Dispatch from a Man in the Stands: Fire vs. Columbus Crew

Baller Style. (Photo: Getty Images)

Crisp, clear fall weather. A crowd of 19,172. Section 8 at full throttle. Sector Latino rockin’ the house. A hated rival. All these things and more contributed to a playoff-like atmosphere inside Toyota Park on Saturday night when the Men in Red took on the Columbus Crew in a mutually vital Eastern Conference match.

Aggressive, high intensity soccer dotted the pitch from the outset as both teams quickly combined for five shots on target. In the third minute, igniting the Fire attack, Alex launched a far-post scorcher from the right corner of the eighteen-yard box that barely sailed high of Andy Gruenbaum’s frame. Minutes later, Arne Friedrich got in the mix with a header off a set piece, while bearded Eddie Gaven and the Serb Milovan Mirosevic added chances for the Crew. Both clubs played at a torrid pace early on and pumped up an already enthusiastic crowd with their efforts. Yet just fifteen minutes in, all went quiet.

Section 8 brings the noise and the flash to Toyota Park on Saturday night. (Photo: sfgate.com)

With an astounding play that left mouths gaping and heads shaking, Sean Johnson, devoid of any and all awareness, made a blunder rarely seen at this level of soccer and gifted Columbus the first goal of the match. After receiving a routine back pass from Austin Berry meant to neutralize a lone streaking Jairo Arrieta, Chicago’s ‘keeper immediately and inexplicably kicked the ball directly back into the area from whence it came – which happened to be right at Arrieta’s feet. Quickly collecting the ball, the little forward dribbled left past a diving, helpless Johnson and easily drove one home for Columbus. Instantly, Sean looked as if he’d seen a ghost disguised as a legged yellow banana. On the telecast, analyst Evan Whitfield appropriately dubbed Johnson’s gaffe “a shocking display”. But as usual, an early concession did not faze la Maquina Roja.

In the 23rd minute, Gonzalo Segares served a long ball up the left flank and into Chicago’s attacking third. The stalwart Sherjill MacDonald, holding his ground with his back to defender Chad Marshall, collected the ball and spun left into open space, where he immediately looked up to find an unmarked Chris Rolfe streaking up the middle towards goal. Mackie then gently placed a pass between two Crew defenders and into Rolfe’s path. Sensing danger, Columbus ‘keeper Andy Gruenwald moved ten to twelve yards out to meet Chicago’s trequartista, but to no avail. Making it look easy, cool man Rolfe fired a left-footed strike past an exposed Gruenwald and into the back of the net for Chicago’s equalizer. And he wasn’t finished. A mere three minutes later, Rolfe hit pay dirt again.

In the 26th minute, Austin Berry dispossessed a Columbus attacker in the Fire’s defensive third. Logan Pause immediately collected the free ball near the circle and played it to Rolfe at the half line. In a clinical piece of touch-and-go soccer, Rolfe passed right to Patrick Nyarko who, undeterred, dribbled 25-30 yards to the top of the arc. In the midst of four Crew defenders, Nyarko quickly laid one left to Rolfe. Then, in the blink of an eye Rolfe neatly flicked the pass up and volleyed a 19-yard far-post laser beam up and over Andy Gruenbaum for what would be the back-breaker. With the Fire suddenly up 2-1, Soccer by Ives‘s Jeff Krause said it best: “Thoughts after 30 mins. Nyarko came to play, Rolfe came to play, Friedrich came to play. Mackie’s going to eat someone.” Yea.

Nyarko: Too fast. Too strong. (Photo: zimbio.com)

Columbus threatened in the 56th minute. Eddie Gaven beat Jalil Anibaba at the top left corner of the penalty area and unleashed a near post strike that a newly attentive Sean Johnson batted away to safety.

Chicago kept up their pressure into the second half, but couldn’t capitalize on what was their tastiest chance of the evening. In the 62nd minute, Patrick Nyarko found himself out wide in Columbus’s right corner. Under pressure from a double-team, Nyarko passed back to a waiting Chris Rolfe about six yards off the top of the box. With nothing open forward, Rolfe laid the ball back to Alex, who quickly passed left to Sherjill MacDonald. Then, a trianglular piece of clinical soccer ensued where Mackie one timed a pass back toward the middle and onto the head of Rolfe, who placed the ball into vacant space in the Columbus penalty area behind the Crew back line. A bullish MacDonald barely beat an onrushing Gruenbaum, and flicked the ball up to Alvaro Fernandez, who headed high and over the crossbar. El Flaco’s miss on a wide open net left the entire Toyota Park crowd in disbelief and was his lone chance to extend his consecutive scoring streak to three matches.

With about twenty minutes remaining, the Fire decided to park the bus and protect their 2-1 lead. Columbus proceeded to throw everything they had at Chicago, but Sean Johnson would have none of it. In the 79th, human shield Sean absorbed a point-blank Josh Williams strike off a seven-yard volley that would have decapitated the Chicago ‘keeper if not for his panther-like reflexes. Getting help from his teammates, the stout middle of the Fire defense shut down a Crew surge in the 87th, with Austin Berry, Arne Friedrich, and Daniel Paladini all clearing or blocking shots before they made it to Johnson.

Tying the club record with comeback win number eight on the season, and their fourth in as many matches, Saturday night was just another day at the office for the red-hot Chicago Fire. Burn baby burn…

HIT THE MUSIC!

Predict-o-meter: 60%

  • Fire won 2-1. 
  • Chris Rolfe scored not once, but twice. √≠
  • Patrick Nyarko did not score, but notched an assist. √≠
  • Arrieta, not Renteria scored for Columbus. 
  • Chicago’s tactics were flipped. They attacked in the first half and sat back during the second. √≠
  • The Fire got three points and are now within seven points of their lofty goal (60) with five regular season matches left to play. 
  • The stage is set for a battle of epic proportions on Friday night in KC. √

Analysis, Hoooo!

Tactics

We predicted a tactical approach where Chicago would sit back a bit in the first-half, concede possession, make C-Bus work, and look to counterattack. We thought perhaps the Fire would go up 1-0 in the first half, concede a goal, and then ratchet up the attack against a fatigued, lumbering Crew side and then net the match winner later in the second-half. But actually, the opposite occurred. After going down 1-0 early, the crowd deflated, Chicago had to play aggressive, offensive soccer in the first-half. And it worked. The switch however came around the 70th minute when, up 2-1, the Fire went into shut-down mode, conceding possession and forcing Columbus to devote all its resources in attack.  Overall, sans goals scored, the split stat sheet ain’t pretty – especially when you look at the second half. The last 20-25 minutes of the match was undoubtedly a study in “winnin’ ugly”. And while I’m generally not a fan of parking the bus with a one goal lead, the Fire escaped with three points and got the job done.

Chris Rolfe

Cool as the other side of the pillow the man is. Rolfe bagged his second brace of the season on Saturday night, and now has eight goals in seventeen matches played this season. MLSsoccer.com’s Anthony Zilis during the match on Chicago’s #1 goal-scorer: “Is there a better stand-still shooter in the league than Chris Rolfe?” Nope.

After the match, NBC Sports’s Steve Davis had this to say about Chicago’s golden foot: “There may be a couple of players about on par with Chris Rolfe right now, but there is no one in MLS playing any better.” Baller Style.

Sean Johnson

On The Fire takes full responsibility for Columbus’s goal. In a faux pas of our own, we tweeted the following message to Sean before the match, thus placing unsolicited pressure upon Chicago’s young goalkeeper:

We’re sorry. But despite his massive brain malfunction, Sean atoned for his sins in the end. He regrouped and protected his squad’s lead. His timing, positioning, and awareness were solid for 75 minutes. No fumbling, bumbling, or indecision was present after his serious miscue.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s propensity for inexplicable mental errors is puzzling (think USMNT Olympic qualifying). Attention Javier Leon: here’s your next big, bold front office move – HEADLINE: “Chicago Fire replace goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde with renowned sports psychologist John F. Murray through the rest of the 2012 season.” You’re welcome.

Sherjill MacDonald

Speaking of tweets, this one worked like a charm:

Yessss! Sherjill’s ability to run down balls, hold up defenders, retain possession, and create chances for his teammates cannot be praised enough. Make no mistake about it, #7’s performance against the Crew proves once and for all that he is Frank Klopas’s point man. Case closed. For more on the Dutchman’s performance, see our “Fun With Chalkboards” section below.

The Holding Mids

Despite my wishes for a Daniel Paladini start, it was a good thing that Alex was in the XI. Going down early meant that the Fire needed all the offensive power they could field in the first-half. Frank Klopas is understandably high on Alex. During the pre-match telecast, the Gaffer spoke at length about the growth he’s seen in the young Brazilian. Klopas cited Alex’s improved decision-making with the ball, fitness, and confidence as the reasons why the midfielder can now be counted on as a starter. Alex indeed looked solid in the midfield, winning balls in the air and duels on the ground. Sky’s the limit for this kid, and On The Fire is glad to be on board his rocket ship.

Logan Pause did not have a good first-half of soccer. He turned the ball over on a few inopportune occasions, which allowed Columbus to build effective attacks. The stat sheet shows three lost possessions for the Fire captain in the first 45 minutes. On Pause, I’m afraid MikeRUZE perhaps said it best on Chicago Fire Confidential: “Pause is [in there] to kill the attacks…both the opponents and our own.” Ouch.

Paladini came on late as a defensive sub and put in a solid piece of work as usual. Remember what sage Eric Wynalda told On The Fire earlier this season: Daniel Paladini is the most underrated player in MLS. Word.

Jalil Anibaba

I’ve been hard on Anibaba since he moved to right back. So have others. Yet, an empirical study published last week by Mark O’Rourke at Hot Time in Old Town convincingly sought to mute Jalil’s detractors. So how did he do? His successful to unsuccessful pass ratio was 20/16. In the 56th, he got beat by bearded Eddie Gaven, and if not for an excellent punch-out by Sean Johnson, Jalil would have once again been responsible for an opposition goal. But, the young Nigerian did make a few nice defensive clearances on the night. Here’s NBC Sports’s Steve Davis on Anibaba versus Columbus: “Jalil Anibaba was determined to get forward and supply crosses from his right side, but those centering passes arrived to little effect. His crosses are sharp, but they lack enough definition and purpose.” Right. Overall, we give Jalil a C+. Release the Kraken…

Patrick Nyarko

#14 simply owned the right side of the pitch on Saturday night. Folks in the know can’t say enough about the Ghanaian winger’s work rate, effort, and skill on the ball. Ever dangerous in attack, Pat’s extraordinary dribbling ability and touch continue to cause defenders fits.

Gonzalo Segares

Not much to say here but the fact that Sega put in another workmanlike, solid performance on the night. He’s been brilliantly consistent during the Fire’s four-match winning streak.

Fun With Chalkboards

Austin Berry: A Clinical Defensive Performance

Perhaps his best outing in some time, the rookie center back was masterful in defense on Saturday night. Always under control, Berry made stop after stop, clearance after clearance, won header after header, and successfully passed off to his midfielders and wingers without error.

#22 Austin Berry successful passes and defensive events vs. Columbus, 9.22.12

Sherjill MacDonald: Pressure and Control in Attack

Sherjill MacDonald was the Fire’s unsung hero on Saturday night. Ives Galarcep – you know, the Ives in Soccer by Ives – had this to say about Sir Mackie after his assist to Chris Rolfe: “Tell you what, MacDonald has really been a nice addition. Drew plenty of chuckles as a DP signing, but he’s been a solid contributor.” #7 worked tirelessly on Saturday night, tracking down balls and harassing Columbus’s defenders. In attack, Mackie served a nifty ball into the box that just missed Chris Rolfe and sailed wide far-post in the 11th minute. The Dutchman then followed with an assist on Rolfe’s first goal, and nearly missed another assist after El Flaco blew a chance at the knockout punch in the 62nd.

#7 Sherjill MacDonald successful passes, possession, and shots vs. Columbus, 9.22.12

Arne Friedrich: Pushing Forward

Ze German is understandably known for his defensive prowess, which was on fine display vs. the Crew. However, as he’s done a few times this season, Arne flashed his ball skills on Saturday night while leading the Fire attack into the offensive half. See those three dots on the right side of the half line? That’s center back Friedrich applying skilled attacking pressure while pushing the run of play into Columbus’s defensive half. Sensationell!

Arne Friedrich Heat Map vs. Columbus, 9.22.12

Federico Higuain: Always on the Ball

There’s no doubt that Higuain is a gifted player. His touch and vision are a joy to behold. But, are the Crew over-reliant on his ability to create scoring chances? Despite his high work rate (see below), Chicago held Federico without a goal or assist, and effectively closed down the space he usually exploits.

Federico Higuain Heat Map at Chicago, 9.22.12

Notable Numbers

  • Duels: This stat tells a tale of two halves. First half: Chi 54/C-bus 46. Second half: Chi 44/C-bus 56. For the match, a disappointing Chi 49/C-bus 51, reflecting the tactical change to defend in the second-half.
  • Possession: Generally speaking, and in terms of winning and losing, this stat’s importance is overblown. However, a 62/38 loss by Fire is a bit disconcerting, and perhaps the main reason why the Fire Faithful were once again forced to chew their nails to bits after the 75th minute.
  • Passing Accuracy: 77%. The Fire took a step back here. A number under 80% is cause for concern.
  • Open Play Crosses: Chi 15/Crew 14. Another explanatory stat. Chicago does not usually come up on the winning side of this number. This result shows that the Fire did a good job marking Higuain and closing down space during the run of play.
  • Fouls and Yellow Card Cautions: 16 and 2 for C-Bus. Sort of fitting isn’t it? I told you there’d be cow pies on the pitch.
  • From Hot Time in Old Town: “CHI has won season series vs KC, HOU, CLB, MTL, PHI, & TFC. #cf97 is 11-3-2 & only 2 teams have scored multiple goals against since June 17.”

Parting Shots

Hot Time In Old Town‘s Ryan Sealock: “Higuain now adding cameraman attacks to his resume. Really Crew?” Awesome. In case you missed it, Federico Higuain ran into the big sideline tripod camera and put it out of commission for the rest of the match. Amusingly, two guys with medic vests came over to the cameraman well after the incident, and were giving his large, dented piece of equipment the once over. Get the stretcher!

Apparently, I’ve earned a reputation for telling it like it is. I’m under the impression that people like this. Fine. So here’s one for you: What in the hell is up with NBC NonStop’s new pre-match sideline reporter? Does the network not hold tryouts and screen tests for this position? How in the hell are we supposed to grow the game if hacks like her are put on screen? Awful. Just awful. NBC NonStop, call me.

Guille Franco was in the eighteen for the Fire on Saturday night. His Visa came through on Friday. Tasty.

Thought I’d see more Cowlumbus fans at Toyota Park. Was hoping I’d run into that fat man with the worst logo in pro sports painted on his belly. Fail.

MLSsnob commented on Soccer by Ives: “If Ives doesn’t have the Fire higher then 4th in the rankings [this week] I’m going to find his house and write “Jabroni” with spray paint in his front yard.” That’s right! Sheiky baby say Fire number one!

Frank Klopas spoke with Dan Kelly during pre-match telecast coverage about his team’s ability to deal with adversity and its resiliency: “It’s all about the group…believing in the group. We want to be a team that competes very hard. When you put on the Fire jersey you’ve got to wear it with honor and respect. There’s a rich tradition here of history with the Fire, with the city of Chicago as far as soccer, and the guys have to understand that. And we make sure that they do. So when they put that jersey on they treat it with the utmost respect and go out in front of our fans, whether at home or away, and leave everything on the field. That’s the kind of mentality in the group we do have.” Frank knows. It’s all about the badge. Respect.

What’s Next?

Here’s what the Eastern Conference table will look like on Monday Morning:

That match in hand for Chicago sure looks nice, doesn’t it? Bottom line: First place is Chicago’s for the taking. The Fire have no reason to look behind themselves now. It’s time to strap it on, look forward, and take the top spot home to Chitown.

If you want some quality, detailed analysis of what lies ahead, check out the latest edition of Jeff Crandall’s Playoff Math at chicago-fire.com.

Earlier this week, in anticipation of what might lie ahead, The Guardian‘s Joe Prince-Wright summed things up best: “Now two crucial road games will have a huge bearing on where the Eastern crown heads. First [the Fire] travel to Sporting KC on September 28 and they then head to Red Bull Arena to face New York on October 6. Both are televised nationally. Both will be crackers. But Chicago won’t be daunted at facing their biggest rivals in the closing weeks of the season. Their combined record against Sporting and New York in 2012: 3-1-0.”

And finally, a command all Chicago Fire fans need heed from @TrueMartyParty: “If you were too lazy to get on the bus to KC you better walk, fly, drive, or swim there. The guys need us on Friday!” Indeed. I’ll be there. Will you?

Video Highlights

Frank Klopas Post-match Press Conference

Player Locker Room Interviews

Box Score/Stats

OPTA Chalkboard

Quote Sheet

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