Dispatch: Chicago Fire (1) at Portland Timbers (1)

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Big Red converts the penalty (photo @ChicagoFire, Twitter)

OTF contributor Daniel Casey reflects on Chicago Fire’s first point of the 2014 season…

It would be wrong to characterize manager Frank Yallop’s decision to change up the line-up for the second match of the season as a ‘shake-up.’ However, it might not be too far off to call it a ‘wake-up call.’ After a lackluster opening day, the Chicago Fire travelled up the west coast from Los Angeles to face the Portland Timbers. There, the opening day starting XI got a major makeover: out were Patrick Nyarko, Dilly Duka (injured), Chris Rolfe (injured), and Juan Luis Anangonó, and in were Harry Shipp, Benji Joya, Matt Watson, and Quincy Amarikwa. The change made more sense than many gave it credit.

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A new week, a new line-up (photo Chicago-Fire.com)

With Mike Magee still not 100% and Chris Rolfe having picked up a knock, Amarikwa found himself moved up the depth chart. Amarikwa being given the start has more to do with his ability to play in conjunction with the midfielder buttressing him than Anangonó’s ability to do so. Anangonó is not a forward who can stand out alone. When he is without an attack partner and/or lacking consistent service from the wings, he will drift back into the midfield and neuter his value. Amarikwa’s game is more dynamic and generative, and as such he has performed well in Yallop’s new system.

Last week against Chivas USA, Rolfe and Anangonó were never able to play as forwards. Each kept having to move deeper into the midfield, creating a situation where wingers Nyarko and Duka were left with no one to provide service. This week, wing play was eliminated from the equation. Even though Shipp and Joya were put out wide, they drifted in and eventually settled on predominately playing in the center of the park. In fact, both Shipp and Joya seemed to drift left of center, leaving nearly all of Chicago’s right side duty to fullback Lovel Palmer.  

The two youngsters on the wings combined with Amarikwa up top to create a high energy first thirty minutes. The narrower formation appeared to lead the Fire to avoid whole patches of the pitch, which may have allowed them to exploit a strength. Soon though, the opposition will realize it can pretty much dominate an entire third of the pitch if such tactics persist.

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Newbie Matt Watson may have found his niche (photo Chicago-Fire.com)

The change of Watson for Rolfe was also significant, which freed Alex from having to drop back into the defensive half of the field. Although he can play deeper, Alex is more attack-minded and effective in the offensive half. Watson was a statistical ghost during the match and this was a good thing. His touches were small in number, but his ability to shepherd opposition players into the necessary lanes and spaces meant his teammates could see more of the field and make better decisions. Watson allowed Alex to play with freedom and took pressure off Larentowicz to have to cover the whole of the midfield.

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Alex excels as an attacking center midfielder (photo Chicago-Fire.com)

It was refreshing and pleasant to see the Fire come out on Sunday and take the match to the opposition. The line-up exuded confidence and was a stark contrast to last week’s team, one that often looked like Charlie from the original Willy Wonka movie — that is, always just about to start crying uncontrollably.

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Still from the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

While the starting XI harried Portland and forced it to surrender a penalty, it failed to score in the run of play. Granted, Timbers ‘keeper Donovan Ricketts played a quality match, but if the Fire youngsters are going to supplant the journeymen, they’ll need to score goals throughout a match (I exempt the goals scored by Joya and Amarikwa last week simply because coming on as a sub is a different context than starting a match). But the simple fact is, Sunday’s was a better team than last week and it gives supporters more optimism going into the home opener this weekend vs. New York.

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OTF Contributor Daniel Casey writes about soccer hoping someday someone will pay him to do so. More of his soccer scribbling can be found at Soccer Newsday. Follow him on Twitter @misanthropester

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