Dispatch: Chicago Fire vs. Red Bull New York
OTF Editor Scott Fenwick takes a closer look at Chicago’s timely 3-1 victory over the pink cows…
Those of you who still read the Sunday morning Chicago Tribune sports page (or perhaps follow the #cf97 hashtag on Twitter) were treated to this snarky blurb on Sunday morning:
In a parody of the Chicago Blackhawks “One Goal” marketing campaign, the folks at the Trib decided to have a bit of fun at a struggling team’s expense, to kick them while they were down.
This funny business perhaps wouldn’t have irked Fire Nation so much if the Trib devoted such graphic coverage to the club on a regular basis, no matter its form. Thing is though, they don’t.
But we all got our just desserts in the end. A national television audience witnessed a tough, gritty, admirable performance by the Men in Red against a talented, high-profile opponent
The clash with Eastern Conference rival New York turned out to be what Man of the Match Daniel Paladini called “the most fun I’ve had in a long time.” And while he and his fellow Fire man Maicon Santos (pictured above) led the Fire to victory with goal after goal after goal, Chicago Tribune ate crow.
Saturday marked my first jaunt into the Toyota Park press box. After lounging with fellow journos and munching the free buffet, I saw ESPN Analyst Taylor Twellman in the john. He was checking his hair and straightening his tie while I drained three cups of coffee from my system.
We chatted a bit – especially about Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald. I gave him some inside dope on the Fire as he entered the broadcast booth, and he was quite appreciative. Nice guy. Sharp dresser too.
Once the lineups squaked out over the walkie-talkies from the tunnel, a surprising, patchwork XI was revealed: a 4-4-1-1 w/ Wells Thompson once again at right back, Paladini on the right wing, and Hunter Jumper slotted at left back.
Needless to say, this announcement didn’t instill confidence in anyone – except perhaps the squad itself. Who knew what to expect from a Chicago team that was, by all measures, worst in the league? One thing’s for sure: nobody expected a win. And for the few who did, it was whimsical prayer that tapped into what little hope they still had left in the Fire.
In his 100th MLS appearance, Joel Lindpere had his motor running out on the left wing and darted between the flank and the center, craftily looking to create.
As usual, and to no avail, the Fire tried to generate offense early with the ‘ol dump and chase. Not a lot of balls played on the ground going forward by either side. Yawn.
After poor set piece defending by the Fire, big man Jamison Olave marked his second goal of the MLS campaign in the 17th minute with a half-bicycle kick volley. The Men in Red got out-muscled as the ball bounced around off RBNY heads long enough to allow the New York center back to line up a brilliant shot while Jalil Anibaba ball-watched. Sean Johnson hadn’t a prayer.
And then the collective psychic lament permeated Fire Nation, “Here we go again.”
Chicago continued to win duels in the midfield and controlled the majority of the possession, but just couldn’t create triangles in the offensive third. Hunter Jumper, especially, couldn’t manufacture combination play on the ground with Joel Lindpere while pushed up on the left flank.
After Sherjill MacDonald’s nice run down the left and fine cross, Jeff Larentowicz gave the Fire hope after he unleashed a shot from the top of the arc that found the hand of defender Jonathan Steele in the box.
But Chicago was foiled by Chris Rolfe’s astounding missed penalty, which momentarily seemed to embody the Fire’s upside down season. Rarely does an off-target penalty shot go wide of the frame; it usually skies the crossbar.
Cue the collective sigh, head-shaking, and mouth gapes.
RBNY seemed content to sit back, concede possession, and let a frustrated Fire side wear itself out.
Their complacency would hurt them before the whistle.
Fortune smiled on the Fire, as Juninho broke free on the counterattack and placed a beautiful cross for Peguy Luyindula who, after great run, failed to put the ball on frame.
Sean Johnson kept Chicago in the game with a couple of fine saves: one off an on-target header from Dax McCarty, the other a kick save on Luyindula after a Red Bull counterattack.
And then the Fire’s entire 2013 season began to change.
Just before the whistle, Hunter Jumper, making his first career MLS start, launched a long cross into the New York box. The ball hanging in the air, Luis Robles, sun in his eyes, misread it. But a tenacious, hustling Daniel Paladini read the wind perfectly and rose up to make the New York ‘keeper pay.
1-1 and hope returned to Toyota Park with what Sherjill MacDonald later called “a huge confidence booster” going into the second half.
Sean Johnson made his third (and last) save early on with a punch deflection on a direct shot from Luyindula. New York would truly threaten only once more.
Heavy touches continued to mark a lackluster performance from Chris Rolfe, but his failings were mitigated by strong play from Joel Lindpere.
Thierry Henry came on to (surprising) cheers from the sparse crowd, only to be immediately hacked down from behind by fellow European Sherjill MacDonald. Mackie came off shortly afterwards, hanging his head while eventual star Maicon Santos trotted onto the pitch.
And then, danger from Henry. The Frenchman had Sean Johnson beat at the far post and launched a rocket that clanged off the frame. Chicago dodged a bullet.
With about ten minutes remaining, neither side looked like they would manage to generate a winner. Despite controlling possession during the second half, New York looked incoherent. The Fire seemed like they’d simply try to hang on for the draw. But then Striking Overlord Mike Sanders showed up to the party.
Apparently, Maicon Santos had grown weary of his scoring drought. After 899 minutes without a goal, the Brazilian forward decided he’d like two, and Daniel Paladini would abide.
In the 81st, with the Fire on a counterattack, Paladini wrestled the ball out of the midfield, took it on the break through the middle, and threaded an exquisite pass to the streaking Santos on his left.
With only Jamison Olave to beat, Maicon slightly hesitated, made the big New York center back over commit, set himself up with this left foot, and neatly flicked it past Robles.
2-1 Fire and Brazilian dance moves ensued. Estonian ones too.
And if that wasn’t enough, in the 89th minute, Daniel Paladini, about 40 yards out, launched a fine direct free kick into the box to Jeff Larentowicz.
Big Red, backtracking toward the touchline, read the ball perfectly and headed it across the box, past Markus Holgersson, and onto the foot of the waiting Maicon for an easy tap-in at the near post.
3-1 Fire, more dancing, and the first victory of 2013 was locked up.
Bravo to the gaffer Frank Klopas and his Men in Red. They wanted it more on Sunday and it showed.
Sure, it’s only one win. Plus, the New York side was poor and lackluster. And yeah, facing three of the four top teams in the Eastern conference in an upcoming thirteen-day stretch now places some formidable mountains in Chicago’s way. The product’s still not good enough, and the Men in Red have steps to climb everyday.
But dammit, right now, let our Fire Love lift us up where we belong!
PLAY THE MUSIC!
Last fall, U.S. Soccer legend Eric Wynalda told me that Daniel Paladini was the “most underrated player in MLS.” Well, perhaps no longer.
Sunday was the kid’s coming out party in front of a national television audience on ESPN versus a big MLS club. Paladini was superb, and with a goal and two assists he certainly warrants consideration for MLS Player of the Week honors.
After the win, I asked captain Logan Pause about Paladini’s spark.
Pause: “I think he’s a fantastic player; I’ve said that and I’ve believed that since he walked in the door. I’m so happy for the kid that his hard work and determination is really paying off. It’s been a tough couple of years trying to get into the lineup and I think he’s playing the best soccer of his career right now, and obviously creating and producing. Today he was fantastic.”
Fantastic indeed. Frank Klopas cannot possibly leave Paladini out of the starting XI at this point – even with a full-strength roster. With Daniel’s performance thus far this season, the gaffer’s got some tough calls to make in the midfield.
Before Sunday, forward Maicon Santos hadn’t netted an MLS goal in 879 minutes. Thanks to Paladini, the Brazilian’s scoring drought ended in epic fashion. Santos’s brace electrified a Toyota Park crowd and sent fans home happy and hopeful.
Santos on the first goal: “It was a nice assist. Everyone expects me to shoot the ball. It was a nice goal.”
On his second: “Yeah, we have practiced that every morning, every day. Sending in crosses from far post and finding people to send it to goal.”
Practice makes perfect then. We’ll take it.
Maicon’s history is one of a streaky goal-scorer, so look for him to get more minutes vs. Houston.
Unsurprisingly, Logan Pause and Jeff Larentowicz combined to assert an effective, veteran presence in the Chicago midfield. The pairing of Big Red and Wolverine looks like a good one and should stay. I asked them about their time together on the pitch Sunday.
Pause: “I think Jeff and I have had a good understanding. We had a really good two weeks of training. Getting on the same page and getting back to the fundamentals of what we know we’re about and what it takes to win…I’d like to think my presence helped, but it was a great, fantastic team effort.”
The Fire captain happily added, “What a great way to get three points against a conference rival at home. I think we were dynamic and hard to play against.”
Larentowicz: “[Logan’s] a guy that’s been in the league a long time. Sometimes its easy to play with guys who know how to play, and Logan’s one of those people. Everyone looks to him as the leader of the team, the person to get direction from, and today he did that.”
Sherjill MacDonald had a decent afternoon. He picked up his game a bit on Sunday. But here’s the rub: expectations seem to continually fall each week. Let’s be honest, the guy’s been average at best the past two games.
Here’s what Chicago’s Dutchman had to tell me:
“The first half was a big battle, especially with Olave. He’s a very strong guy. I think we played a very good first half. [At halftime, Klopas] told me to do the same thing in the second half as I did in the first half: try to run the channels, try to be strong, try to do some physical duels with the two center backs. I feel like in MLS, the first half is very hard because everybody plays close, and then slowly the games open up.”
“I’m just happy we won. We had a very good week of training, so I had a good feeling going into the game.”
Fine. But most folks seem to want to either ignore or deny the Fire’s DP is playing hurt.
“I feel great. [But] at the end, [my calf] tightened up. But it’s something I have to deal with. I don’t think about it. There’s definitely a Compartment Syndrome, so the only thing to do to fix it is minor surgery. But at the moment, we don’t have the time to do it.”
“Basically, I only have pain in the warm-up, but when I get through it, it’s okay. At the end of the game sometimes, it gets very tight. These are the moments when I truly have a problem. I think, during the game, I’m okay.”
“[I] have to think about [my] calf everyday, so it’s a mental thing also. Everyday, I’m doing all the stuff to maintain it. As long as I keep doing that, it’s not going to get worse.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t. Because if the club plans to move him during the summer transfer window, they may be forced to sell damaged goods.
Frank Klopas felt Joel Lindpere had a “fantastic game” out on the left wing. I woudn’t go that far, but the Estonian certainly put in a good, hard-working shift for 90 minutes. Injuries forced Lindpere from the center out onto the flank on Sunday, but as I’ve harped many times, that’s where he belongs – no matter the health of his teammates. There are better options in the middle. Lindpere is more effective on the left.
Lindpere on being slotted into the left wing position: “It’s not my first choice but I was going in even on the right side many times. If you can rotate and have freedom I think with the creative players we have, if we can rotate and cover each other and change positions, then it should be no problem.”
I asked Lindpere whether he’d be okay playing on the left in the future if the team’s at full strength and results like Sunday’s continue to come. “Then I gotta switch a lot with Chris and Danny during the game. We’re gonna rotate as much as we can so I can stay in the middle more.”
Sounds like a plan. Hopefully the gaffer will make it happen.
Call me crazy, but if Klopas and Lindpere can agree to disagree that he’s a center mid, and Joel’s cool with Sunday’s arrangement going forward, I like the following 4-2-3-1 if Chicago’s at full strength come Sunday:
What Chicago would have is Patty, Joel, and Danny floating interchangeably, trying to create chances for and with Maicon and each other. Tasty.
And yes folks, you read it correctly, this formation has Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald on the bench. I think their respective performances thus far this season call for it.
For Klopas, a 4-2-3-1 should be the go-to formation right now, with a more dynamic, attacking 4-3-3 as plan B.
Fun With Chalkboards & Heat Maps
Frank Klopas employed what looked on paper to be a 4-4-1-1. Unsurprisingly though, with the insertion of Logan Pause into the midfield, Klopas’s tactics were 4-2-3-1, and with Lindpere and Paladini on the wings, quite a narrow one at that. Have a look at the average positioning chart below (aside from #21 Vidiera) and you’ll see for yourself:
Larentowicz & Pause: Bossing the Midfield
For the first time this season, veteran midfielders Logan Pause and Jeff Larentowicz were paired in the center of the pitch. With Pause’s return, Larentowicz, never known as a true “destroyer” or “clean-up” type of midfielder, was able to slot into the more comfortable role of a box-to-box center mid. Pause, in turn, plyed his trade at his familiar D-mid position. Check out their heat maps:
Joel Lindpere: Return of the Estonian Rocky
Give it up to Joel Lindpere. While his stat line isn’t necessarily pretty, the guy has a motor on him. Joel never gives up and is an insufferable nuisance to his opponents, seemingly appearing out of nowhere at times to wreak offensive havoc or make a defensive stop. Slotted at left wing, you’ll see below how he likes to float into the middle, and at times, switch up with the right winger:
Jumper, Paladini, Larentowicz, and Santos: Goal! Goal! Goal!
Perhaps most satisfying of all, here’s the chalkboard that made the difference:
- Duels won = CHI 57%/RBNY 43% The Fire fought hard for the ball, especially in midfield.
- Fire passing accuracy = 73% Chicago must work harder in training and get this number at or above 80%.
- RBNY was offside a whopping ten times, five in each half.
- 11 = the number of consecutive times New York has left Chicago without a win.
- Attendance = 12,557 Sad to see for ESPN’s MLS Game of the Week, but if the Fire keep playing hard and improving, this too shall rise.
Gonzalo Segares was out of the lineup Sunday. He tweaked something at training on Friday, but told reporters that it’s a minor injury. Expect him to be back vs. Houston.
And speaking of injured defenders, it appears Arne Friedrich’s return is imminent.
Klopas after the match on Ze German: “Arne has been training. I think he looks really good unless there are setbacks. With Houston, we will take it a day at a time. [Arne] trained today even with the guys who didn’t suit up – Dilly and Patrick. I’m hoping Tuesday he will be full-go with the team.”
Big challenges lie ahead for Chicago. In succession, they must face three of the top four teams in the East: Houston (away), Columbus (home), and Montreal (away). Given the quality of these opponents, Sunday’s victory over New York was crucial.
Psychologically, the Men in Red would have been loathe to embark upon this part of the schedule while still harboring doubts about their capacity to score goals and win. They need not look back now, and must continue to work on health, fitness, and finding the right tactical formula to bring themselves back to where they should be: jockeying for position at the top of the conference table.