Streak Over, Fire Can Look Forward

USATSI_9492328-- MON v CHI

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

As referee David Gantar blew his whistle for full time at Stade Saputo on Saturday, the joy on display on the faces of Chicago Fire players was palpable. A road winless streak dating back over two years finally came to an end, and in stunning fashion, with a convincing 3:0 win over the Montreal Impact. The Fire were the better team and they played like the better team right from the jump.

To be sure, one result does not define a team and their quality. The Fire’s meager point total of 22 from 23 matches is full testament to where they stand. On the other hand, they looked like a real soccer team on Saturday, as opposed to 11 disjointed individuals who appear to have little in common. This kind of soccer has come in rare and miniscule doses since the (gasp!) Frank Yallop era. It’s now coach Veljko Paunovic’s responsibility to make games like this one the norm.

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Another Draw, Fire Still at Bottom

2016-08-14 CHI v ORL

(Photo courtesy orlandocitysc.com)

After getting bounced from the US Open Cup last Tuesday, what is at stake for the Chicago Fire in the final 13 matches of the MLS regular season? With only 18 points from 21 matches, the climb to get up to the Red Line would have to start immediately. The Fire got nowhere as far as that goal was concerned following a 2:2 draw versus Orlando City at Toyota Park on Sunday. The Fire grabbed the early lead through John Goosens, and then Orlando reversed things to go 2:1 up. The Fire rescued their point late in the second half, thanks to Razvan Cocis. Earning one point at a time is no way to move up in the standings.

Coach Veljko Paunovic reverted to the 3-5-2 formation that had worked well early in the season. He presumably was adjusting his game plan to provide a counter to Orlando superstar Kaka. The plan mostly failed for the 70 minutes or so where Kaka was actively involved in the Orlando attack. Matt Polster got the assignment initially and Kaka handily put him through the wringer in several 1 v 1 situations along the left flank. Johan Kappelhof’ was the next one to take a turn to slow down the Brazilian midfielder. Although Kappelhof might have had a bit more success than Polster, Kaka was still crucially involved in both Orlando scores, notching a goal and an assist.

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Fire Finished in Cup; Now What?

2016-08-09 NE v CHI

(Photo courtesy of Winslow Townson, USA Today Sports)

The Chicago Fire made their record 12th appearance in the US Open Cup semifinals on Tuesday and it was a match they would probably like to forget. The opponents were the New England Revolution, who came after the Fire right at the jump. They quickly gained control of the match and the Fire spent the evening playing catch-up. The Revs were up 2:1 at the break and did a fine job of killing the game off in the second half. A late tally put the wraps on yet another road defeat for the Fire.

A lot has been written in this space about squad management as Cup matches pop up on the schedule. Every team deal with it in their own way, and how well they deal with it is entirely dependent on the quality that exists within their player pool. Coach Veljko Paunovic did some shuffling last Saturday versus Real Salt Lake with an eye on getting the starting 11 just right for the semifinal. With Michael Harrington in that lineup, and with Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent on the bench, did Paunovic get his starting 11 correct?. Paunovic also stuck with his decision to retain Matt Lampson in goal, despite some recent shaky performances in league matches. Lampson had done the job in the Fire’s three victories in the Cup, although two of the wins came against NASL teams. The third win was over Columbus, barely sitting higher than Chicago in the MLS standings. Lampson was not seriously tested in any of those matches; the semifinal would be another story. The Fire’s lineup was as strong as it could be in the other positions; could they pass the test and reach the final?

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Fire Have Their Minds Elsewhere

2016-08-06 RSL v CHI

(Photo couiresy chicago-fire.com)

If the Chicago Fire were focused on snapping their hideous 37-game road winless streak on Saturday, they picked a bad day to do it. Hosts Real Salt Lake were unbeaten at home this season and the Fire have a much bigger game facing them this Tuesday in the semifinals of the US Open Cup. A weakened and unfocused starting 11 played weakly and meekly in the first half and RSL gleefully took advantage, going up 2:0 in the first half. The Fie had renewed energy for the first 20 minutes of the second half and got to within 2:1, but the hole from the first half had been dug too deeply and RSL walked out 3:1 winners.

The question of how to rotate players when multiple competitions are in play is always difficult, and especially in MLS, where roster depth is not easy to achieve. Coach Veljko Paunovic trusted Eric Gehrig and Michael Harrington to give breathers to Johan Kappelhof and Rodrigo Ramos, and goalkeeper Matt Lampson, presumably getting a run on Saturday in preparation for the Cup match, did little to instill confidence that he can back up defensive mistakes.

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Fire Fail to Seal the Deal

2016-07-31 CHI v NYRB

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

The Chicago Fire appeared to have done enough to beat the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, clinging to a 2:1 lead late in the contest. The dreaded kick to the gut came in the final minute of normal time, as Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goal salvaged a 2:2 draw for New York. The result extends the Fire’s home unbeaten streak to nine in all competitions, but the outcome sure felt a lot like a loss. The Fire remain in last place in the Eastern Conference, and a barren playoff landscape is looking more and more like reality.

It was the Fire’s first match since the stunning trade of Kennedy Igboananike to DC United on Friday. The Fire received an undisclosed amount of Targeted Allocation Money and a third-round draft pick in 2019. Given his poor level of productivity, it was not all that stunning that the Fire chose to part ways with Igboananike. But the fine print of the deal was a head-scratcher. Igboananike’s salary would still count against the Fire’s salary budget for 2016 and the Fire would not be able to use his Designated Player slot on a replacement. Given the way this team has struggled, they can use all the help that they can get. One can only wonder what General Manager Nelson Rodriguez has up his sleeve in order to turn this situation into a positive for the team.

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Squad Rotation Kills Fire’s Chances in Dallas

2016-07-16 FCD v CHI image

Photo courtesy Stewart F. House, dallasnews.com)

One look at coach Veljko Paunovic’s lineup sheet for Saturday’s match in Dallas made it clear that the Chicago Fire are putting all of their available resources into Wednesday’s US Open Cup match versus the Ft Lauderdale Strikers. Sean Johnson, Jonathan Campbell and David Accam were left at home, and Brandon Vincent, Khaly Thiam and Razvan Cocis started the game on the bench. The patchwork 11 that started the match was designed to hold things together and count on Lady Luck to nick a goal somewhere. Given the quality of the opponent, it wasn’t that good of a plan on paper and it worked out even worse on the field, as FC Dallas handed the Fire a 3:1 pasting to send the Fire back into the Eastern Conference cellar.

The difference between good teams and bad ones quite often can be found in the quality of their second-line players. Dallas brought in Victor Ulloa, Mauro Rosales and Tesho Akindele as substitutes on Saturday. It would be easy to argue that all three would be starters if they played for Chicago. Fire fans were treated to a starting lineup that contained Matt Lampson, Michael Harrington, Nick LaBrocca, and Michael Stephens. How many of those players would even see the field if they played for Dallas?

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