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Between the Lines

24 July 12:56 pm

I’ve always thought it odd that sports falls into the category of entertainment business. Sure people pay to watch it, same as all entertainment, and there are “actors”, agents, venues and all that. But when you’re emotionally attached, soccer feels like more than merely entertainment. “Entertainment” feels a little shallow, I think of county fair tents, while sports can feel like everything in the world.

Take the idea of “Sport”: Roman, high, physically extreme, competition; and the idea of “Entertainment”: Amusement, fun, pleasure.

But it’s not fair to separate the two quite so fast. I did a Twitter search for “R Kelly tears” after his highly lauded Pitchfork set on Sunday night and remembered that in music, too, people live for what happens on stage. You get caught up with performers and players, you put your expectations on them, you live through them, and when they stand up and return everything in performance, the exaltation is real and thorough and spiritual.

The word performance is interesting. We say players “perform” well (or not) the same way we do about musicians and actors. I suppose the main difference between performing and just, well, doing something, is that performances require an audience. And it’s the audience that makes the show, right? Nobody believes in your work unless you do it in front of a crowd, and the Pope in the woods isn’t selling tickets.

Something about those moments in a performance, when players and audience are one, when expectations are met and then exceeded, time speeds up and slows down, the moment stretches out into something like a feeling, and everything is right again. Whether it’s a band onstage or a team on a field, those encores, those goals, they make us bigger.

Performances are entertainment, and injecting competition into performances only makes them more so. A friend once told me that she had no problem going to youth swim meets; she found them entertaining because she just liked to watch races.

So among all the clamor this weekend about fancy players in town for Pitchfork and the Fire readying to bring in a new Designated Player, the team hosted a D.C. side Saturday night that is absolutely reeling. And the Fire handled business. The most “entertaining” factor in it all, though, was seeing Chris Rolfe grab a couple goals. 

 
 
 

I mean, your sister loves Chris Rolfe, we all love Chris Rolfe (you saw his cute reaction to Section 8’s song for him after his first goal, right?), and he was in desperate need for some goals because, let’s face it, you can’t make a career playing up top and not scoring in this league. And it’s not like he wasn’t trying, he leads the team in shots, we see his work rate game after game, but now it looks like Rolfe is finally starting to get in that rhythm where the goal looks all big and goalies are just annoying impediments. His finishes have that quick, confident feel about them again.

It was cathartic to see the elation after his first goal, right in front of Section 8. Rolfe’s been at it for a while, he’s been on more than a few tours, and we all want him to succeed and meet the expectations we put on him. It’s the life of a performer, I guess, to have to deal with not only the usual pressure one puts on oneself, or that a coach puts on, but to face the crowd’s expectations too. Like R. Kelly did on Sunday, and like all great performers, Rolfe stepped up in the moment and made it something bigger, something that we could all share in, and that’s entertainment at its best.

 

 

16 July 11:35 am

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?

09 July 12:35 pm

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.

05 July 11:33 am

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.

24 June 3:03 pm

The Fire start sluggishly and give up an early goal thanks to some sloppiness. The first half runs its course with a series of dreary long balls, and very little else worth mentioning. The second half begins, the Fire come out a totally different team. They move the ball quicker. They even the game. They continue pressing. They take the lead. The second half develops into a series of counter attacks on one end and dramatic blocks, saves, and misses on the other. The game ends, the Fire players celebrate.

Sound familiar? After almost carbon copy games against Colorado and in Columbus last week (not to mention similar feeling games against Portland and RSL), the Fire games are becoming something like the works of one of those airport authors - the characters change and the setting is different, but the arc remains the same.

Not that we’re lacking any drama. These comebacks are scintillating, and we deserve it after those early games that were, frankly, difficult to watch. Now Fire games are chaotic, fun spectacles.

I was pining for a hockey-like empty netter on Saturday when all possible counterattacks flamed out and, yet again, we never got the insurance goal that would let us relax and enjoy the last few minutes of the game. Just like Wednesday against Colorado, the Fire survived Columbus thanks to some great work by Sean Johnson in goal, some miscues, and a few fortunate bounces.

Of course, every comeback is different, and this time there was no Klopas Gambit. There weren’t major changes in shape or personnel. What was different was who stepped up to change the game.

Last week we talked about Jeff Larentowicz really driving the Fire upwards, and literally the first play of the second half, the play that set the tone for the ensuing comeback, was of Larentowicz tackling Oduro hard at midfield.

But all of a sudden it looks like the Fire have depth all over the place. Players that struggled to make an impact at the beginning of the season are proving their worth. Joel Lindpere had two beautiful assists, Dilly Duka was arguably player of the game Saturday against his old team, and with Magee about as hot as a player can get, it’s no surprise the Fire are charging up the table.

VOTE: Dilly Duka for MLS Goal of the Week!

The attitude in the locker room has to be refreshing. After the game on Saturday, Magee said, “We know we can battle and we fight for each other, that’s the hardest thing in soccer.” Despite the slow starts and the stressful endings, the Fire are building something.

Let’s enjoy it with another look at Duka skinning and megging Chad Barson.

20 June 3:03 pm

With all the talk of "Magic" Mike Magee and his ridiculous five goals in five games since joining the Fire, it was always likely that other players would be overlooked.
 
But as much as Magee (or maybe because of him) we’ve seen other players step up and contribute to the Fire’s season-saving June. Midfielders like Alex and Daniel Paladini mitigated the effects of losing Logan Pause, defenders Jalil Anibaba and new addition Bakary Soumare stabilized what was a less than sturdy backline, and up front, Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe, and Sherjill MacDonald selflessly put in the work supporting Magee.
 
But perhaps the most influential non-Magee on the Fire this season has been Jeff Larentowicz. The veteran was brought in this offseason and immediately won a spot in the starting line-up, a spot he proved he deserved with his signature tackling, distribution, and even a game-winning goal early in the season.
 
 
On Wednesday night against Colorado, Larentowicz showed once again why he’s become the platform on which the Fire’s recent surge was built (see his heat map to the right).
 
It was his harrying and tackling that helped change the momentum of the game after Colorado’s early goal (see his 30th minute tackle, and the effort he put in to win a goal kick in his own box a few minutes earlier). Later in the second half, as Colorado pressed to equalize, his header just wide was the Fire’s best chance. 
 
Maybe one ten minute period showed it best: His skill in the 71st minute won the Fire a corner and diffused pressure; his block in the 78th maintained the Fire’s lead.
 
And just like his eagerness this season has led to some ups and downs (including that unfortunate red card at Montreal), his early yellow card for diving in a little over zealously threatened to hamper his effectiveness. Would he hesitate to tackle out of fear of his second yellow?
 
Nope. It seems like he doesn’t let anything shake him off. We’ve talked about “Magee Face”, that expression of all the emotions a soccer game can summon in a person, all the heartbreak and endeavor and passion. “Larentowicz Face” is the opposite. It’s stone cold. It’s not hashtag material. It’s focused and determined and sort of scary.

 


 

That’s why his reaction after his miss in the second half was so endearing. As Fire fans and the My50 announcers celebrated what looked like a goal from certain angles, Larentowicz reacted with unadulterated frustration and anger. In his mind, he should’ve scored, he knew he had it, and as a leader by example, he couldn’t contain the flash of the expectations he has of himself. It was a totally honest moment.
 
As the game Wednesday progressed, Fire fans licked their lips at the prospect of Magee (and later MacDonald), Nyarko, and Rolfe running through wide open spaces in the Colorado defense.
 
But none of the counterattacks panned out. In the end, what defined the end of the game was a little bit of luck, sure, but mostly it was the plucky work of the Fire as a unit, withstanding the pressure and closing it out. Nobody represents that more than Larentowicz, and you could read it on his face.
 
Onwards. Three points. Who’s next?

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

 

10 June 5:06 pm

A smattering of the changes the Fire made in coming back from 2-0 down for the draw Saturday night [clears throat]: Chris Rolfe moved from up top to out left, Patrick Nyarko moved from out right to up top, Dilly Duka moved from the left to the right, Maicon Santos came in for Rolfe and moved up top, Nyarko moved out left, Sherjill MacDonald came on for Duka and went out left, Nyarko moved out right (completing his left-right-center trifecta), Daniel Paladini came on for Jeff Larentowitz.
 
And that’s just the visible changes. Because what was just as apparent were the invisible changes: the change of mindset, the change of momentum, the change of attitude. Something changed in the Fire, something transformed from dejection into something like triumph - all of which you can see on Mike Magee’s face after Paladini’s equalizer, right about here:


 

“Tonight I about lost my mind, I’ll admit it,” Magee said after the match, referring to his spats with the ref and others that earned him the respect of every Fire fan watching (and a yellow card). “I was just yelling, showing emotion and trying to light a fire under whoever was looking.”
 
But look also in the moments just before the game-tying freekick:

Forget the tired legs, forget the frustration of being down. Look at Jalil Anibaba, Nyarko, Alex, and Paladini all working together, throwing themselves around, eventually overcoming the Timber players on the far side and feeding Magee. Nothing represents Saturday’s comeback as well as that image of Alex anticipating the ball squeezing up the line, hustling back from the Portland box, and sliding in, while at the same time Paladini, tracking the play, anticipates the result, hurries over to help Alex, saves the ball after his tackle from going out, and plays Anibaba, who plays Nyarko, who plays Magee.
 
The crowd goes wild.
 
For the third game in a row, Klopas’ second half gambit worked. The game changed. It changed physically, in terms of where players were and what numbers on the scoreboard said, but it also changed intangibly, mentally, emotionally. It’s becoming a pattern: most of the Fire’s goals this season (6 of 11) have come late in the 82nd minute or later.
 
Part of that is preparation, is team togetherness, the kind of stuff coaches like to talk about. Klopas told reporters he talked over readiness with his subs: “‘Listen, just be prepared to go in right from the start. Or when you get called on in the second half, your ability now to come in and influence the game, you have to be ready.’”
 
Or like Paladini said after the game: “It’s one of those things where you have to be ready when your name’s called upon – you either shy away from it or you step-up to the plate.”
 
The good news for Paladini and the other subs is that with the team in the midst of a stretch of 11 games in 49 days, they’ll definitely be getting more time to influence other games. As Logan Pause gets fit again, too, Klopas is going to have some interesting decisions to make in June.
 
After finally getting close to something resembling a consistent line-up, will Pause take his spot back from Alex? And what about the way the subs keep affecting games? Does Paladini deserve to start again? Can we keep expecting Klopas’ late game changes to make the difference?

04 June 11:58 am

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.

28 May 1:55 pm

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.

21 May 12:57 pm

“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.