Fire Clinch MLS Basement

(via Washington Post)

(Courtesy Washington Post)

While presiding over one of the worst teams in the history of Major League Baseball, manager Casey Stengel asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” It would have been an apt to question to ask of the Chicago Fire’s performance on Sunday versus DC United. DC controlled the match from the outset and then pounded home three goals in rapid succession in the second half to complete the packaging on a 4:0 laugher. The result assures that the Fire will finish 2015 as the worst team in Major League Soccer.

The Fire’s defense has been their weakest quality this season and the very worst aspects of that defending were on full display in this match. New General Manager Nelson Rodriguez has a very big job on his hands. Just lifting this team out from the muck of mediocrity would be an improvement. Talking about making the Fire competitive again seems like a far-off dream at the moment.

Although it was obvious quite some time ago that the Fire had no chance of qualifying for the playoffs, teams in this position still have a lot to play for. Any player on this roster whose contract is not guaranteed for next season should have looked at the last six weeks of the season as an audition for the new boss. Based on what happened against DC, a lot of players shouldn’t be expecting to get a callback.

Coach Brian Bliss must have liked what he saw in his team’s bounce-back against New England on October 3, so he trotted out the same starting 11. Unfortunately, the quality in the first half versus DC was similar to what was seen versus the Revolution. The attack appeared to be listless and stuck in neutral. In the midfield, the Fire looked like they were content to let DC knock the ball around at will. And so, DC settled in comfortably and the Fire sat back and waited for something to happen.

That “something” happened in the 39th minute, when Razvan Cocis, hustling in from behind to dispossess Chris Rolfe, serendipitously knocked the ball into the path of Chris Pontius. Neither Jeff Larentowicz nor Joevin Jones had the proper angle to close down Pontius, who sprinted into the box and scored on a sharp-angle attempt. During the build-up, Larentowicz, Jones and Lovel Palmer are basically positioned in a straight line and cannot readily defend the space behind them. When the unfortunate touch by Cocis plays Pontius into the dangerous space, Larentowicz is caught unaware and Jones simply gets outrun to the ball by Pontius.

After such a desultory first half, Bliss could hardly have been blamed if he injected some life into his squad by making a change or two. He chose to stay the course until it was too late and the Fire got no closer to scoring a goal.DC assumed full control in the 67th minute and the Fire looked like complete amateurs trying to defend a corner kick. Fabian Espindola served up a beautiful cross for Bobby Boswell, who struck an open header from eight yards out. Boswell shook off the loose marking of Daneil Cyrus to create some space. Cocis made a late attempt to challenge Boswell, but he was not nearly close enough to intervene. At the professional level, this is simply not good enough.

The downtrodden Fire slumped to a 3:0 deficit just four minutes later when Espindola’s shot from the left side of the box stranded goalkeeper Jon Busch after a slight deflection sent the ball skidding inside his near post. If not for bad luck, the Fire would have no luck at all.

Behind by three goals, the Fire lost their will to fight back. DC took full advantage in the 80th minute. Espindola, dribbling easily through the left-wing channel, crosses the ball towards the right side of the box. Alvaro Saborio heads the ball straight up into the air and it winds up at the feet of the unmarked Sean Franklin at the top of the box. Franklin fires away and Cyrus steps up to block. The ball ricochets high into the air, back to Saborio, who flicks it over the onrushing Busch. It was amateur hour on defense again for the Fire, who had five players in their penalty area to mark three DC players. At no point were any Fire players able to get to the ball first.

The match highlighted so many of the Fire’s many fundamental problems. When the defending is this poor, it is difficult to score enough goals to compensate. Indeed, the Fire’s 56 goals against this season are tied for the league-worst with Toronto FC. Interestingly, Toronto have scored 57, which leads MLS. The biggest difference between Toronto and the Fire is that Toronto have league MVP candidate Sebastian Giovinco on their team. All Giovinco has done is score 22 goals and has assisted on 15 others. The Fire’s top three scorers COMBINED have one more goal than Giovinco.

And when the defense is bad, then the midfield play suffers because of a tendency to want to clear the ball out of constant danger, rather than build an attack.

And when the attack cannot be built patiently and methodically, strikers get left on an island, and wind up being outnumbered by opposing defenders.

There is no area on this team that cannot use improvement. Mr. Rodriguez, it’s in your hands now.

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