Between the Lines
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
I took two MLS virgins to the game on Saturday night at Toyota Park. Takeaways the night of: Modelo and Tyskie were a plus, Section 8 is loud, my stadium blanket is missing a button or two.
But when I asked them about the game last night, the takeaways were different. “It’s like they were snakebit,” one of them said.
Snakebit is probably too kind. Cubs-related words start to come to mind when you miss the chances the Fire missed in the second half before Jeff Larentowicz finally scored in the 83rd.
Andy Greunenbaum was on fire, ok, and obviously if the finishes were a wee bit more clinical the Fire could’ve made it a laugher, but in the moment, in the stadium, freezing, it felt like the goal would never come.
Section 8 and the rest of the fans were torn between encouraging the team and letting out some boos (and grunts and groans and other moans) of frustration. In my section, a kind of supporter dichotomy emerged throughout the second half as one fan stood to admonish Chris Rolfe after a second half miss, while a soccer team sized group of young girls cheered Rolfe on, assuring him he’d get the next one.
But Gonzalo Segares had a shot from 10 feet right at the keeper in the 49th minute and Larentowicz badly sliced the follow up, Austin Berry was robbed in the 75th, Patrick Nyarko was blocked in the 51st and 54th, and Rolfe in the 56th and 75th. The crowd was exasperated and freezing and desperate to figure out what to make of the game.
Every good passage seemed to be punished or mercilessly ignored by Greunenbaum, who was scarily springy. Every time Nyarko’s hustle was rewarded with space behind the Crew or the decisive pass (which seemed like every time he was near the ball), nothing. Every time Rolfe turned his man, he booted the finish. That was what was most frustrating - it was like the game was ignoring how well the Fire were playing. It all felt sort of cruel.
And so it makes soccer-perfect sense that the goal didn’t come from a measured through ball or some quick passing, nor did it come from the high pressure that harassed Columbus all game. It came on a basically ugly long throw and an industrial finish from Larentowicz.
The game ran out of ways to keep the Fire from scoring, and the team reacted - erm, celebrated - with as much an exhale, like, “Finally,” as hysterical exuberance. Look at the gif above. After his goal, Larentowicz barely smiles!
But the game doesn’t care. In the end my friends had witnessed a fairly good introduction to Toyota Park. The game was exciting, the Fire won the day, and maybe most important, the cheering dilemma in my section was definitively decided in favor of the encouraging girls.
Between the Lines is a weekly column from Chicago-Fire.com contributor Ben Schuman-Stoler. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.
By way of introduction, hi. I'm Ben. I've been with the Fire since the day they were born, through their first kiss with Stoitchkov, their Toyota Park Bar Mitzvah, up into their pimply stage today. I look at a lot of art and I watch a lot of soccer. I prefer when it works out that both happen at the same time; when they're the same thing.
This space will discuss those moments, those tiny moments that define games. It'll also chronicle what happens when you watch games with people across the art-culture-sports spectrum.
A quick word about Boston. Although it was under horrible circumstances, yesterday showed one of the reasons people come together and sacrifice money and time for something as meaningless as sport. The messages of support from the soccer community were uplifting (all this on top of the day we remember Hillsborough).
The euphoric addiction of following a team is matched in effect perhaps only by the relationships the sport engenders. It’s a terrible point to make, but I can think of few better examples of soccer’s significance as a cultural entity, which anyway will be the point of this column.
On Sunday, the Fire went to Houston to try to turn the momentum from their first win of the season into a win against a team that’s basically unbeatable in their sweltering orange greenhouse of a stadium. Manager Frank Klopas hinted at the strategy going in: “Dealing with the temperature was the one thing we wanted to focus on. We wanted to be better in possession and not make a really high tempo game because that would affect us.”
In other words, Klopas wanted to avoid the kind of game that would tire out his players.
How do you control the pace of a game in soccer? In football you can run the ball. Some basketball sets are built to use up more of the shot clock. But soccer’s different. You can either sit back and try not to chase, or you can hold the ball as much as possible.
Trying not to chase is a dangerous game, and anyway a team that sits but doesn’t want to alienate the world with the worst kind of 0-0 games eventually has to counter attack, which means quick sprints upfield, exposed space behind the sprinters, and a game that can fly open into a reckless track meet.
That actually sounds kind of fun, but it’s not a good strategy away to Houston, so Klopas wanted to hold the ball. It’s a funny thing: Chasing another team around is exhausting, but you don’t get tired when you have the ball even when you’re running to receive the ball, create space, etc. It’s one of the great psychosomatic mysteries of the game.
But another mystery is attacking confidence. How do you slow down pace without affecting the fearlessness necessary to attack without hesitation?
There was a great moment in the first half on Sunday: The Fire defense collects the ball and Logan Pause gestures to the team to take it easy, to slow down (see the GIF below). It was the captain being the coach’s representative on the field (Klopas on Pause’s return against New York two weeks ago: “You can just see today my voice is a lot better than it was in previous games because he does a lot of that.”), but did it work?
The intangible variances of soccer mean that a team visiting a place like Houston has to find the right balance between controlling pace without losing the pace necessary to attack. It’s an extremely delicate use of resources.
Did the anti-fatigue strategy make someone less willing to burst forward to join a counter attack? Or, did it take the kind of attacking risk in the final third that’s necessary to create scoring chances but which can also result in an exhausting recovery sprint (like how Houston’s Andrew Driver came out after a series of runs in the second half)?
Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure there’s enough evidence that Houston’s goals and Fire’s lack thereof had anything to do with fatigue, and it’s not like the Fire lined up defensively or were perceptibly so afraid to go forward. Pause’s gesture was, in the end, a moment in a game that may or may not have made a crucial difference, but it was the kind of moment that gives the game its complexity and its mystery.