Basement Door About to Close on Fire
The Fire ended their three-game swing away from Toyota Park on Saturday in desultory fashion, a 3:0 defeat to the Columbus Crew in a match that felt as though the deficit was much bigger. Last place in the Eastern Conference is almost assured, as the Fire trail both Columbus and Orlando by eight points with three games left on the schedule.
The Fire keep looking for improvements, but the cupboard is looking pretty barren these days. The Fire looked impotent in two of the three matches and were outpossessed 71%-29% in the first half of the Seattle match. The Fire dumped their coaching staff and most of their roster after their awful showing in 2015. What remedies can they possibly create at this point?
Coach Veljko Paunovic introduced some interesting lineup changes by sticking Khaly Thiam and John Goosens as his holding midfielders in front of the regular back four. Sitting both Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster was a roll of the dice and Paunovic had to be hoping that his team would still be competing in the second half, at which point one or both could come in and stabilize things, if necessary.
It took the Crew just eight minutes to scotch that plan and put the Fire behind the eight-ball. Mohammed Saeid played a short corner back to Harrison Afful 25 yards from goal. With the Fire huddling all of their defenders inside the penalty area, Afful had plenty of time to settle the ball and let loose with a bomb that screamed into the back of the net just under the crossbar. Sean Johnson jumped as the ball came towards him, but did not extend his arms. Regardless of whether Johnson misjudged the speed or the trajectory of the shot, he absolutely must get a piece of that ball. While it would have been nice for someone to have come out and pressured Afful, the truth is that most long-range attempts by fullbacks result in goal kicks.
The Fire sought to build their attack with quick ball movement and their execution nearly met their ambition for much of the first half. This was a welcome contrast to the sloppy play in Seattle. Unfortunately, none of the passing sequences challenged the Columbus goal. The only one that did breach the Crew defense came midway through the first half, and Luis Solignac could only scoop a shot from close range over the bar.
The Fire’s other good scoring chance came when Goosens pushed forward during a Fire counterattack three minutes into the second half. Crew goalie Steve Clark did well to get down and block Goosens’ rocket. David Accam was not close enough to put the rebound home.
The Fire did their famous Swiss cheese imitation in the 50th minute, as the Crew ran easily and freely through all of the holes. The Crew built their attack in midfield and it all seemed innocent enough, as four Crew players were met by six Fire defenders. Goosens gave Justin Meram time and space, and he sent the ball to Dilly Duka, who had taken a wide position near the left touchline. Meram sprinted into space, Duka played the ball back inside, and just like that, Meram was in. He faked Thiam out of his socks and slotted past the helpless Johnson. Laziness from the Fire is the only explanation for the ease with which Columbus scored. It was bad enough that Goosens put no pressure on Meram as he held the ball. He then failed to chase Meram when Meram saw the open space. By the time Thiam tried to recover, he was far too late to make a difference. Kappelhof did his part in this debacle as well, sitting in no man’s land as Duka waited patiently for Meram to make the pass wide. Campbell slid over to engage Duka, leaving the middle vulnerable to Meram’s run. It all tumbled like a rickety house of cards. This kind of marking could make one start pining for the return of Michael Harrington.
While the two-goal lead looked pretty safe for Columbus, they upped it to 3:0 just nine minutes later. Fire defending was no less calamitous than it was on the second goal. Columbus came forward on the counter, outnumbered yet again. But that hardly mattered, as they easily found the spaces in a stretched-out Fire defense. Saeid carried along the left side and squared the ball for Duka in the box. He avoided Goosens’ desperate slide and bundled the ball underneath Johnson. The only player from the back four within shouting distance of this fiasco was Brandon Vincent. When your opponent is coming fast on a counterattack and you need Accam to help out and get back, you know you’re in trouble.
The despair in Paunovic’s voice was evident in his post-game comments.
“We always play for something. That something is our honor, our pride, it’s always there. I really don’t care if I have to win three points in a game, whatever I have to play, I give everything. That’s exactly what we have to find, guys that understand that well. For the future and from now on. That’s the mentality we have to keep and that’s the mentality we have to improve. It has to be better.”
The first thing that Paunovic should do when he gets home is make a list of the players on his roster who want to exhibit the pride and honor of wearing the Fire’s colors. Anyone who is not willing to give their all, regardless of the team’s place in the standings, should be given an early vacation and excluded from the final three matches.