Dispatch from the Couch: Chicago Fire at Sporting KC
With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, Chicago Fire earned a point in Kansas on Saturday…
Yes, it is true, the Fire have no goals. And yes, it is true, only about 1/3 of the parts seem to work at the moment. But heart, determination, and teamwork earned Chicago a point against all odds at Sporting Park. For many, Saturday’s result was not only surprising, but relieving as well. Because despite real problems up top and discontinuity in the midfield, Chicago proved it could batten down the hatches in a hostile environment, defend as a team, and grind out a result against a team that should have won its home opener.
Chicago (along with the rest of us) knew it was outgunned. On paper, they didn’t have a chance. But in its now sixteenth season, the club had never started an MLS campaign 0-3. So wisely, manager Frank Klopas moved to stop the bleeding.
It certainly wasn’t a pretty sight to behold. Bodies flew, shirts were pulled, fouls were rampant, and cards were drawn. But the Fire, lacking defensive depth, parked the bus and put in a valiant effort that held one of the league’s most talented teams at bay for 90+ minutes.
The telecast began with a locker room shot of Sherjill MacDonald, narrated with talk about how “the Dutch striker” needed to find his scoring touch. Fast forward a bit to talk of Logan Pause and Arne Friedrich’s absence, and J.P Dellacamera quipped: “You could argue that their Designated Player Sherjill Macdonald hasn’t played this year [either].” Sad, but true.
Despite improved pressure on the ball from Chicago in the opening minutes, it was clear MacDonald would prove ineffective for the third match in a row. SKC’s all-star center back Aurelian Collin locked him up and was not only stronger, but faster. Instead of controlling possession in the midfield and moving the ball forward on the ground, Chicago tried to dump balls over the top and forward to its attackers with little success. However, a hard-working, aware Daniel Paladini and newly sharpened Chris Rolfe showed flashes of technical competence with some nice one-touch combination play through the midfield that created one of the Fire’s few scoring chances on the afternoon.
While their counterattack was clearly out of sync, defensively the Fire moved well as a unit and held their shape. Unfortunately, it appeared that MacDonald’s veteran teammates had lost faith in him midway through the first half. Instead of trying to thread through-balls to Sherjill in the penalty area, Rolfe, Paladini, and Larentowicz chose to shoot from distance.
As the clock ticked towards halftime, Chicago continued to play hard, physical, disciplined defense. Tight marking on corners and free kicks proved effective and the Men in Red took no guff from the boys in blue. Of note during the first half was perennial reservist Michael Videira’s solid bit of work at right back. At the whistle, the Fire had tallied twelve fouls, including a yellow card for the gritty Daniel Paladini.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, it was clear Sporting missed Kei Kamara’s presence. Moreover, their change in tactics to a more possession-oriented passing game from last season’s balls-to-the-wall run and press had them looking impotent and perhaps beatable. The lock-down center back duo of Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry limited Claudio Bieler’s chances in the middle and Sean Johnson showed well too. Sean’s two fine saves – a punch-out after a mediocre Michael Videira clearance and a diving push-away after Seth Sinovic got by Videira on the left flank and crossed a dangerous ball across Johnson’s face – kept the Fire alive through 60 minutes.
After two substitutions (Alex for Dilly Duka and Maicon Santos for MacDonald) did little to spark a counterattack, Chicago dropped deep to defend. Bodies continually dropped while play continually stopped. To SKC manager Peter Vermes’s displeasure, 13 fouls were committed and four yellow cards were issued during the final 30 minutes of play. After ’75, the Fire looked to hold on and hang tough.
SKC sub Soony Saad came off the bench to provide Sporting an offensive spark, but his near post screamer sailed just wide of the frame. After a fine, workmanlike performance, a spent Michael Videira came off for Wells Thompson. Fire Nation continued to grind their teeth. Graham Zusi threatened in the 86th with Sporting’s best chance of the afternoon, but skied the ball off-target and into the stands. And in a last-ditch effort to steal the win, Daniel Paladini combined nicely with Alex and Rolfe at the top of the penalty area, but his heavy last touch and an alert Jimmy Nielsen foiled Chicago’s last chance to score.
And the whistle blew.
A bit of hope restored. A point for Chicago and something to build upon.
Through three games, Chicago remains at the bottom of the league table. It has the worst goal differential and is the only scoreless team in MLS. But despite those cold, hard facts, after Saturday, you’ve got to admit it’s getting better…
PLAY THE MUSIC:
Frank Klopas proved a lot of us wrong (including me), and I couldn’t be happier. Klopas wisely changed his tactics from a 4-4-2 to his more familiar 4-2-3-1 to grind out a result. Had he not, Chicago would’ve surely lost the game against a talented 4-3-3.
Paladini for Lindpere was a fine choice and Michael Videira proved serviceable at right back. Sure, it was a draw, and that’s perhaps nothing to get too excited about. But in terms of teamwork, spirit, and defensive organization and play, the Fire showed marked improvement all over the Sporting Park pitch. Defensively, it was a total team effort. Obviously, a lot of improvement is still needed in the midfield and up top, but they’ve got to shore up the defense before they can win – especially given the current personnel.
Chris Rolfe worked his ass off. His movement, effort, and grit were exemplary. The Fire need that from him each game. In return, the technical staff must find him a reliable, creative partner up top. MacDonald and Santos are not the answer. Chicago’s two “big guys” have proven themselves virtually useless thus far. In particular, it’s utterly painful to watch MacDonald. He’s out of shape, overweight, and just lumbers around out there. He’s got no burst and is a step slower than the competition. Again, I ask: what the hell was this guy doing during the off-season?
As long as Klopas is still tinkering, I would like to see Rolfe paired with Alex up top – either in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. From what I saw Saturday, I like the potential of Paladini, Alex, and Rolfe combining to create scoring chances. I don’t like Alex on the left. Lindpere and Duka should platoon on the wing and Paladini should get the nod at CM. After no goals in 270+ minutes, why not try this?
Shout out to Daniel Paladini. Unlike Joel Lindpere, #11 played with his head up and was aware of what was transpiring around him all afternoon. He moved the ball well, showed accuracy & touch, and was calm and confident – especially in the first half. Paladini set the tone and helped Fire Nation believe in its team again.
Jeff Larentowicz was the unsung hero Saturday. His passing was accurate and he effectively did the dirty work in front of the back line – particularly on the right, which helped unseasoned right back Michael Videira hold off Sinovic, Saad, and a roaming Graham Zusi.
With no Chance Myers bursting up Sporting’s right flank, Gonzalo Segares caught a break and did well.
Jalil Anibaba was all over the field. He was alert, tough, and showed why he should be in the XI each week – whether it’s at center back or right back.
Austin Berry did a fine job locking up C.J. Sapong all day and has played better during each successive week.
And kudos to Sean Johnson for keeping a clean sheet – his first since the Fire’s 2-0 win in New York last October.
Fun With Chalkboards
Have a look at both squads’ average positioning. Peter Vermes must be pissed. The central point man (#16 Bieler) was behind Chicago’s back line all day but couldn’t get the job done. Austin Berry & Jalil Anibaba put the clamp down on Sporting’s new Argentine DP.
Bricks in the Wall: Berry & Anibaba
While we all want Arne Friedrich to return ASAP, Fire Nation can rest easy that its young center back duo is more than capable of getting the job done against tough opposition.
Combined defensive stats for center backs Austin and Jalil: 1/2 tackles won/lost; 1 block; 5 interceptions; 23 clearances; 9 recoveries; 4 corners conceded.
Sherjill MacDonald: Astoundingly Ineffective
Just look below and ask yourself if this is what a lone striker should be doing. He should have his pay docked.
Stats: successful/unsuccessful passes 8/6; successful/unsuccessful flicks-on 0/3; 1 key pass; 0 shots; 1 successful dribble
Sporting must be bewildered by these numbers. For a draw, they are some of the most lopsided you’ll see. Vermes and his boys will be scratching their heads all week.
- Fouls Committed: 20 CHI/14 SKC
- Yellow Cards: 4 CHI/2 SKC
- Duels Won: 52% SKC/48% CHI
- Total Passes: 609 SKC/220 CHI
- Passing Accuracy: 82%/59% CHI
- Possession: 73% SKC/27% CHI
- SKC had 20 attempts on goal, but only 3 shots on target. This is a testament to Chicago’s stalwart defending.
Peter Vermes, of course, spent most of his afternoon trying to boss the sideline, but all of his barking at the 4th official proved futile. Fire fans should be glad 2012 MLS referee of the year Silviu Petrescu was in charge. I’m afraid the result may not have been so favorable to Chicago had others worn the yellow shirt.
Props to Chicago’s traveling fans. Sector Latino and Section 8 on tour brought the noise. They came through loud and clear during the last 20 minutes of the telecast and made those of us watching at home proud. Did the Cauldron Wiz out? The small band of Fire fans sounded louder when it mattered most.
Reinvented perennial MLS doormats Chivas USA come to town with their always entertaining new head coach Jose Luis “El Chelis” Sanchez Sola. Despite what appears to be a reinvigorated Chivas attack, after showing they can defend on the road and shutout one of the league’s best, Fire Nation will expect nothing less from the Men in Red than a win at Toyota Park next Sunday. Without an additional three points in the bag, Chicago’s imminent two-week break will prove agonizingly long. Sitting on a lone point, or even two on April 7th is not an option.