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.