Fire Finished in Cup; Now What?
The Chicago Fire made their record 12th appearance in the US Open Cup semifinals on Tuesday and it was a match they would probably like to forget. The opponents were the New England Revolution, who came after the Fire right at the jump. They quickly gained control of the match and the Fire spent the evening playing catch-up. The Revs were up 2:1 at the break and did a fine job of killing the game off in the second half. A late tally put the wraps on yet another road defeat for the Fire.
A lot has been written in this space about squad management as Cup matches pop up on the schedule. Every team deal with it in their own way, and how well they deal with it is entirely dependent on the quality that exists within their player pool. Coach Veljko Paunovic did some shuffling last Saturday versus Real Salt Lake with an eye on getting the starting 11 just right for the semifinal. With Michael Harrington in that lineup, and with Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent on the bench, did Paunovic get his starting 11 correct?. Paunovic also stuck with his decision to retain Matt Lampson in goal, despite some recent shaky performances in league matches. Lampson had done the job in the Fire’s three victories in the Cup, although two of the wins came against NASL teams. The third win was over Columbus, barely sitting higher than Chicago in the MLS standings. Lampson was not seriously tested in any of those matches; the semifinal would be another story. The Fire’s lineup was as strong as it could be in the other positions; could they pass the test and reach the final?
Sadly, the Fire failed on many fronts. Once they got behind, the struggle became even more difficult, as they are not a team built for making comebacks. Their best attacking option off the bench was rookie Joey Calistri. The Fire are a team begging for an attacking midfielder who can pull the strings and make the engine go. This has been a massive, gaping hole in the Fire’s player pool for a long time.
The Fire put themselves on the back foot because of their inability to maintain ball possession. And this does not mean an elaborate and complex movement of the ball in the manner of Barcelona’s style of play. The Fire failed to do the comparatively simple task of stringing three passes together. Every Fire possession appeared to rapidly morph into a New England possession. New England have the most porous defense in MLS, but you could hardly tell by the way the Fire tried to attack it.
New England got on the board after just 16 minutes, thanks to a foolish and naive foul by Rodrigo Ramos, which led to a penalty kick. Kelyn Rowe had received a pass in the nether reaches of the penalty area and his first touch took made him turn to the outside. Ramos reached out and whacked Rowe on the ankle, making the decision for referee Edvin Jurisevic an easy one. Kei Kamara buried the penalty kick and the uphill climb for the Fire just got steeper.
Afterwards, Paunovic commented on the lack of experience of some of his players as a contributing factor to the team’s problems. Paunovic demonstrated quite clearly to Ramos what he thought of his performance by subbing him out at halftime in favor of Vincent.
The Fire had their best spell of the match in the final 15 minutes of the first half. They were finally able to locate David Accam out on the left wing, and he left a few skid marks on the backs of Revs defenders.
The Fire scored an unlikely equalizer in the 40th minute. Michael de Leeuw did a terrific job of holding the ball in heavy traffic at the top of the New England penalty area. He slipped a pass into the tightest of spaces for Accam, who darted in and went directly to goal. One fake later, he deftly fired a shot inside the post with the outside of his right foot after a couple of Revs bit on his fake.
The celebrations had barely died down, however, before the Revs regained the lead. The Fire failed to gain control of a New England corner kick, with the ball deflecting off of the head of Razvan Cocis and finding Je-Vaughn Watson inside the Fire goal area. Watson poked the ball home with a neat header. No Fire defender reacted quickly enough and Lampson stayed back on his line during the frenzy in front of his goal.
The goal could not have come at a worst time for the Fire. They had worked hard to craft an equalizer and could legitimately look forward to making tactical adjustments in the second half to turn their fortunes around. To go behind again undid all of that effort.
The Fire were fortunate to be down just one goal going into the break. The Revs had created several opportunities for good shooting positions and were let down by their poor marksmanship. The Fire defense often seemed to be a step behind as New England sought to penetrate. The most egregious gaffe came from Lampson, who incorrectly gauged Kamara’s closing speed on a backpass, and nearly conceded an embarrassing goal. Rather than simply blast the ball to midfield on the first touch, Lampson chose to settle the pass before kicking it away. Kamara came hard and fast to block Lampson’s clearance and was unlucky when the ball rolled wide of the post. Although it is common for coaches to give the backup goalie a run in Cup matches, it is maddening that Paunovic did not utilize his best goalkeeper in a match that he termed as the most important of the season.
The second half resembled more of a taffy pull than a soccer match. The Fire were in the position of having to push things to go level again, but they hardly did anything to put pressure on the New England defense. The Revs did what they needed to do to maintain their advantage. Bringing in Vincent for Ramos might have solved a defensive problem, but did nothing to make the Fire more dangerous going forward. Polster came on for Thiam with 24 minutes left, also with little effect on the Fire offense.
A late goal by Teal Bunbury sealed the outcome, but the Fire were never much of a threat on the New England goal.
Afterwards, Paunovic credited New England with being the better team. He also seemed resigned to the fact that his team is simply not good enough: “ …this is the best we can do at this point and we learn from everything.” If this is the best that the Fire can do, then they are in a world of trouble. A toothless offense requires a flawless defense in order for a team to be competitive.
And what of the rest of the season? If the Fire can’t play any better than this, they might as well capitulate and admit that only a miracle would get them above the Red Line this season.
The offer of a 10% discount on 2017 season tickets that arrived in my Inbox the other day is not particularly enticing at this time.