On Fire: Absences hurt, but troubles run d

Fire lack a natural finisher; positioning Castillo and Ljungberg

The Fire failed to get the result they so desperately needed Saturday night, falling 1-0 to the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park. The loss leaves Chicago in 11th place overall, seven points behind Seattle for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Chicago, who only have eight games left to catch the Sounders, were done in by a poor first half. They were disorganized, unable to keep possession and altogether dominated by the expansion Union in the opening frame before giving up an inevitable goal in the 36th minute.

The Fire bounced back with some better play in the second, but couldn’t quite find an equalizer, giving Philadelphia their first shutout of the season and extending their winless streak to five games.

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But you already know all that. Here are three fresh observations from Saturday’s match:


1) Impact absences

If you thought that missing C.J. Brown (rest), Gonzalo Segares (suspension), Marco Pappa (hamstring), John Thorrington (hamstring) and Brian McBride (quad) wouldn’t affect the Fire, you were dead wrong.

The defense missed the leadership of Brown, looking disorganized and falling victim to several miscommunications in front of their own net. The back four also could’ve used the solid offensive play of Segares as they struggled to connect passes – both among themselves and to the midfield – all night long.

The midfield missed the bite and energy of Thorrington and looked flat for the entire first half. Gone too was the solid wing play of Pappa, whose finishing touch could have been put to good use throughout the match.

Up top, the Fire were without their best ball winner in McBride. His absence was all too clear when the big-bodied Collins John was removed in the 57th minute, leaving Chicago unable to win 50-50 balls with only the slight Nery Castillo and Calen Carr up top.

Most – if not all – of the above players should be ready when the Fire takes on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. Their returns will undoubtedly up Chicago’s level of play, but – with such a deep hole to climb out of to get back into playoff contention – one has to wonder, will their arrivals even matter?


2) Wanted: a finisher

The Fire didn’t have too many chances on Saturday night, but the opportunities they did have should have been finished better.

Carr failed to put an open header into the back of the net in the 76th minute, John hit an open 15-yarder right at the keeper in the 16th, and Freddie Ljungberg couldn’t pick out the far post with his blistering half-volley in the 32nd.

None of the efforts were particularly galling, but each served to highlight the problems the Fire have been having in front of net this season. Missing from Chicago’s roster is a player who can consistently put away opportunities. There’s no Edson Buddle, Fredy Montero or Juan Pablo Ángel here. That’s been a problem all season, and it’s one that continued on Saturday.

Unfortunately, Chicago doesn’t have a quick fix. MLS rosters are about to freeze and the Fire seem to be stuck with what they have up top.


3) Formation found?

Looking for positives? Here’s one. On Saturday, the Fire may have stumbled across a formation that caters to both Ljungberg and Castillo.

The two DPs haven’t been at their best while sharing the same field. In the first half on Saturday, that didn’t look like it would change. Ljungberg was playing supporting striker and Castillo – who’s at his best when playing as a forward – was on the left wing. Their partnership was nonexistent and the Fire’s attack – which features so many talented players – was stagnant.

Then, forced into a change by his side’s dismal opening 45 minutes, head coach Carlos de los Cobos brought Carr on for central midfielder Baggio Husidic at the half. To accommodate the switch, Ljungberg moved from supporting striker to central midfielder and Castillo moved from the wing – where he looked lost – to forward.

The effect was immediate. Boosted by the solid linking play of Ljungberg, who was actually able to get on the ball now that he was lying deeper – the Fire began to attack with attitude. They possessed the ball, created chances and nearly scored an equalizer.

Importantly, both Ljungberg and Castillo looked comfortable in their new spots.

Ljungberg – starved for service in the first half – got on the ball and began to control the game. Castillo – though not incredibly effective – looked much more at home as a forward than as a winger.

The Fire would be wise to begin next Saturday’s match at Salt Lake with Castillo at forward and Ljungberg as a central midfielder. It seemed to work better than any alternative and it should maximize the Fire’s effectiveness.


Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at sam.h.stejskal@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.