Between the Lines
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.