Dispatch: Chicago Fire (1) at Toronto FC (1)
OTF’s Daniel Casey decides if he can’t say anything nice, then…
The Men in Red, Toronto and Chicago, were coming off thumpings delivered by Cascadia (Portland and Seattle). Packed with talent and potential, both Men in Red have consistently found ways to squander their talent, to allow their potential to wane, and to present their increasingly alienated fan bases with an aggressively inferior product. Wednesday night’s match at Toronto’s BMO Field was the chance Chicago needed to get a leg up on the opposition as the battle for the last playoff spot in the East gets hotter. With a win, Chicago would have leaped over the Houston Dynamo and New England Revolution and made fifth place in the Eastern Conference their own. However, the Fire didn’t win and, in fact, looked as though they had no interest in defeating the second worst team in the league.
Before the match began, I made the promise via Twitter that my post-match report would only focus on the positives. By the end of the match, having downed several dark beers, I was in a dark place.
Chicago was without midfield general Arévalo Rios, who had just finished his international duty and was on his way back to his new club. Midfield responsibilities fell to Alex and Jeff Larentowicz, a pairing that has seen some success this season, while the Fire’s attack was driven by the wingers Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko to provide for the stalwart forward pairing of Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee. This personnel in the middle and final third are well acquainted and, one would think by this stage in the season, well-oiled.
However, this starting line-up turned out to merely cancel out Toronto. Possession was 50/50, the number of shot and shots on target were nearly equal (8/3 for Toronto, 9/4 for Chicago), and the number of passes and passing accuracy virtually identical (316, 74% for Toronto; 324, 71% for Chicago). Chicago had a brief and slim advantage between the 15th and 20th minutes wherein the Fire scored its lone goal, but the pendulum quickly swung back to Toronto, who brought the score even in the 23rd minute. Statistically, both teams were so evenly matched that a draw was really the only result that made any sense.
At no point during the match was there any reason to get excited. When the two best performing players for the Fire, Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka, were subbed out at the 56th and 68th minutes respectively, it became clear there wasn’t going to be any fireworks. The draw demonstrated to the entire league and to Chicago’s fan base what the Fire look like when they play their A-squad minus one against the second worst team in the league.
What are the positives? Well, we can certainly say the trades and signings done within the league have been good for the team. Duka, Magee, Larentowicz, and Soumare are permanent and vital pieces to manager Frank Klopas. The Fire has a cache of young players who have held their own, albeit sometimes wobbly, such as Berry, Anibaba, and Alex. It should also be clear that certain players are no longer able to perform as starters but are certainly superb bench options; the question becomes will they accept this. Moreover, while all of this has only gotten the team to a low middling position this season (very similar to where they ended up last season), it should be clear that the core of the team is now set. This is the team you get. This is your Chicago Fire.
Rios was a good addition and hopefully he will stay rather than take the route of hired-gun Sebastian Grazzini (but when he was signed we all knew that Grazzini was a tourist player), and become the Pardo-esque cog the team needs. Perhaps over the off-season a Designated Player will be added to the defense and perhaps the DP added this year to the attacking third, Juan Luis Anangono, will blossom should he ever become fit enough to start. A Designated Player (or virtual DP) in every third of the field might just be the kick Chicago needs to move from a low middling team to a firmly middling team.
There are seven matches remaining for Chicago. The possibility they could make the playoffs still lingers, however slim. This weekend against New England is an absolute must-win. If Chicago doesn’t beat the Revolution on Saturday or only manage a draw, they will fail to make the playoffs. Yet, even a win against New England only means the Fire must then win the following week against Columbus and win again on September 28 against Montreal. If Chicago doesn’t take the remaining nine points in the month of September, then their season will have been a complete failure.
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