taking the (potentially few) chances you’re given as well as long periods of focus and discipline to keep your cool and keep your shape as the other team knocks it around.

With the other team passing around, especially on a hot, sun burnt afternoon like Sunday’s, it can be easy to loosen up and sit back at times.

That causes two problems…

First, as the defense falls backward, it creates more space in front of them for the other team to move forward. While it was all good for Houston to pass around the Fire’s half 30-40 yards from goal, as the Fire’s defense moved too far back later in the game, Houston pushed closer and closer, and started finding space around the edge of the area (where the goal eventually came from). But as Gonzalo Segares said in his comments after the game, it’s not always just the defense’s fault for falling backwards, especially when they’re under attack for so many minutes.

READ: Magee, Segares, Klopas lament two dropped points Sunday vs. Dynamo

The second challenge with sitting back is that the attackers have to hold the ball up front to let the lines move up, and they have to take the open counter attacking chances that come when the other team presses to equalize. Juan Luis Anangono was unusually ineffectual when he came on Sunday, but maybe the Fire were just unlucky. If Magee’s second half shot off the post had gone in, it’s hard to see Houston getting their draw.

The Fire have proven to be a tough team to beat when they score first this year, and much of that is down to Klopas’ efficiency approach as well as the focus and discipline of the defense. In that sense, Sunday’s gut punch was an outlier. But if there’s one thing for sure about the Fire this year, it’s that their previous games are not necessarily indicators of their future ones, and no matter how many times they successfully see out the tight ones, it’s the gut punch games that we remember.

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

 

26 August 12:28 pm

If there was ever a game for our schizophrenic 2013 Fire to overcome on what in any other week might have been a highly appealing Friday night home game - this was it.

Squad issues: Hunter Jumper had to replace suspended Bakary Soumare and his calming presence, while new arrivals Arevalo Rios and Juan Luis Anangono are still working to fit neatly into the side.

Opponent: KC, the only team to beat the Fire at Toyota Park in the Mike Magee era, coming to town with Graham Zusi and Teal Bunbury back fit, the team with the most headed goals in MLS against the Fire’s makeshift center back pairing.

Off the field: Coach Frank Klopas was suspended, national headlines off the field, time running out on the playoff race.

And then, like they’ve done time and again this year, the Fire rebounded from a disappointing loss to play up to their potential and not only take all three points, but also show the fans that there’s real quality on this team.

Whereas Rios and Jeff Larentowicz seemed out of rhythm in New England, they matched each other swimmingly on Friday, stepping and dropping, playing each other in tight spaces, and frustrating Benny Feilhaber and the rest.

Whereas wide players created next to nothing in New England, Dilly Duka was a force on the right on Friday. Meanwhile, Alex, who seemed out of place as a substitute deployed wide in New England, picked his runs to the middle of the field with considerable vision on Friday, providing support for Magee and Chris Rolfe up top, pushing counter attacks forward, and getting back to help prevent Zusi’s service on KC’s right side.

So let’s give credit to the squad for playing up to their potential in yet another massive game for the Fire. Let’s also look briefly at the magic of the 4-4-2 formation, that often-mocked old school set up the Fire rely on because Arrigo Sacchi and (occasionally) Sir Alex Ferguson aside, it’s not exactly the formation of kings.

The 4-4-2 is the everyman’s formation, the formation you play in your rec league, the most logical way to cover the field and balance attack with defense. Yet at the top level, it’s fallen out of fashion in the past decade or so thanks to the emergence of the three man midfield, Vicente Del Bosque’s 7-midfielder thing, and the desire to free up superstar players in attacking positions.

But the Fire proved that the 4-4-2 is still a viable formation in the right setting. Unlike complicated, imbalanced, shifting formations, the 4-4-2 is less about creating specific advantages in areas of the field than it is about creating 1v1 situations everywhere. That means it’s about winning individual battles, endeavoring for second balls off 50/50s, and that extra 10-yard sprint.

Of course it has its subtler points: overlapping outside backs, the way Magee dropped deeper once Anangono came on to make it more of a 4-4-1-1, etc. But what we saw on Friday night was a team focused on working hard on and off the ball for the entire game. In that way, Hunter Jumper’s scrappy goal was a perfect game-winner, because all game the Fire were on the ground, reaching balls just an inch before KC player’s could.

The commitment seemed to shoot out from Rios and Larentowicz’s eyes. They were everywhere, covering far more space than two men ought to, sliding around, starting counter attacks, holding the ball, and annoying KC all game.

You could say it’s a weakness of the 4-4-2, that it takes complete self-sacrifice. But you have only to look at the reaction of Rios at the final whistle to see that the pride in exhaustion is always worth it. 

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

19 August 1:28 pm

Call it Fire 2.0 version 2.a. After the Bakary Soumare/Mike Magee stage of the season (the super hot June, Fire 2.0, back in the playoff race) the closing of the transfer window earlier this month saw two more players - Juan Luis Anangono and Arevalo Rios - come in and now we’re seeing another shift in the team.

New players came just in time too, because injury and fatigue start to necessitate rotation around this time in August. Last week against Montreal, Frank Klopas switched up his tactics to accommodate his newfound depth. The finishing and creativity of Magee and Patrick Nyarko were replaced by the industry and hold up play of Alex and Anangono, in a sort of fusion 4-5-1/4-4-2. That set up worked in part because Jeff Larentowicz and Logan Pause established a base of control and support in the midfield the whole team could build off, and also because of the way the outside midfielders got forward, Dilly Duka and Joel Lindpere scored both goals.

On Saturday night in New England, Klopas went back to his trusted 4-4-2 and plugged in new Uruguayan signing Rios alongside Larentowicz in Alex’s former spot in the center of midfield. In his first MLS game, on turf to boot, Rios showed what we’re getting by breaking up play all over the place and springing a few counter attacks. You can see what Klopas is thinking: Always pushing the team to counter swiftly after winning the ball, Klopas must be licking his lips at the idea of Rios looming around and sending Duka, Magee, Angonono, Amarikwa, and Nyarko off into space behind opposing defenses. This ball didn’t turn into anything, but look at how quickly the Fire can forward with Rios:

But Saturday night the Fire lacked a little bit of rhythm and cohesion and it was clear that Rios and Larentowicz - having trained together, what, three days at most - have some work to do to provide the base of control and support that Larentowicz and Pause provided last week, or the balance of control and distribution that Larentowicz and Alex had during the Fire’s turn-around in June/July.

It’s tempting to think that unlocking the code of the center midfield (Laurentowitz/Pause vs. Laurentowitz/Alex vs. Laurentowitz/Rios vs. something else) will unlock the rest of the Fire season. That’s probably psychological game playing, because as off-rhythm as it may have looked on Saturday, if Magee’s shot off the post in the first half is an inch or two right, or if Duka reads Magee’s pass in the second half, the center midfield issues may well have been buried under more stories of Magee’s magical season.

Credit to New England, too, who played deep and didn’t let Anangono get behind them as much as he’d have liked. But the Fire need a plan for teams that play deep. How will they break them down? On Saturday, the Fire couldn’t adjust offensively, and after taking out Duka and Lindpere, they never had the width or chances they created against Montreal.

All year we’ve loved to break up the season into pieces. There was Fire 1.0, Magee’s Fire 2.0, and now the current iteration. I think we’ve been conceptualizing the season in pieces because we want to see the Fire’s poorer displays as merely symptoms of an old version of the Fire, not a sign of what’s to come. The bugs have been fixed, we want to think, and when we see a run of bad form followed by some good games, we say “thank God, ok, we’re past that”.

We know the Fire have the quality to get into the playoffs but then a game like New England comes and they drop points against a playoff challenger. The psychological game we play to convince ourselves that the best is yet to come gets tougher. And all year, for every step the Fire take forward, they take another one back, only to get up and quickly go forward again.

But the season won’t be decided by one game. The Fire have to regroup and figure out how to accommodate all the new players, get the rest of the team healthy, and push into the playoff race. Fans and commentators have argued all season about which is the real 2013, is it the one that beat Montreal last week or the one that lost to New England on Saturday?

I think the bipolar character of this team might be exactly where its strength comes from, and I saw enough on Saturday to suggest that, yes, the best is still to come. So let’s stick with “Fire 2.0v2a.” Next week it’ll probably be something completely different.

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

12 August 9:56 am

In the 87th minute on Saturday night at Toyota Park, the Fire were holding on to a 2-1 lead against Montreal, who were seven points and two playoff positions ahead in the table. Daniel Paladini, who had come on for Alex 25 minutes earlier, set up to take a corner, but there were just two Fire players forward against six or so in blue. Jeff Larentowicz and Quincy Amarikwa were moving around, doing their best to make space, but this was all about the chance to have the ball deep in Montreal’s half and relieve some pressure.

BTL: The Production

Paladini saw Amarikwa a half yard away from his marker at the penalty spot and floated a ball in towards him. Judging from how the ball arrived to Amarikwa at about the height of Montreal center back Hassoun Camara, and considering Camara’s listed at 6-2 and Amarikwa at 5-9, the Fire forward’s insanely acrobatic bicycle attempt got his feet up to a half-foot above his own head.

Even though Amarikwa whiffed, it was one of those athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic moments that can define a soccer game because generally, the team that comes out the most athletic, confident, creative, and opportunistic is going to win the games. (Also, Amarikwa made up for the whiff by converting an equally impressive bike in the reserve match on Sunday morning.) It said more, too, that it was a substitute that was making this sort of tone-setting play.

Amarikwa has impressed Fire fans in his cameos this season because of his work rate, willingness to take defenders on, and his creative spontaneity on the ball (even if that means sometimes he holds onto it for a bit too long). Those were exactly the traits the Fire needed to get maximum points at home on Saturday, a critical result that leaves the team now just two points out of a playoff spot. Even though he didn’t have the impact on the game, Amarikwa's work was symbolic of that of the whole team.

In the third game in eight days, with Mike Magee and Chris Rolfe day-to-day, Patrick Nyarko out, Dilly Duka picking up a new knock every game, new DP Juan Luis Anangono acclimating to MLS, Logan Pause coming back from injury, and the pressure for points greater than it’s been all season following Wednesday’s Open Cup exit, the Fire came out on Saturday with a new look to them.

BTL: Fire 2.0 earns key point in Houston

As two deeper lying midfielders, Pause and Larentowicz haven’t found their rhythm together this season, but this time Frank Klopas put them out with Alex (who took the spot when Pause got injured) pushed forward with Anangono. The wide players were the same (Joel Lindpere and Duka), but the seemingly minor adjustment of adding Pause and pushing Alex farther forward actually provided the Fire the first fresh tactical look seen since the spring.

And it was a solid system, too, because it morphed from a 4-5-1 with Alex dropping deeper during periods of Montreal possession, into the usual Fire 4-4-2 when the Fire won the ball, with Alex pushing on into space with Anangono. They worked well together on certain fast breaks; Anangono showed that he’s not afraid to make lung-busting runs to clear out space for others. But as much as the system provided some necessary defensive support without sacrificing the slingshot counterattacking Klopas loves, the game was always going to be decided by the players stepping up into the spaces left by Nyarko, Magee, and Rolfe.

Klopas couldn't have asked for a better response from Lindpere and Duka, the two creative wide players who have fought for their playing time all season, and who scored the two goals. They took their chances (and a bit of luck), but they also held the ball, moved the team forward, tracked back, and generally kept the pace of the game far above the revolting one we saw on Wednesday night.

Saturday night showed the Fire’s depth and flexibility in personnel, tactics, and mindset, and it was Amarikwa’s bike that showed the Fire’s potential for style and spontaneity. If this team is going to complete this massive comeback into playoff contention, it’s as much the creativity as it is the grit that’s going to take them there and it’ll have to come not just from the superstars and leaders, but from everyone on the team. 

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.

06 August 9:28 am

At Toyota Park in May, Philly sat back, let the Fire run circles around them like some mean, old dog, then got a seemingly innocuous free kick and suddenly Jack McInerney, in on goal, kicked the team straight in the gut. That game felt like a one-act play, where the characters on stage build to an obvious conclusion, some grotesque act that you know is coming but still shocks and hurts when you see it live.

This Saturday, the Fire went to Philly to continue their climb back into the playoff picture and battled in a Three Act work of considerable drama. Each was punctuated by a goal. Here’s the liner notes, starring Philly and Chicago, two mysterious characters.

Act One, The Set-Up (0-45’)

Kick off. Philly comes out first, Chicago wakes up slowly, stretches arms to the sky, makes coffee, realizes it’s in the middle of a game, and immediately pops into action. Philly, who tried to come out with high and tight pressure, find themselves being passed around in sequences of quick one-twos and flicks, like those that lead to a beautiful first goal, with not even 10 minutes gone.

Philly broadcasters (the chorus), clamor for more “intensity” from the home team. The Fire look comfortable but ominously cannot extend their lead. They start to slow down a bit and Philly enjoy a few minutes of confidence-boosting possession at the end of the half, including a couple of dangerous free kicks. The plot thickens.

Halftime.

Act Two, The Montage (45’-54’)

This short intervening act provides the backbone of the drama. A little character development. Fresh off their orange slices, Philly and Chicago come out ready to party again.

Like Act One, Philly threaten first (Conor Casey flashes a shot just wide of goal two minutes in), but Chicago recovers and takes the upper hand. How predictable is this? Chicago finds space everywhere and kick off a few minutes of possession in the opponent’s half like we haven’t seen all season.

Cue montage and “Danger Zone.” A few not particularly interesting forays forward foreshadow something for Philly, but Chicago cruises.

What can go wrong?

Act Three, The Climax (54-90)

The Montage ends. The motorcycle crashes. Le Toux gets in on Chicago’s right and Sean Johnson makes a kick save. Chicago attacks and Rolfe finds enough space to squeeze a shot off - but Zac MacMath tips it over the bar. Go time. Philly go forward and get their goal with 30 minutes left - so much time for both to fight out the end.

Suddenly Philly is everywhere. Sean Johnson makes an impossible save off a corner. Another is cleared off the line. Chicago is wavering badly, Philly is matching Chicago’s dominance from Act Two.

There is no music. Chicago fights with their inner identity battle between the disappointments early in the year and their confidence to close games. (Mike Magee said after the game, “I think there was a point in the 65th minute where we had been getting pummeled the whole half and we all kind of looked at each other and said this game is there for us to win.”)

Two subs come on in the 67th, as Klopas tries to overturn Philly’s momentum.

And then it happens, the climax. Chicago confronts Philly. They continue pressing. The spirit of fight and persistence embodied in Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko combine with harrowing pressure. Nyarko fights the ball loose from a Philly midfielder and plays in Magee. Magee finishes calmly.

Your girlfriend is crying, but there’s still twenty minutes time! The drama carries over but the game is rarely in doubt. A penalty shout scares the audience, so nobody leaves their seats. Then the violin music. A stoppage time kiss at the sunset. Chicago steals the points.

Curtain.

29 July 10:49 am

The Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field meant that even though the Fire were in Houston on Saturday, Chicago would not be deprived of live soccer this weekend. Thank goodness. From a Fire point of view, it’s pretty special that Sean Johnson and alum DaMarcus Beasley overlapped on this USMNT squad.

The game itself wasn’t as exciting as you could have hoped from the two best Gold Cup teams. Panama’s tight defense kept the U.S. side from running at them the way they ran at Honduras and El Salvador and they never looked like they would put up the crooked numbers that defined their tournament.

BLOG: Beasley captains USMNT to 5th Gold Cup title

There were even a few times when the game looked like a cagey MLS match, with a challenger in town to try to steal the day, staying taut, and not making mistakes. But the USMNT wore down Panama, took their best (and really only clear cut) chance, held on against a barrage of balls floated into the box in the final minutes and were crowned deserved champions.

How nice would it be to see the Fire handle games like that? On Saturday, we saw the Fire come back from behind yet again. We saw them nearly nick all three points and then nearly lose them all. We saw flashes of dangerous counterattacks and Paolo Tornaghi making some big saves. Most of all, we saw despite obvious improvements over the last trip to Houston, the team is still missing one little bit of finality in both halves.

Back in April, the 2013 Fire v1.0 went to Houston with the goal of slowing the game down, playing calmly and controlling the match. The greenhouse (orange-house?) that is BBVA Compass Stadium dictated that, and we saw players run themselves dead on that afternoon, which also included a vintage Brad Davis garbage goal, Wells Thompson, and a last minute Jeff Larentowicz hit off the crossbar (HIGHLIGHTS from April 14).

On Saturday, the 2013 Fire v2.0 went to Houston with a different mindset. They went to play, to take some initiative. You could see it at the beginning of the game and at the beginning of the second half when Lindpere and Nyarko were pushed way up the field on the outside.

HIGHLIGHTS: Fire earn tough 1-1 draw in Houston

Alas, the result wasn’t much different. Houston, one of the hardest teams to beat away in the history of MLS, controlled the game. The Fire looked absolutely spent at the end of the game, much of which they spent chasing the orange midfielders around and trying to clear their persistent crosses into the box.

But the difference this time around was the way in which the Fire actually looked dangerous at times, stealing into Houston’s half on counter attacks and nearly grabbing the lead on a late Chris Rolfe chance.

In April, we looked at the difficulty of balancing the mindset to calm the game down without sacrificing the risk-taking attitude needed to be offensive, to attack. Now, with Bakary Soumare and Mike Magee (and the Alex/Larentowicz partnership), it seems like 2013 Fire v2.0 are poised to find that balance.

As another new striker and the All-Star break arrive, maybe the Fire will find that teeny bit of difference. If so, next time we play Houston at Toyota Park in September, they’ll be the ones wilting, exhausted after falling to 2013 Fire v3.0

Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.