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?
Select shots from the Fire's draw with the Portland Timbers
Much like the shirt exchange post-match, the scarf exchange between supporters of opposing clubs is held as a sacred tradition.
Seeing as almost all of the live soccer I take in these days comes from a press box view, the scarf exchange is one thing I haven’t had the opportunity to carry out of late.
Take a trip back a few weeks ago when I set off for Philadelphia to cover the Fire’s match against the Union. Sitting near (but not in) the desired exit row on my Southwest Airlines flight, I was diligently working on an article for the next day when I looked up to see one of the flight attendants wearing an apron decked out in Timbers Army patches.
I meandered through how Alaska Airlines might feel about this whole situation before asking the Southwest attendant how much of a Timbers fan he was.
Jason or “A-B” as he’s know in the Southwest world was quick to tell me he was a member of Timbers Army and went to as many matches as his work schedule would allow.
I then went ahead and told him what I did for a living working with the Chicago Fire at which point he got out his phone (on airplane mode of course) and showed me a number of photos from the two side’s previous encounter last May in Portland.
Speaking of the Section 8 Chicago/Timbers Army friendly alliance, he even took some photos with Fire supporters, many of which are friends of mine.
He then had to go back to his duties, serving drinks to the many passengers behind me.
Remembering that I always travel with a Fire scarf, I dug through my carry-on bag and pulled out the very famous Tetris scarf produced last season by Section 8 and as he passed through the cabin again, I stopped nd gave it to him, to his great surprise.
He walked to the back of the plane and soon enough, returned with his own Timbers Army scarf, complete with many of the same patches that adorned his apron. I was completely surprised by this gesture as you could see that this scarf had been worn through many a match and held great importance.
I asked him if he was really alright with parting with such an important piece of his Timbers memories and he didn't even think twice.
And thus, soccer diplomacy occurred once again. Those Timbers Army folk (of which there will be 175 at Toyota Park Saturday night), aren't so bad.
The potential quarterfinal pairings for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup set to be played Wednesday, June 26:
1) Chicago Fire/Columbus Crew winner hosts Sporting Kansas City/Orlando City winner
2) D.C. United/Philadelphia Union winner hosts New England Revolution/New York Red Bulls winner
3) FC Dallas/Houston Dynamo winner hosts Portland Timbers/Tampa Bay Rowdies winner
4) Real Salt Lake/Charleston Battery winner hosts Carolina RailHawks/Chivas USA winner
Click Here to buy tickets for the Fire's Fourth Round USOC match vs. the Columbus Crew (Wednesday June 12th, 7:30pm Toyota Park)
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.
Select shots from the Fire's 2-0 win over D.C. United
CREDIT: Brian Kersey Chicago Fire
Select shots from the Fire's 2-0 win over the Charlotte Eagles
Credit: USA Today Sports Images
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.