Tactical Notes: Sporting Kansas City Have the Edge Over the Fire
Chicago Fire’s lack of finishing upfront puts a heavy burden on the backline.
The Chicago Fire saw their modest three-game winning streak snapped on Sunday when they dropped a narrow 1:0 decision to Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park. Substitute Paulo Nagamura scored the only goal of the match in the 75th minute.
The match was evenly contested, but it was the home side that showed just a bit more quality. Scoring chances for the Fire were plentiful. Finishing, however, was left wanting yet again. SKC’s backup goalkeeper Tim Melia did a solid job in place of Luis Marin, whom coach Peter Vermes benched following the previous week’s 4:4 goalfest in Houston. Melia proved his worth, registering three saves on the day to keep the Fire off the scoreboard.
Fire boss Frank Yallop made one change to the squad that defeated New York City FC on April 24, replacing suspended midfielder Matt Watson with Chris Ritter. Yallop has used two holding midfielders in most of his starting formations this season. Rookie Matt Polster has improved week to week, and may be as close to being an automatic choice as any player in the lineup. Polster has shown the vital characteristics of a supporting midfielder, ranging from his terrier-like defending to his capable ball distribution once possession has been won.
Finding a similarly adept partner for Polster has proved elusive. The multifunctional Michael Stephens turned in several bright performances before being hacked on to the disabled list thanks to a rough tackle in the Toronto match. Stephens failed to make the 18 on Sunday.
Even though both Razvan Cocis and Victor Perez were on the substitutes list on Sunday, Yallop still preferred the limited Ritter to either of his international options. Ritter’s inclusion may have been due to his being a more capable defender in a tough road encounter than either Cocis or Perez. Given how much time Ritter spent wandering in the middle third of the field trying to find someone to mark, it is hard to see how he could offer more to the team’s effort than either Cocis or Perez.
The match started brightly for both teams, as little time was wasted getting acclimated. The open nature of the affair provided several sparkling moments of creative soccer.
The Fire created three good scoring chances in the game’s first 20 minutes, the best of which was striker Guly do Prado’s shot from just outside the box, following a nifty cut-back move to create space. David Accam and Eric Gehrig were also turned away by Melia’s tidy goalkeeping.
After SKC weathered that flurry, they came into the match with three terrific chances of their own. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber was intimately involved in all three. He combined with Graham Zusi to unlock space in front of the Fire penalty area and later served up two great balls to Dom Dwyer and Kevin Ellis. Dwyer’s free header sailed over the target, but Ellis clearly had the best chance of the contest, with his header clanging off of the crossbar. The play involving Dwyer was especially troublesome for the Fire, as the left side of the defense was a wide-open space. Joevin Jones, who has been an exciting under-the-radar addition to the Fire roster, consistently left this space open for SKC’s wide players.
A scoreless result at the break probably was a comfortable situation for the Fire. They had created a few things at the attacking end and their defensive work was adequate. Despite conceding space in their defensive third, the Fire were pretty untroubled by SKC’s errant shooting.
If the first half resembled a mad scramble for goals, the second half dragged like a tug of war. Neither side displayed the same level of danger in attack, and as things wore on, it became increasingly evident that the outcome would be 0:0, or 1:0 for somebody. Earning a point away from home in a difficult venue like Sporting Park would be a valuable way for the Fire to keep an unbeaten streak alive. Nabbing a late winner would be an even better outcome.
The late winner, however, came for SKC, and was the result of loose marking and apparently poor communication among the Fire’s defenders. The play began innocently enough, with Feilhaber dribbling freely near the halfway line. With no Fire player near enough to close him down, Feilhaber slid the ball inside to Zusi. At this point, the Fire defense is unbalanced. Jones had drifted inside for no good reason and allowed far too much space on the flank. Once the ball found Jalil Anibaba in acres of space, the Fire were completely unglued. Anibaba lofted a simple cross to the far post, where Nagamura was first to the ball and nodded home the decisive goal. Even though Anibaba was deliberate in setting up his cross, neither Gehrig nor Jeff Larentowicz picked up Nagamura, who made easy work of the opportunity.
The inability to put away chances forces the Fire to play a spotless game defensively. It’s anybody’s guess where this finishing quality will be found. None of the players who have been installed at the striker position (Quincy Amarikwa, Kennedy Igboananike and do Prado) have gotten the job done yet.
OTF contributor George Gorecki has been involved at amateur levels of soccer as a player, coach, referee and administrator.