Fire Outduel Timbers, Settle for Point

CHI v POR 05-28-2016

(Photo courtesy Chicago Fire Soccer Club)

The Chicago Fire reached the one-third point of the 2016 season on Saturday and probably played their best soccer so far in a taut 1:1 draw with the Portland Timbers at Toyota Park. The goals were separated by just a couple of minutes of action in the first half, but the Fire seemed to be the more hungry of the two sides to grab all three points. They are still missing consistency in the finishing third, but they are at least creating chances to finish, a quality that was frequently missing in these first 12 matches.

The Fire played a balanced game at both ends of the field and really were a good bet to bring home a victory. Portland’s lone tally was the result of a poor defensive error, and the Fire had several good scoring situations of their own. They were either rebuffed by some glittering goalkeeping from Jake Gleeson, or were let down by strange decisions on passing and shooting in front of goal.

Coach Veljko Paunovic kept his defensive alignment the same in his 4-3-3, but added Joao Meira into the midfield to partner with Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster. David Accam returned from suspension and started up front with Kennedy Igboananike and Arturo Alvarez.

Fire lineup 2015-05-28

Paunovic commented afterwards that his desire for the Fire to control the middle of the field prompted him to go with three holding midfielders. His decision to leave Khaly Thiam on the bench was curious, because Thiam is able to contribute box to box better than anyone on the Fire roster. And with the Copa America break looming, would not a match against the reigning MLS champions be the best time to use the best items in the toolbox? Thiam eventually came on in the middle of the second half and caused the Timbers plenty of problems.

Paunovic’s midfield dd execute his tactics brilliantly. Both Polster and Cocis were highly active and kept the ball moving. The Fire only had glimpses of flowing football, but they no longer displayed an over-reliance on long balls to speedy forwards.

On the other side, the Timbers gave the Toyota Park faithful a look at what possession soccer is all about Midfield maestro Diego Valeri held the conductor’s baton and was always probing for opportunities to get the ball into dangerous spaces. Between Valeri and his central partners of Diego Chara and Ben Zemanski, the Timbers easily moved the ball from wing to wing. The Fire rarely tried to force things by pressing the Portland backliners, and it was just as well, because the team is well trained and highly committed to making the ball do the work.

All of this amounted to Portland holding a significant possession advantage, 57%-43%. But the Fire held their ground, as all of Portland’s possession resulted in just eight shots, and only two of found the target. Part of Portland’s offensive impotence can be ascribed to Fanendo Adi being limited to a substitute’s role and having to rely on MLS journeyman Jack McInerney to supply the goals. Lucas Melano, usually a dangerous attacker, was barely heard from all night.

Portland took the lead in the18th minute, when Valeri pounced on a miskicked clearance by Rodrigo Ramos. Gleeson had blasted a long punt downfield and Ramos tried to send the ball away on the bounce, with Valeri giving chase. Ramos misplayed it badly, sending it straight up into the air. Valeri seized on the opportunity, controlling the ball and sprinting past Ramos, who was draped all over his back, but could not contain him. Valeri’s simple side-foot shot found Sean Johnson’s left-hand post as the goalkeeper came hard to cut off Valeri’s angle. Ramos commendably did his best to get the ball downfield, but that situation calls for a safety-first approach. Knocking the ball out for a throw-in would have effectively neutralized the situation.

The Fire’s young defenders are learning some hard lessons on the job about managing risk. Jonathan Campbell’s ill-fated pass to no one versus the Red Bulls was a costly mistake that contributed to defeat. Turnovers in the defensive end of the field can have devastating consequences.

The Fire roared right back and leveled the affair two minutes later. They wrapped up a sustained period of possession in front of the Portland penalty area with Meira lofting a ball from the right flank to Igboananike, positioned deep on the left side of the area. He sent a square pass for Accam inside the six-yard box and the winger made no mistake, side-footing a one-timer past the sprawled Gleeson. Meira’s ball unbalanced the Portland defense. Nat Borchers was paying attention to Accam at first, but lost him when the ball found Igboananike. It was a simple matter to get the ball to Accam’s feet.

The Fire were the better team in the second half and they put the visitors on the back foot for much of the first 15 minutes. They nearly got their reward in the 64th minute. Accam ran down a long pass on the left wing, got around Borchers with a bit of a push in the back, and centered for Igboananike. The striker had Gleeson lined up from 15 yards, but Gleeson dove full stretch to push the ball wide.

The Fire’s defense was dominant, allowing Portland just one shot in second half, and none on target after Valeri’s goal. The Fire have conceded 14 goals in their 12 matches, a total only bested by Colorado’s ten goals against.

Is the Fire’s attack coming together? They finished the night with 80% passing accuracy,and  72% in the final third of the field. Early in the season, the Fire were borderline inept at even creating shooting situations. There’s still a lot of work to be done; Accam’s goal was the Fire’s tenth of the campaign. As the last team in the league to break into double figures in scoring, putting away chances remains the Fire’s top item on their to-do list over the Copa America break.

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