NYC Leave Fire Defense In Tatters

2016-09-23-nyc-v-chi

(Photo courtesy nycfc.com)

It took only a New York minute for NYCFC to take total control over the Chicago Fire in Friday’s match at Yankee Stadium. In those brief seconds, a scoreless match became 2:0 for NYC, and the two punches to the gut left the Fire on the canvas. They spent the remainder of the match searching for answers and wound up finding few, leaving New York 4:1 losers. For anyone who watched this match with eyes open, it was evident that the final score very much flattered the Fire.

Sure, the Fire had a spell of positive soccer in the latter part of the first half, and yes, Luis Solignac’s balletic header to bring the Fire to within 2:1 might have given the most dreamy-eyed optimists a sliver of hope. But NYC had been plowing through the Fire defense right from the jump, and only some poor shooting and several important Sean Johnson interventions prevented the score from reaching epically embarrassing proportions.

The match once again underscored the abject shallowness of the Fire’s player pool. When coach Veljko Paunovic puts out his best 11 and they are playing on song, he has a pretty good MLS team on his hands. Any deviation from that best 11 and their top form puts the Fire in jeopardy. On Friday, Paunovic was without the services of John Goosens, who was still recovering from a back problem. At least that decision was out of Paunovic’s hands. He did, however, choose to put Rodrigo Ramos and Michael Harrington into his back four and leave Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent on the bench. The insertion of Ramos and Harrington at the fullback positions also meant shifting Johan Kappelhof into the middle. Kappelhof is fully capable of taking care of centerback responsibilities, but he is far more useful on the right than anyone on the Fire roster.

Those lineup choices proved decisive, as both Ramos and Harrington were overmatched. Paunovic presumably had a plan in mind for the last two games of the road trip, in Seattle on Wednesday and in Columbus on October 1 and was doing the same lineup shuffle all MLS coaches must do when there are midweek matches on the schedule. If the quality in the Fire player pool is this weak, General Manager Nelson Rodriguez has a lot more work to do this offseason than he originally planned. Getting a couple of stud Designated Players would be a good start; adding depth players is almost as important, because it’s clear that the Fire cannot compete with this bunch.

Ramos had not played since his debacle of a performance versus New England in the US Open Cup semifinal in August. The rust on his game was evident and his positioning errors were numerous. Harrington reprised the ineptitude that has been on display from him all season. Can Patrick Doody be so bad that he doesn’t even merit a sniff of playing time over a player whose skills are so far away from MLS level and whose lack of effort is so appalling? Harrington was a player no one else wanted after his release from Colorado, and he now pollutes the Fire roster.

Harrington was primarily at fault for New York’s opener, off of a corner kick in the eighth minute. Khiry Shelton planted himself underneath a lob to the far post and headed the ball across the face of goal, where it was eventually punched in from close range by Jefferson Mena. Harrington got a good look at the ball as it floated in towards the Fire goal because that’s all he was looking at. His failure to do something so fundamental to defensive soccer should disqualify him from any future appearances for the Fire.

A Fire turnover in the defensive end opened the doors for striker David Villa just moments later. The Fire’s defenders reacted poorly after the turnover and Villa converted easily past Johnson from 16 yards. Befuddled and flummoxed, the Fire were desperately searching for a life preserver.

They managed to stave off any further breaches of their goal, but at that point was there was no feeling that the Fire were somehow back in the game. NYC kept up the pressure and it seemed that a third goal would send the Fire’s house of cards tumbling into disarray.

Solignac put a temporary stop to the onslaught in the 35th minute. Arturo Alvarez squeezed out some space on the right flank and floated a delicious ball eight yards in front of NYC goalie Josh Saunders. Solignac was unmarked and sent a twisting header into the back of the net.

The Fire absolutely needed to maintain no worse than that 2:1 scoreline into the break, at which point they could regroup. Naturally, they conceded yet again, when NYC raced downfield on the counterattack after having cleared a corner kick. Four Fire defenders could not contain three NYC attackers and Steven Mendoza drove a curling shot past Johnson to make it 3:1 in the 44th minute.

Paunovic had a chance to right some wrongs in his lineup at halftime, but chose to stand pat instead. Ramos lasted until the 58th minute, but was replaced by Campbell. All that move accomplished was to allow Kappelhof to come out wide, but did nothing to help the Fire cut into that daunting two-goal deficit. Harrington apparently was doing well enough on the night to earn an 84-minute shift.

Most of the second half played out like a pick-up game. The Fire were never able to figure out New York’s attack, while the Fire’s offense failed to take advantage of the poor positioning of NYC’s defenders and the fumble-fingers of Saunders. Luckily for the Fire, NYC only managed to dent the net one more time.

There are three words to sum up this Fire team: not good enough.

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