Dispatch from the Press Box: Fire vs. Philadelphia Union
On The Fire’s roving reporter Roberto Diaz was in the press box on Wednesday night while Scott suffered through another seminar. Let’s reflect on the Union match with RDIII, shall we?
Well Fire fans, there’s no better way to put it: they fell for the trap. Sandwiched between road matches with first and second place on the line in the Eastern Conference, the Men in Red made a brief stop back home to host the “lowly” Philadelphia Union. “Lowly” because although Head Coach John Hackworth’s boys sit towards the bottom of the table, they beat teams like L.A., Kansas City, and New York this year. Add Chicago to the list of victims.
Philly is a surprising side whose record is misleading. But following Wednesday night’s embarrassing 3-1 loss at Toyota Park that spoiled the club’s 15th anniversary celebration, it was clear that Philadelphia was not the problem. Rather, it was Chicago itself.
On Tuesday, Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas emphasized that the team needed to be focused and ready from the first whistle. That didn’t happen. Some of the boys looked lost from the get-go. And yet again, Chicago put itself in a hole and allowed another early goal – this time in the 7th minute of play – when Union forward Jack McInerney exploited space left in the middle between centerbacks Austin Berry and Arne Friedrich and easily put one past goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Throughout the season, early concession of the first goal was a surmountable challenge for the Fire – especially at home. However, what transpired on Wednesday indicates that ship may have sailed.
Wednesday’s match felt different. Leading up to it, the consensus among fans, players, coaches, and the media was that the Fire simply had to “move on” from Friday night’s loss at SKC. But of course, saying and doing are two entirely different things. And once Chicago went down early, there was a palpable lack of confidence in the air at Toyota Park.
After the McInerney goal, the rest of the first-half saw the Fire try to fight back in vain. Daniel Paladini hit a free kick off the post in the 19th minute and Chris Rolfe forced a good save from MacMath in the 34th. As far as scoring chances went, that was it. Going into halftime, the uneasiness began to take hold.
An aggressive tactical move by acting head coach Mike Matkovich (standing in for the suspended Frank Klopas), subbed in Mr. “freaky fast” himself, forward Dominic Oduro, for holding midfielder Logan Pause. The 4-3-1-1 now became a 4-4-2, as Chicago looked to add some offensive punch. Although Oduro eventually scored, there was an immediate sense that the Fire were in trouble when the Ghanaian stepped onto the pitch so early.
Tactical adjustments to boost an attack are sometimes necessary, but it made no sense to get away from the game plan so early while only down 1-0 at home – a scenario the squad had mastered up to then. The team changed its shape and tactics too early, and as a result looked desperate. And despite the move, play continued unaltered, with the Fire maintaining a slight edge in possession, but not making anything of it.
Still searching for answers in the 63rd minute, Matkovich subbed on forward Guillermo Franco for winger Alvaro “El Flaco” Fernandez, who like most of his teammates did not have his best game. And that’s being kind.
As the Fire pushed up in the 69th minute, Philly found another gap in the back line and dropped a ball in to Gabriel Gomez, who made it 2-0 Union with a well-placed shot to the upper 90. Things appeared to fall apart for Chicago.
However, only two minutes later an inspired Patrick Nyarko did what he does best and danced around four Union players to find Oduro, who found space in the box to beat young Zach MacMath and bring the Fire back within one. With at least 20 minutes left to play, it appeared Chicago could salvage a point from the wreckage.
Soon after Oduro breathed life back into a crowd of well over 16,000, Coach Matko made another aggressive move and subbed Alex on for fullback Dan Gargan in the 78th minute, which again changed the formation. Now, with only three in the back, Chicago looked to launch a full-on attack. Still, only down a goal, it again seemed as if a shape change was premature given the circumstances.
El Guille was pretty good on the ball and facilitated the attack almost immediately upon entering the match. His presence alone engendered faith that Chicago could equalize. Unfortunately though, the Fire’s newest Mexican legend was sent to the showers in the 79th minute after a studs-up reckless challenge on Brian Carroll.
Live and in person, the tackle seemed like a normal 50/50 challenge. But due to wet pitch conditions the impact was exaggerated, as the bottom of Franco’s boot plowed into Carroll’s shin. The result? A straight red card and a two-match suspension for Franco. The earliest Fire fans will see El Guille now is the regular season finale vs. DC United on October 27th.
Alex made a good, brief showing, linking up well with Chris Rolfe and Nyarko. But still, not much resulted from Chicago’s aggressive tactics. Plus, they were down to ten men.
In the dying minutes of the match, with all nine field players pushing for the tie, the Union took advantage and Michael Farfan found Antoine Hoppenot in the box, who cheekily back-heeled the Union dagger into Chicago’s heart.
Final score: 3-1 Philadelphia in front of a dejected and disgusted Toyota Park crowd.
- The Fire narrowly won the possession battle 53% to 47% – though to no avail.
- Chicago’s passing accuracy improved to 81%, but the number of errant passes that stunted their attack was frustrating to say the least.
So what did On The Fire learn from its press box perch? Well, if this momentary lapse of form isn’t corrected by tomorrow, Chicago will have fallen on “Hard Times”…
Play the music.
Chicago has overdrawn its luck account. The boys must put together a complete game. Winning soccer, playoff soccer, does not allow for first-half lollygags and second-half turn-ons. The jig is up. Other teams know the Fire come out flat and thus pounce. Simply for confidence’s sake, this has to change in New York tomorrow. Chicago must be tight and disciplined from the first tick of the clock. Another loss means real trouble, as the top half of the East table continues to tighten.
Clearly, the Fire’s performance was poor from back to front. Arne Freidrich summed things up nicely after the match when he said, “It’s good for our head to realize that we are not in [the playoffs] yet, that we have to work, and that we have to defend first. A good defensive shape always wins. On Saturday we have to do it completely different, we have to defend our goal first and the goals will come.” The former Die Mannschaft great knows as well as anyone that while offense may win matches, defense ultimately determines whether or not a team competes for trophies.
Assistant Coach Leo Percovich during the post-match press conference: “It starts with the attitude. We didn’t have the right attitude to win the game. We tried to make different subs and push forward in the second half but it didn’t work. We tried to put high pressure and keep the ball up field, but the red card to Franco changed everything that we tried to do at the end.”
In addition, Leo lamented that Chicago played its worst match of the season Wednesday night – an inauspicious showing in front of dedicated fans and Fire greats who were on hand to celebrate the club’s 15th anniversary.
However, despite the fact that all agree Wednesday night’s was the Fire’s worst performance of the year, I personally am disappointed that some fans (especially in Section 8) left early. There was perhaps an exaggerated amount of negative social media ranting going on as well after the match. Granted, the Fire looked like crap out there at home, but it’s just one match. The MLS season is a long road to hoe. Fans must be there for their team through the highs and especially the lows.
So far, 2012 has been a special season. The comebacks, the narrow nail-biting wins on the road, Chris Rolfe’s return, Logan Pause’s quick comeback after a serious injury, all the new, exciting faces, etc. This team has surpassed many of our expectations. Now, they need us. And they need us to be louder than ever and help pick them up.
And on that note, Coach Leo Percovich, gets the last word before New York: “We are not happy. But, one thing remains very true: I still believe in this team. I still believe in these players. They did not show how much we can do, but I believe in them till the end. This was a very bad performance tonight, but I believe, we believe.”
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