Fire Beat the Elements, Union for First Win
The Chicago Fire prevailed in Saturday’s taffy pull versus the Philadelphia Union at Toyota Park on Saturday, with a single tally from Kennedy Igboananike being the ultimate difference. Nearly every type of weather condition was on display, throwing several obstacles in the way of the two teams, who had to navigate through high winds, cold temperatures, snow, sleet and sunshine. The Fire have yet to put flowing football on display, but they have carved out a three-game unbeaten streak after four weeks of play in MLS.
Coach Veljko Paunovic has been preaching about incremental improvements from one match to the next and the results of his work with the players in training has had a positive effect. After the defensive debacle in the home opener, when New York City FC ran rampant through a porous Fire defense, Paunovic sought to improve the defense. The Fire have conceded just one goal in their last three matches, posting back-to-back shutouts. When the Fire sought to take away the strength of the Columbus Crew attack last game, they conceded acres of possession. Paunovic promised that improving possession was next on his to-do list. Against Philadelphia, the Fire won the possession battle for the first time this season, 54% to 46%. Afterwards, Paunovic stated that the finishing has to get better. One wonders what he will have up his sleeve in training this week.
Paunovic switched gears with his lineup, presenting a four-man backline. Rodrigo Ramos retained his place at fullback, while Michael Harrington returned from suspension, sending Brandon Vincent to the bench. Michael Stephens made his first start, pairing with Matt Polster in midfield. Razvan Cocis was preferred to John Goosens at the playmaker position.
The teams struggled to cope with the swirling wind and a driving snow squall in the first half that left enough snow on the grass to slow the movement of the ball. The high winds might have helped the Fire think more about keeping possession because there would be no value in playing balls in the air in such conditions.
The Union had their best spell of the contest in the late stages of the first half. In the 29th minute, Fabinho lofted a cross into the Fire penalty area. CJ Sapong got between Ramos and Jonathan Campbell and sent a header off of the crossbar. Matt Lampson went full stretch and might have gotten a touch on the ball.
The Union should have gone in front in the 41st minute, as they undressed a group of ball-watching Fire players with a series of one-touch passes that left Sapong open from 15 yards. His shot clanged off of Lampson’s right-hand post. The goalkeeper must have been relieved to get the reprieve.
Philadelphia, undoubtedly incredulous at their bad luck, saw the streak continue at the start of the second half, when Ilsinho’s bomb from the right side rattled the crossbar.
The match changed significantly shortly afterward. Warren Creavalle crunched Cocis with a dirty tackle from behind. It was a foolish challenge for a player who had been booked back in the 13th minute. Referee Silviu Petrescu did not hesitate to send Creavalle to an early shower.
The Fire got the only goal they would need in the 51st minute. They capped off a brief spell of possession along the left flank when Harrington slid a simple pass into the box for Igboananike. The winger easily shed the off-balance Ken Tribbett and knocked the ball just inside the far post. Tribbet overplayed the pass into Igboananike, allowing Igboananike to turn too easily. Tribbett’s positioning displayed a shocking lack of awareness, especially important in a tight game. In the end, it was simple soccer, a simple finish. The Fire need more of this.
Goosens entered the match in the 62nd minute in place of Arturo Alvarez. Goosens played a dynamic 28 minutes, constantly finding open space. His played as though he had been released from a cage and was clearly the best player on the field for those 28 minutes. The Fire’s best period of possession and creation of dangerous chances occurred in the 15 minutes after Goosens’ entry, and it begs the question of why Paunovic did not start Goosens in the center of midfield, sitting just ahead of Polster and Cocis.
He was wrongly denied an assist in the 66th minute, splitting the Union defense with an inch-perfect through pass to Igboananike. The assistant, however, raised his flag, and Igboananike’s bid for a second goal evaporated. Philadelphia’s last defender had kept Igboananike onside and that goal certainly would have put the three points in the bank.
The combination of playing down a man, withering in the foul weather conditions, and having to play into the wind was too much for the Union to overcome and there would be no comeback.
For now, the Fire have been doing whatever it takes to pick up points. These matches are not artistic successes, but the Fire have done well to adjust whatever the opponent at hand presents. The performances might not be memorable in September, but the points will be.