Twitter, Haters, and Tactics: Chicago Fire vs. Chivas USA
OTF’s Shane Nicholson reflects on last night’s 4-1 Fire loss at Toyota Park
I caught some flack post-match for a tweet I popped off to Chris Rolfe midway through the second half after he’d squandered possession in a fairly dangerous area for the umpteenth time this young season. Maybe it was unfair. After all, it’s not exactly his fault his manager thinks he’s a left-sided midfielder. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that’s the case at all.
I’m just going to get this out of the way early on so people understand: I am not here as a Fire fanboy.
I have a club I love and support; the Fire happen to be my local side from my youth and are again now that I’ve moved back into the area. I am a football fan, I am a Rangers supporter, I live in the vicinity of Chicago so I go to Fire matches. As a contributing writer for On The Fire, the club’s issued me a press credential. So FYI – this report comes from Toyota Park, not my living room.
The tweet in question simply said “be better at your job.” Chris got back to me as I was sitting in a bar in Old Town waiting on a few friends, wondering what his job was and how he could do it better. This opened the floodgates for tweeples who don’t seem to be able to take off their rosy-red colored glasses to see what’s going on.
“Marty Party” chimed in with the insightful, “Hey hater. Go fuck yourself,” followed not too long after by the Fire WUFC account letting me know I’m little more than a “keyboard warrior” and that my “mad skills” were surely no match to Rolfe’s on the pitch. Though to Fire WUFC’s credit, its keyboard warrior skills are so absolutely staunch that by the time I got home to pop this piece out they’d pulled their tweet.
Couple points: 1) I’m no “hater.” I just know bad football when I see it, and this Fire side has been terrible from the first kick this season; 2) My footballing skills don’t really have a bearing on my abilities as a journalist or even as an observer of the sport. Chris probably couldn’t do my job any better than I could do his. Anyone who resorts to that argument to batter down criticism that wasn’t directed at them in the first place is missing the point, apparently so much so that they’re not willing to stand by it upon further review.
Thing is, Chris was a consummate pro, and seemed to take the criticism to heart. He deflected the rabid Fire Twitterati, saying there was no harm in my comments. And when I further clarified my critique – including the fact that I felt his boss had let him down – Chris responded with a most gracious and seemingly self-aware, “I respect that. Thanks I know I can do better” [sic].
Diversion here, as I’m going to pull you back into a five-minute or so passage of this most recent match…
In the second half, Chivas opened their account as Chicago, not for the first time this season, failed to take care of a set piece. Frank Klopas responded a few moments later by replacing Daniel Paladini with Maicon Santos. I failed to grasp this decision, as I felt Paladini had been our best player on the park. That was, until I saw a shift in the side.
Before Santos’s entry, the Fire went from a flat and rather undynamic 4-4-2 with Rolfe and Nyarko deployed on the left and right sides, respectfully, Paladini and Larentowicz trying not to step on each other’s feet in the center, and Alex playing off the shoulder of a rather abject and seemingly disinterested MacDonald. From my seat, there were at this point at least three players out of position, and we were being overrun in the midfield. Chivas were looking to blow the match open.
Enter Santos, exit Paladini, and the shape changed – for a few minutes anyway. Rolfe was pulled more centrally, Larentowicz dropped deeper to break up play, Alex played as the point of this midfield three, and MacDonald, Nyarko and the newly introduced Santos played as a more fluid front line, free to move about and swap positions as they pleased.
The positive results were immediate, as Chicago equalized after a quick break that found Santos on the wing. Maicon made a tidy run inside, played the ball to MacDonald at the top of the 18-yard box, and Sherjill laid it on to Nyarko for the equalizer. It was 1-1, and the team looked kind of good in attack for the first time this season.
And just as fast as the Men in Red found themselves in that shape, it was quickly shattered. The 4-4-2 that had seen us overrun in midfield during the preceding 30 minutes came back, as Rolfe and Nyarko reassumed their positions out wide, Alex dropped back into a more central role, and Santos and MacDonald failed to find cohesion as a striking pair up top. In the end, the 4-1 result was a bit flattering given how poor Chicago looked after their goal.
Solutions seemed few and far between for manager Frank Klopas on Sunday afternoon. Early on in the match – and on more than one occasion – he flipped Nyarko and Rolfe. I was hoping the coaching staff had highlighted a mismatch they felt could be taken advantage of, but the move quickly appeared to be little more than, “That isn’t working, so why don’t we try this?” There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it.
Similarly, the insistence on having goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi play every single ball in the first half deep against a 20 mph wind was perhaps not the most tactically astute decision. Not a single goal kick or free kick taken by Chicago’s ‘keeper made it past the halfway line, and even though it was clear the wind wasn’t going to die down during the entirety of the first 45 minutes, not once did Klopas or his staff see fit to tell a defender or two or three to hang back and collect a short ball or throw out from Tornaghi.
On the other hand, in the second half, Chivas quickly gave up on trying to play the high ball out of the back and instead opted for low-driving drop kicks and quick throws to the wings and full backs, which resulted in numerous breaks going the other way. It was an incredibly simple thing to identify and adjust for, yet Chicago attempted to fight the gods/wind patterns of Bridgeview and play passes that simply were never going to be completed with any high probability.
So maybe the problem isn’t Chris Rolfe. In fact, I know it’s not. When he was deployed in a reasonable manner he played well – as did the rest of the side for about five minutes before it was all blown up again.
When the Fire packed the center of the pitch and pulled its fullbacks in tighter, they stopped being overrun and played some good football. For whatever reason, despite his team’s first goal of the season and decent ball movement during said five minutes, Klopas quickly reverted to a style that has seen his team get absolutely dominated during stretches of the opening four matches. It was around this time that Rolfe gave away possession in what looked a decent chance for Chicago to take the lead, which lead to a quick counter from Chivas, which set up the free kick that gave them their second goal.
So, as it were, Chris got my wrath in that spurt of less than 140 characters, and he owned it after the match. Fair play to the man; most professionals would have the toys out of the pram and pitch a standoff against their fans on social media. But maybe Chris, like me, is looking at a side that’s scored one goal in 360 minutes of football this season and thinking, “This isn’t good enough.” He certainly acted like it in our brief exchange last night.
I would put forward – after a few drinks and some time to reconsider the match – that Chris Rolfe is not the problem, nor did I honestly think he was at the time of tweeting. The man who really needs to get better at his job and in a big damn hurry is his boss, the esteemed Mr. Klopas, who seems unable and unwilling to adjust to what’s being played out before him. And this is not a small sample size we’re dealing with here. This goes back to last season’s dismal free-fall, which was, as we’ve seen, simply setting the stage for the opening act of this campaign.
FACT: Including last season’s playoff loss to Houston, Chicago Fire is in the midst of its worst ten-match run in franchise history (1-7-2 with a goal differential of -12). We have to go back to May 6th – July 4th of 2007 to find a comparably bad ten-match run (1-7-2, GD -10).
So, if you’ll allow my mad hating skills to say as much: Frank Klopas, be better at your job. And do it now before we have to write off this entire 2013 campaign before it’s even really begun.