Fire Fail to Seal the Deal, Split the Points
The midweek round in the MLS schedule is the round that every team hates. The Chicago Fire and Los Angeles Galaxy took their turn on Wednesday at Toyota Park and provided an entertaining roller coaster of a match. Both teams played away last Saturday, and it became clear early on that both teams were going to be able to exploit the holes in the opposing defenses. The match ended at 2:2 after quite a bit of see-saw in the 90 minutes. While it was a fair outcome, both teams had evidence that their side should have claimed all three points.
The squad rotation that is inevitable for midweek rounds went far deeper for LA than it did for the Fire. LA coach Bruce Arena left Giovani dos Santos, Nigel de Jong and Ashley Cole on the bench and didn’t even bother to have Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane suit up. On the other side of the field, Fire boss Veljko Paunovic pretty much stuck with the lineup that won 3:0 at Montreal. Khaly Thiam stepped in for the injured Razvan Cocis at holding midfielder, and Arturo Alvarez replaced John Goosens on the right side.
For the second straight match, the Fire demonstrated a willingness to circulate the ball, and that ball movement was instrumental in creating space. On the night, the Fire had eight shots on goal, and one crucial David Accam strike saved by a goalpost. The Galaxy were pretty good at finding the gaps as well and a late wonder strike from Gyasi Zardes was waved off for offside. The Fire’s defense was far from perfect, but they generated enough attacking ideas that they should have scored four goals on the night.
After a fairly quiet opening half hour, the match exploded, with three goals in the span of eight minutes. The Galaxy got things rolling when Jelle van Damme stepped in front of Michael de Leeuw to intercept a pass at the halfway line. Van Damme then galloped through Fire defense unimpeded, leaving the Fire unbalanced and unhinged. He laid off a pass for Mike Magee, who took the ball to the end line before sending a high cross into the middle, A couple of headers later, Zardes blasted home a first-timer from 15 yards. The key to the play was stopping van Damme and the Fire let him run freely for 40 yards.
The Fire did not hang their heads and made an immediate response. LA centerback Daniel Steres cleared the ball short, right to Jonathan Campbell. He sent a floater into the box for de Leeuw. Galaxy goalkeeper Clement Diop came off his line to make a play on the ball, but could only flap at it, leaving it for Arturo Alvarez on the left side of the box. Alvarez did not waste his gift and promptly fired the ball inside the post for 1:1. It was only the second appearance for Diop, whose antics likely won him no favor with his teammates, and might make Arena second-guess himself for not utilizing MLS veteran Dan Kennedy instead.
The Fire kept their foot on the gas and nearly got their reward three minutes later. Striker Luis Solignac carried the play towards the LA penalty area and dished to David Accam on the left side. Accam picked his spot and uncorked a curling, right-footed shot destined for the left post. The ball pinged off the upright, and the rooted Diop was undoubtedly counting his blessings.
Momentum stayed with the Fire and it didn’t take long for the second goal to arrive. Alvarez sent the ball in for Accam on the left side of the box and he headed into the middle for Solignac, positioned just inside the 18-yard line. He was chopped to the ground by van Damme and referee Jose Carlos Rivero whistled the foul immediately. The incredulous van Damme shoved Rivero afterwards and was only shown a yellow card, when a send-off was the obvious punishment. Accam did the honors from the spot, easily slotting past Diop for a 2:1 lead in the 39th minute.
The Fire’s turnabout reaction to going behind was a fantastic response. Earlier in the season, a goal like that might have caused the Fire to deviate from their gameplan and start launching long balls to Accam and the since-departed Kennedy Igboananike. The new Fire (can we call them that?) stuck with continuing their approach of simple soccer and it paid off.
But eight minutes into the second half, the Fire showed how far they still have to go to be a really good team, when they failed to convert a sure scoring opportunity. Matt Polster cleared the ball from his own end of the field into space on the left side into space for Accam, Diop foolishly and brazenly ran far out of his box to clear, but the blazing Accam got there first, and touched the ball into open space. Accam accelerated to goal, as the play quickly became a 2 v 2 with a gaping, unguarded goal. He centered for Solignac, who hesitated as LA defenders regained position. Solignac waited too long, took too many touches, and eventually missed the target altogether. The play had so many possibilities; Accam might have shot the ball early, or Solignac might have gone first-time after receiving Accam’s pass. Converting this golden opportunity could have sealed the outcome for the Fire.
The Galaxy inserted dos Santos into their lineup at the hour mark and he made his presence felt nine minutes later. The Fire were not exactly on their defensive toes as the Galaxy ran straightforward passes from one player to the next. Alan Gordon ran freely along the right side of the area and sent a square pass for the unmarked dos Santos, who slotted home easily from 10 yards out.
This was the kind of a match that clearly showed the difference between an elite team like the Galaxy, and a team trying to break away from a culture of failure, like the Fire. Arena was able to utilize a deep roster to snag a point. His team was playing two road matches in the span of four days and they probably did enough to show that victory was within their grasp. The Fire also weren’t far away from winning. They fell short in putting away an opponent when they had that opponent on the ropes. How quickly the Fire learn these lessons will determine how quickly they will be consistently competitive with the best teams in MLS.