Dispatch: Chicago Fire (2) vs. Montreal Impact (1)
OTF’s Daniel Casey contends the Men in Red are primed for a playoff run…
There was definitely the sense that this weekend’s match against Montreal was going to be a rough one. Many fans seemed to have had a major hangover from the midweek upset loss to DC United in the US Open Cup semifinal. Yet it’s important to remember that excluding that match, the past few weeks have actually been okay.
With the 2-1 win over Montreal on Saturday, Chicago is now half way to a perfect August and has 10 points from a possible 12 since July 20th. Further, Saturday night’s win pulled the Fire up to sixth place in the East and only two points behind Houston for the final playoff spot. A win or a draw this coming weekend against New England will increase the space between the two long time rivals and put pressure on Houston to take full points when they face the now Dempsey-rich Seattle Sounders.
The point is, if the Fire stay focused and pick up points over their next matches, the playoffs will not be wishful thinking, they’ll be a reasonable expectation. We, supporters, need to collectively change our tone. Instead of quibbling, knit picking, trolling, grousing, and lamenting (all of which I am supremely guilty of and if you are not, then I apologize for my sweeping generalization), we need to not just back the team as we have been but we need to contribute to an aura of positive momentum. For the reality of the situation is, Chicago has recently beaten or drawn with nearly every one of the teams ahead of them and has two games in hand against the current top three. The next three matches will determine Chicago’s fate, and they must take away points from each match: Saturday August 17th against New England, Friday August 23rd against Kansas City, and Sunday September 1st against Houston.
Saturday’s line-up could’ve been looked at as being a patchwork or B-team. There was no Mike Magee; there was no Chris Rolfe (starting); there was no Patrick Nyarko. Yet there was new Designated Player signing forward Juan Luis Anangono making his first start, fan favorite Alex slotted into a more attacking role, and captain Logan Pause making his return the starting XI. Given the injuries and fatigue the team was dealing with, manager Frank Klopas put forth not only a rather surprising line-up but also a formation that we’ve not seen in some time, a 4-4-1-1 that often melded into a 4-2-3-1.
The biggest surprise in this line-up and formation was Alex, who when he has been playing as been put in a deeper central midfield role as a kind of deep lying playmaker. On this night against Montreal, Klopas put Alex up front where he could display his playmaking creativity in a much more advanced position that actually seems to suit the player better, and it was the interplay between Alex and Anangono that took centerstage. Although the two weren’t able to link up for a score, they did display a stunningly frenetic pace (which had been completely non-existent with now disfavored target man Sherjjill MacDonald). Anangono needs to have a playmaking partner and excels when a fissure is made for him to exploit, and Alex did his absolute best to not only harry the Montreal backline but to be in positions (or nearly there) to receive the ball from Anangono. It will be interesting to see how Anangono will work with Magee and Rolfe at full strength.
While these two young attackers terrorized the Renaissance Era Italian backline of Montreal, wingers Joel Lindpere and Dilly Duka performed some excellent pincer movements. The results were unassisted goals for both. I have been openly contemptuous of Lindpere this season as he has played poorly and regularly looked as though he no longer had league quality energy or skill. Yet over the last few weeks, Joel Lindpere has made the most of his starts and is beginning to resemble the player we all knew from his best years in New York. Although still not to a point yet where I would feel comfortable with him being the first choice, I have to admit that Lindpere’s performances have been a vital part of Chicago’s season turnaround. I certainly feel that Lindpere is or has gotten himself sorted out. His goal, which took a deflection off Montreal’s newest DP midfielder Hernán Bernardello, came in the sixth minute and ignited the team.
Throwing off the shackles of Wednesday’s loss, Lindpere and company came out with vigor and by scoring first they furthered their league leading stat of being the only team to not lose a point when they score first (the Fire are now 5-0-0 whereas every other team in the league has at least surrendered a draw). Not to be outdone, Dilly Duka, who was moved to the right side of the pitch due the absence of Patrick Nyarko who was held out as a precaution with a concussion essentially, decided to barrel his way through the Montreal defense to give the Fire a firm 2-0 lead just after the twenty minute mark. It can’t be stressed how wonderful to watch Duka’s goal was. Bringing the ball down nearly forty yards out, Duka dribbled past a Bernardello tackle, kept his eye on the ball as it skittered between a confused Nesta and Davy Arnaud, and retrieved it just ahead of a desperate Hassoun Camara to poke the ball into the back of the net. The focus and commitment that Duka showed has to make his score a candidate for goal of the week.
These two goals breathed a whole new life into the team. From the images of Section 8 and the quality of play on the pitch, it was clear that a cloud had lifted. This Chicago Fire team wasn’t in the doldrums; it wasn’t going through the motions; it wasn’t desperately hoping for good luck or that things wouldn’t end up too badly for them. This was a Chicago Fire team that never rested, they didn’t sit back on their heels and let the opposition goad them into making stupid mistakes; there were no mental lapses in this match. It’s wonderful to be able to say that, and it shows us that when the squad keeps its focus for the full 90 minutes they are playoff quality.
Keeping things tight defensively throughout an entire match has been a challenge this season. However, Saturday night the defense stepped up. For the entire match, Jalil Anibaba was able to not only keep pace with forward Sanna Nyassi but consistently stifled his attempts to attack. The one time Nyassi was able to get beyond Anibaba and feed a good ball across the box to a waiting Justin Mapp on the right side, Sean Johnson pounced. With stunning quickness, Johnson not only anticipated the trajectory of the cross but came forward, making himself huge, and fantastically denied Mapp with a brilliant block in the 39th. When Montreal did pull a goal back, it came from a lightning strike that couldn’t be stopped from the foot of substitute Felipe. Yet even though that goal and the subbing in of Marco Di Vaio energized the Impact, it also charged up Chicago. In the 62nd minute, Baky Soumare dished a perfectly timed tackle to deny Nyassi a certain goal scoring opportunity.
Anangono had a solid, if not uninspiring first start. He did last twenty minutes longer than Montreal’s new young DP, but before any call can be made for or against Anangono we’ll need to see him play a full 90 paired with Magee and/or Rolfe. It was Quincy Amarikwa who came in for Anangono and the young forward made the most of his fifteen minutes, nearly giving the Fire a 3-1 lead with an attempted lob over keeper Troy Perkins. Amarikwa would take up the mantle of electrifying persistence on the pitch that Dilly Duka had to relinquish after a sloppy tackle by Felipe sent him to the locker room with a slight ankle knock in the 71st.
Finally, what ensured Chicago the three points on the night was the superb defending of one Chris Rolfe in extra time. With a Montreal corner threatening late, Rolfe took up his place at the near post and stayed there as the cross came in. A bullet header from Matteo Ferrari would’ve been out of Sean Johnson’s reach and in the back of the net if Rolfe hadn’t shown the discipline he did in defending the set piece. With the moment snuffed out, Montreal was out of time.
Although we all experienced a sour dose with the US Open Cup loss, the last two league matches the Fire have played they have won and won confidently. We shouldn’t expect blowouts or all-out dominance when the Fire play, but against a good Philadelphia side and a good Montreal side Chicago stood tall, played hard with enthusiasm, and came out the deserving victor. Right now, the team is on the rise. The additions of Egidio Arevalo “Cacha” Rios, the continued fitness and familiarity that Anangono is developing, and the healing up of Magee, Rolfe, and Nyarko can only augment the team and improve its chances as it faces a gauntlet over the next three weeks.
OTF Contributor Daniel Casey writes about soccer hoping someday someone will pay him to do so. He writes regularly for Soccer Newsday, Soccer Without Limits, Football.com, and now On The Fire. Follow him on Twitter @winslowbobbins