Call it Fire 2.0 version 2.a. After the Bakary Soumare/Mike Magee stage of the season (the super hot June, Fire 2.0, back in the playoff race) the closing of the transfer window earlier this month saw two more players - Juan Luis Anangono and Arevalo Rios - come in and now we’re seeing another shift in the team.
New players came just in time too, because injury and fatigue start to necessitate rotation around this time in August. Last week against Montreal, Frank Klopas switched up his tactics to accommodate his newfound depth. The finishing and creativity of Magee and Patrick Nyarko were replaced by the industry and hold up play of Alex and Anangono, in a sort of fusion 4-5-1/4-4-2. That set up worked in part because Jeff Larentowicz and Logan Pause established a base of control and support in the midfield the whole team could build off, and also because of the way the outside midfielders got forward, Dilly Duka and Joel Lindpere scored both goals.
On Saturday night in New England, Klopas went back to his trusted 4-4-2 and plugged in new Uruguayan signing Rios alongside Larentowicz in Alex’s former spot in the center of midfield. In his first MLS game, on turf to boot, Rios showed what we’re getting by breaking up play all over the place and springing a few counter attacks. You can see what Klopas is thinking: Always pushing the team to counter swiftly after winning the ball, Klopas must be licking his lips at the idea of Rios looming around and sending Duka, Magee, Angonono, Amarikwa, and Nyarko off into space behind opposing defenses. This ball didn’t turn into anything, but look at how quickly the Fire can forward with Rios:
But Saturday night the Fire lacked a little bit of rhythm and cohesion and it was clear that Rios and Larentowicz - having trained together, what, three days at most - have some work to do to provide the base of control and support that Larentowicz and Pause provided last week, or the balance of control and distribution that Larentowicz and Alex had during the Fire’s turn-around in June/July.
It’s tempting to think that unlocking the code of the center midfield (Laurentowitz/Pause vs. Laurentowitz/Alex vs. Laurentowitz/Rios vs. something else) will unlock the rest of the Fire season. That’s probably psychological game playing, because as off-rhythm as it may have looked on Saturday, if Magee’s shot off the post in the first half is an inch or two right, or if Duka reads Magee’s pass in the second half, the center midfield issues may well have been buried under more stories of Magee’s magical season.
Credit to New England, too, who played deep and didn’t let Anangono get behind them as much as he’d have liked. But the Fire need a plan for teams that play deep. How will they break them down? On Saturday, the Fire couldn’t adjust offensively, and after taking out Duka and Lindpere, they never had the width or chances they created against Montreal.
All year we’ve loved to break up the season into pieces. There was Fire 1.0, Magee’s Fire 2.0, and now the current iteration. I think we’ve been conceptualizing the season in pieces because we want to see the Fire’s poorer displays as merely symptoms of an old version of the Fire, not a sign of what’s to come. The bugs have been fixed, we want to think, and when we see a run of bad form followed by some good games, we say “thank God, ok, we’re past that”.
We know the Fire have the quality to get into the playoffs but then a game like New England comes and they drop points against a playoff challenger. The psychological game we play to convince ourselves that the best is yet to come gets tougher. And all year, for every step the Fire take forward, they take another one back, only to get up and quickly go forward again.
But the season won’t be decided by one game. The Fire have to regroup and figure out how to accommodate all the new players, get the rest of the team healthy, and push into the playoff race. Fans and commentators have argued all season about which is the real 2013, is it the one that beat Montreal last week or the one that lost to New England on Saturday?
I think the bipolar character of this team might be exactly where its strength comes from, and I saw enough on Saturday to suggest that, yes, the best is still to come. So let’s stick with “Fire 2.0v2a.” Next week it’ll probably be something completely different.
Ben Schuman-Stoler is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @bsto.