Another Draw, Fire Still at Bottom
After getting bounced from the US Open Cup last Tuesday, what is at stake for the Chicago Fire in the final 13 matches of the MLS regular season? With only 18 points from 21 matches, the climb to get up to the Red Line would have to start immediately. The Fire got nowhere as far as that goal was concerned following a 2:2 draw versus Orlando City at Toyota Park on Sunday. The Fire grabbed the early lead through John Goosens, and then Orlando reversed things to go 2:1 up. The Fire rescued their point late in the second half, thanks to Razvan Cocis. Earning one point at a time is no way to move up in the standings.
Coach Veljko Paunovic reverted to the 3-5-2 formation that had worked well early in the season. He presumably was adjusting his game plan to provide a counter to Orlando superstar Kaka. The plan mostly failed for the 70 minutes or so where Kaka was actively involved in the Orlando attack. Matt Polster got the assignment initially and Kaka handily put him through the wringer in several 1 v 1 situations along the left flank. Johan Kappelhof’ was the next one to take a turn to slow down the Brazilian midfielder. Although Kappelhof might have had a bit more success than Polster, Kaka was still crucially involved in both Orlando scores, notching a goal and an assist.
With the Cup out of the way, Sean Johnson was back in the first 11 and must remain a fixture there if the Fire have any hope whatsoever of making a late, if improbable, run for a playoff spot. Kappelhof was joined by Jonathan Campbell and Eric Gehrig in the back. Khaly Thiam and Cocis patrolled the middle, with Polster and Brandon Vincent as wingbacks. Goosens was inserted into the playmaker’s role, and David Accam and Michael de Leeuw started as twin strikers.
The Fire needed just six minutes to get on the board. Orlando goalie Joe Bendik meekly punched away Accam’s attempt from the left corner of the penalty area. The ball wound up with Polster on the right side and he played the simple ball back to Goosens. With Orlando players slow to engage, Goosens cut loose from beyond 30 yards and beat Bendik with a bouncing shot that nicked the inside of the post before going in. Plenty of blame to share on this goal for Orlando: slow reactions from defenders and from Bendik.
The lead lasted but three minutes. Kaka, with time and space in the middle of the field, lofted a sublime ball into the penalty area for Cyle Larin, who muscled his way past Campbell and poked a shot past the diving Johnson. Campbell was unable to maintain his goal-side position on Larin and the Orlando sniper took the chance like a genuine goalscorer.
The equalizer propelled Orlando into the dominant position on the field. They moved the ball fluidly through Matias Perez Garcia and Kaka, and the Fire were fortunate that they were still able to stay in the game. Kaka terrorized poor Polster on the left wing to the point where the Fire rearranged positions and sent Kappelhof from the middle to the flank. Although the change was meant to blunt Kaka’s effectiveness, having Kappelhof wide put his attacking capabilities to good use. If the Fire had better options in the center of defense than Gehrig or Joao Meira, the team could certainly benefit with Kappelhof at right back.
Orlando’s fluid ball movement was rewarded in the 32nd minute. Garcia played a straightforward ball to the right wing for Servando Carrasco, who whipped a delightful cross into the mixer. The Fire’s marking in the penalty area was beyond atrocious. They outnumbered Orlando 4-3, but Orlando players were the only ones who touched the ball in the sequence. Campbell started out by marking Larin, but inexplicably went out towards the ball. Not surprisingly, Carrasco’s cross went over Campbell’s head, inviting Larin to head home. His attempt beat everyone but the goalpost and Kaka, also unaccounted for by the Fire, tapped in the rebound. Cocis appeared to be marking Kaka when the play unfolded, but never bothered to follow him and Kaka used his experience to be in position for a second ball.
Paunovic reshuffled the deck at halftime. He replaced Thiam with recently signed striker Luis Solignac. This change shifted the Fire into an attack-minded 4-3-3. Polster took Thiam’s place next to Cocis and Vincent slid into his normal fullback slot. Goosens and Accam occupied the wide positions, while de Leeuw dropped into a central midfield role to support Solignac.
Orlando continued to create scoring chances in the second half, but their finishing touch was simply not there. Full credit to the Fire to continue the battle and ensure that they might still get something out of this contest. They notched the equalizer in the 78th minute when Orlando lost their focus on a corner kick. Accam played the ball on the ground for Vincent at the corner of the box. Vincent swung a cross into a dangerous position and Cocis drilled a forceful header into the back of the net to make it 2:2.
Despite dropping two points, the Fire played with commitment and conviction going forward, qualities that were glaringly missing against New England last Tuesday. They got over half of their 19 shots on target and their passing accuracy approached 80%; this is a level of achievement that has rarely been seen this season.
But the errors on defense were too numerous to count. Add some slack marking in midfield into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. The Fire simply allowed Orlando to get far too comfortable as they came forward.