Dispatch from a Man in the Stands: Fire at Sporting KC

S8OT reppin’ well at SKC. That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight, practicing my religion.

If you care about what you do and what you write, and if you passionately love your club and your fellow fans, being a virtual hype-man can be a high-risk proposition at times.

And like any endeavor that comes with high risks, there are big rewards as well. But with all the trumped-up talk and prognostication, in the end you live and die by events that are out of your control. The higher the stakes, the bigger your rise or fall. Friday night in KC was one of those decisive affairs, if only for the moment. Yet despite their 2-0 defeat at the hands of a superior SKC side, with a match in hand the Men in Red have an opportunity this week to once again put themselves within two points of Peter Vermes and the boys in blue.

And for me, your interwebs color man/cheerleader/truth-teller, I’m fortunate to be able to make a comeback as well. You see, I went for broke on Friday and predicted a 2-0 Fire win. I also drunk tweeted a bunch of (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) stuff from the stands about referee Chris Penso (we’ll get to him in a moment) that earned me some ridicule. After being called a “clown” earlier in the week by a person who remains unknown, I received some not-too-kind tweets on Saturday from some folks. Whatever. Haters gonna hate.

I stand by what I write, even if a good part of it is for amusement only. Dear readers, recognize that our motto here at On The Fire – “Analysis, Insight, Fluff.” – should tip you off that we inject a certain amount of funny business into our product, and this goes for Twitter and Facebook as well. So if you don’t have a sense of humor, perhaps this isn’t the blog for you. 

Finally, and most importantly, I love and respect the Fire badge more than any one player, coach, or group of fans. So I’m gonna keep on doin’ what I do – when I’m able, and how I want to. And if you don’t like it, by all means don’t read this blog or follow me on Twitter. But if you want to engage in conversations that I generate and respond to (the point of it all), I invite you to please do so – either via comments here on the blog, Twitter, Facebook, or email. That said, let’s get on with the show…

By all accounts it was a playoff atmosphere inside Livestrong Sporting Park last Friday night. And being there, it sure felt like it. Marching in proudly after a long bus journey across the prairie, we the Fire supporters made our presence known among SKC’s biggest crowd to date, ready to give it all for the glory of first place. Inauspiciously however, our beloved Men in Red ran into a bulldozer of a squad, led by the MLS’s R. Lee Ermey – Peter “Buzz” Vermes.

Chris Rolfe had a hell of a nice chance in the 6th or 7th minute after a nice long ball by Segares found Sherjill MacDonald on the right flank. As he’s know to do, Mackie placed a nice cross into the middle for an unmarked Rolfe, who struck wide right of Nielsen’s goal. In a road match of such significance, finishing early chances is crucial – especially for a club like the Fire with a penchant for conceding the first goal. It’s one thing to put yourself in a hole at home, but doing it on the road against a first-place team must be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem as if this was the game plan.

Anibaba vs. Zusi: “Future” shock. (zimbio.com)

Sure, Segares got beat when Kei Kamara turned on him, sprinted up the right flank, and fed Graham Zusi for a clinical finish in the 11th minute, but Jalil Anibaba failed to properly mark Zusi. The “Nigerian Future,” as he so modestly refers to himself, wasn’t playing his man tight enough and should have stepped up to block the space that Zusi moved into when he cut right and met Kamara’s cross for a one-timer to the low far post. Once again, Jalil Anibaba is suspect #1 on an opposition goal. But give credit to Zusi. His execution was excellent. 1-0 KC, and that was enough in the end.

Even from our far corner next to SKC ‘keeper Jimmy Nielsen, it was clear from the get-go that the Fire sat back too far in their own half during the first 45 minutes. Chicago applied insufficient pressure on the ball in the midfield when SKC had possession and they paid for it. Even after going down 1-0 early, Chicago’s lack of pressure on the ball during the first half was astounding.

The Fire’s second and last scoring chance during the first half came when MacDonald once again found himself on a counterattacking break up the right flank in the 44th. Double-teamed, the Dutchman missed his window of opportunity to shoot, and instead placed a cross into an empty middle. Not a red shirt was near. Sherjill’s been excellent feeding crosses to Rolfe – which has generated goals – but sometimes the big man’s got to pull the trigger himself.

Not only were the Fire completely outplayed in the first half, but SKC absolutely dominated them physically. Through 22 minutes, SKC held a 69%/31% possession advantage. By halftime, it wasn’t much better for Chicago at 67%/33%. And tellingly, the Fire had zero shots on goal. But despite being altogether owned in the first half, the Men in Red were still in it. A result was not yet out of the question.

After 45 minutes of tactical failure, Frank Klopas had to make changes. He brought in Dominic Oduro for an ineffective Alex around the 60th minute, which changed the formation from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-4-2. The Dommer played at right forward while Mackie went left. Rolfe dropped back slightly and inserted himself at the top of the diamond.

Ten minutes passed and it seemed like the Fire were making headway. SKC sat back a bit, ceded possession, and allowed Chicago a few narrow openings. Guille Franco came in for a tired and beat up Patrick Nyarko in the 71st, a move that sent Oduro to the wing. This change brought new life to the Fire attack, but a breakout in the 73rd led by Oduro looked awkward. Rolfe bunched it up and found himself in an offside position. After receiving Oduro’s pass, Mackie had to hold the play up for Rolfe to get onside and SKC did a nice job to get back and close down space. But, they were pressing, and only down a goal it looked as if all was not yet lost for the Fire.

In his third and final offensive substitution, Klopas sent Daniel Paladini on for Logan Pause in the 80th. With nothing to lose, the total attack was on. There was still some hope left. But referee Chris Penso – the bane of Chicago fandom (and perhaps others’) – once again reared his ugly head and snuffed out the Fire’s chances to get a result.

During a play that developed nicely into an offensive opportunity for Sherjill MacDonald on the left in the 88th, he was fouled just inside the box by Kei Kamara. Daniel Paladini played a nice ball forward from midfield to Gullie Franco, who neatly flicked the ball forward to a double-teamed Mackie. Sherjill beat Chance Myers, but Kamara came in and body-checked the Chicago forward to the ground. Chris Penso kept his whistle in his pocket.

In the 91st, Franco was clearly tripped outside the box. No call. In fact, the entire SKC defense stopped, expecting a whistle. Play continued.

In the 92nd, Franco again found himself on a breakaway and was simply mugged from behind by Julio Cesar. No call. To make matters worse, Cesar went for the Oscar and killed time while his amigos helped themselves to water. Unbelievable.

Then, to add insult to injury, Penso tossed Chicago coach Frank Klopas for yelling at and waving his hand in front of the fourth official. No one in his right mind can blame Klopas for being furious after SKC got away with two clear fouls that, if called, would have awarded the Fire two free kick opportunities at the top of the box. Always classy, Klopas shook hands with Peter Vermes on his way to the locker room. But Penso wasn’t done yet.

About a minute later, a tired and frustrated Gonzalo Segares, who already earned a yellow card for excessive protest, came in with a hard challenge on CJ Sapong. Penso issued a second yellow card to Sega and then reached for the obligatory red. Sega did commit a foul. But as pointed out during the telecast, the second yellow was a soft call. Penso fell for SKC’s b.s. while CJ Sapong channeled his inner thespian and Vermes did his best to look outraged. Down a man, Chicago’s tragic, embarrassing coda came soon after when Jalil Anibaba let Sapong post him up while the young SKC forward headed the ball ahead into space for Zusi, who put the dagger in the ‘ol heart with another clinical finish as time expired. 2-0 SKC. Set. Match. Three points.

But we still cheered. And cheered. And cheered some more. After traveling all that way, and yelling our hearts out for hours, Logan Pause, Daniel Paladini, and Sherjill MacDonald – in a show of great class – strode over to our supporters’ corner to clap with and salute us. We of course reciprocated, and cheered some more.

Friday was a tough day. Hopes were very high and soon disappeared into the ether. But we who were there – fans, players, and coaches – took our lumps in stride. After all, “this is the soccer,” and sometimes it’s a hard knock life for us…

Hit the Music.

Predict-o-meter = 29%

  • The Fire lost 2-0 
  • Chicago did not contain Graham Zusi 
  • Peter Vermes may or may not have popped a blood vessel √≠
  • The Fire did not sweep its way into first place in the East ≠
  • The #FireBus rode home proudly, but not to glory √≠

Analysis, Hoooo!

You could cut the tension in the air with a knife. (Photo: zimbio.com)

The Fire came out tight and scared. And looking at the quote sheet, it’s encouraging to know they admitted as much. Whether you were at the match or not, it was clear to all that Chicago was nervous. It showed in their play and they paid for it with the early goal by Zusi. Frank Klopas looked quite worried after going down 1-0. Question: What’s it going to take for this team to come out hard, focused, and fearless from the first whistle?

Johnson: Hanging tough under high pressure. (Photo: zimbio.com)

Sean Johnson had a good game. He can’t be blamed for the two goals. Zusi is a hell of a finisher and Anibaba is a questionable defender in space. And speaking of Anibaba…

Jalil looked poor in the first half. He appeared lackadaisical and not sharp at all. His second half, however, was a different story. Young Jalil needs to know that come playoff time, he must put in a complete quality 90 minute shift. Zusi simply owned him on both goals. And despite an overall solid second-half performance, he got physically dominated by CJ Sapong in the end, which led to SKC’s second goal.

Guillermo Franco showed flashes of danger and did some nice work inside the box on Friday night. Tasty. Will we see a 4-4-2 diamond if he gets his fitness level up? And if Pardo is fit, what will that mean for El Capitan Logan “Wolverine” Pause?

Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry worked their tails off and took some blows at SKC, so big props to the “A-Team” for another gutsy effort.

Sega battled hard all night and had his hands full and then some with Kamara and Chance Myers. On The Fire salutes #13. We’ll miss you on Wednesday.

Patrick Nyarko had a rough go of it on Friday night. He got beat up out there and found himself on the ground frequently. I imagine he must be hurting right now. Given the importance of Saturday’s match at New York, I’d like to see him on the bench Wednesday and only available in an emergency.

Alex did not play well against SKC. His passing accuracy was poor and he was slow to the ball. Honestly, it didn’t look like he wanted it enough. I love Alex’s potential, but the sooner Pardo comes back the better. He simply couldn’t handle SKC’s aggressive press. In a tactical switch, Dominic Oduro came on in the 61st for the young Brazilian, but he didn’t do much either. The Dommer looked flat, not “freaky fast.” Want to kill your counterattack? Put Oduro in.

Chicago’s passing was not good overall, and downright atrocious in the first half. It was not sharp, nor fast enough to be effective against the SKC press. The Men in Red were slow to release their passes and did not track down loose balls fast enough. Furthermore, the Fire did a terrible job winning second balls in the air. Stephen Mangat warned us about all of this in his “Know Your Enemy” piece, and he was right.

Surprisingly, Chicago had twice the number of corners than did SKC (6 to 3). But Chicago must do better on set piece execution. The service on corners and free kicks was poor and the boys weren’t effectively winning balls off throw-ins either. The Fire really miss Pavel Pardo in this department and, dare I say, Marco Pappa too? Wait. Who?

Fun With Chalkboards

Alex – A Poor Performance

Here’s the line on Alex’s 60 minutes of work in the midfield: 12/13 successful to unsuccessful pass ratio, tackled and possession lost 14 times, 5 unsuccessful crosses. Take a look at his heat map below, and you’ll see that SKC pressed him into submission.

Alex heat map at Sporting KC, 9.28.12

Sinovic and Myers: SKC Fullbacks Threaten on the Wings

SKC fullbacks Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers successfully got up the flanks – especially in the first half. Here’s their possession and distribution during the first 45 minutes of the match. And while they tempered their attack a bit in the second half, the outside defending duo remained a threat. That SKC’s fullbacks can get up into the offensive half like this shows us the strength and versatility of the Cesar, Espinoza, and Nagamura midfield trio, who do a great job of protecting the defensive half if Sinovic and Myers find themselves up field on a counterattack.

Seth Sinovic (16) and Chance Myers (7) possession and ball distribution vs. Chicago, 9.28.12

Average Position Comparison: Hot Press

The following two chalkboards are quite telling. Not counting Sean Johnson of course, six of Chicago’s starters found themselves in the defensive half for most of the match. By contrast, we can say the same for only three SKC players. What does this tell us? Vermes and company pressed the hell out of the Fire to great effect.

Chicago average position at Sporting KC, 9.28.12

Sporting KC average position vs. Chicago, 9.28.12

Notable Numbers

  • One shot on target all night for the Fire.
  • Chicago found themselves offside three times.
  • 74% passing accuracy for the Fire. A number below 80% is concerning.
  • Two yellow cards and two red cards were issued to Chicago.
  • 21,010 attended the match, the largest crowd to date at Livestrong Sporting Park.

Parting Shots

Kamara: Shave. (Photo: zimbio.com)

Kei Kamara is an absolute beast. He burned Sega to get the assist on Zusi’s goal and absolutely dominated Austin Berry in the air when he put a header on frame. The dude is fearless. He throws his body around without caution. I’m a fan. But that beard must go.

Graham Zusi is a quality player. I’m highly impressed with this guy. SKC must be absolutely smitten with him.

Credit to SKC’s depth and the play of Lawrence Olum. They didn’t miss a beat without all-star Aurelien Collin at centerback. That said, Olum should have received a yellow card for his early second-half reckless challenge on Patrick Nyarko. Again, Chris Penso missed the call.

And credit to Peter Vermes. He’s a scary lookin’ Marine-type dude, but he sure uses this persona to his team’s advantage. He’s intimidating and it works on the refs at home in front of big crowds. He made Chris Penso and the officiating crew his bitches. Vermes had his players pressing hard and took advantage of a ref who permitted rough play. His team was in form, tactically sound, and physical. That’s why they’re in first place. SKC was determined to lock down a playoff spot in front of their home crowd and they got it done. Vermes’s squad is bigger, faster, and stronger than the Fire. They physically dominated Chicago in the first half, and worked the refs in the second. Yet the former, rather than the latter, was the true arbiter on Friday night.

Penso: Awful. Just awful. (Photo: csnchicago.com)

Anyone blessed with sight – no matter which side you were on Friday night – knows that Chris Penso and his crew were atrocious. Even though Chicago suffered his foolishness more in the end, Penso and his boys did SKC no favors either. Aside from the aforementioned missed fouls and questionable cards, the Fire also missed two corner opportunities due to poor officiating: one in the first half after Nielsen touched one out in the 40th, and the other in the 74th minute after a SKC deflection off a MacDonald shot.

Chris Penso is a goon’s best friend. Chicago should have been awarded a penalty in the 88th minute after the Kamara body check on MacDonald just inside the box. Then, Penso simply looked the other way when Franco was taken down twice in successive minutes during stoppage time. Seriously, Penso must think he’s reffing a rugby match. As soon as MLS purges this hack, he should by a one-way ticket to Australia. There’s plenty of unpadded contact ball sports out there for him to boss.

What’s Next?

Chicago will try to regroup Wednesday at home against a beatable Philadelphia Union side. The Fire need a result from their match in hand to leap back into second place after dropping to third this weekend. Hopefully, the Fire will lick their wounds, look at the film, learn from the experience, and move forward. Saturday will be another tough test for the Men in Red, as they travel to Red Bull Arena to battle Thierry Henry and company for second place in the East. Unfortunately, Klopas and Segares will miss the Philly match due to suspension.

Here’s how the East playoff table will look until Wednesday:

And finally, for another authoritative, detailed look at the Eastern Conference playoff race, take a look at the latest installment of Jeff Crandall’s “Playoff Math” series.

Don’t stop lovin’ our Fire. Peace.

Video Highlights

Box Score/Stats

OPTA Chalkboard

Quote Sheet

2 thoughts on “Dispatch from a Man in the Stands: Fire at Sporting KC

  1. I can’t agree about blaming Anibaba for the first goal. Maybe he should have done better. But Sega has no business diving in for a steal at the halfway line as a defender. By doing so he gave that entire half of the pitch to SKC. You can’t screw your own defense over like that. I could almost blame him if he had just “gotten turned” like you said. But its his own fault for lunging in like an idiot. All he has to do is back off and track him back. Then he doesn’t have the time and space to line up a perfect cross, and it doesn’t fall right to the foot of Zusi. No goal, or at least, a lot tougher one.

    • Dear Salvatore,

      Point taken. Perhaps I’m inclined to give Sega the benefit of the doubt because he’s a veteran. I’ll have to go back and look at the play again. I don’t remember him leaving his feet.

      On Anibaba though, I looked at the play in slow motion a few times. If he’s responsible for defending an area in which a player like Zusi roams, he’s got to mark tighter. And if the pass is coming from his left, while his man is moving toward it from the right, he must close down the space to his left, because his man’s not going to be able to get the ball and then suddenly turn back right.

      At any rate, you make a good point. Chicago’s fullbacks had their hands full. Against SKC, Sega showed his age a bit and Anibaba showed his inexperience too.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yours,

      Scott

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