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.