Fire Get the Job Done in Home Opener vs RSL
The Chicago Fire won’t win awards for stylish soccer after their first two matches of the 2017 campaign, but there are plenty of indications that they are on the right path. Their 2:0 win on Saturday over Real Salt Lake at Toyota Park was built on pragmatism, hard work, and taking advantage of opportunity.
On the day, RSL won just about every statistical battle, generating more shots, generating more corner kicks, and coming out on top in the possession battle. All of their possession amounted to precious little, as only one of their twelve shots was on target. Their mostly toothless attack was missing that final decisivetouch and it makes one wonder whether they jettisoned Javier Morales too soon.
Fire Coach Veljko Paunovic trotted out the same lineup that earned a 1:1 draw at Columbus last week, except that the previously suspended Juninho took his place in central midfield next to Dax McCarty, replacing the injured John Goosens. The pair proved to be very valuable on the day and demonstrated how important it is to have influential players pulling the strings in the middle. They represented the Fire’s midfield engine, and for the first half hour of the match, the Fire looked like a competent soccer team. The interplay between teammates bordered on impressive and the quick touches were certainly fun to watch.
The second half of the match was a different story, as RSL held possession for long stretches. Recent Fire history suggested that their 2:0 lead was far from safe and playing a mostly defensive style would eventually lead to collapse. That was hardly the case on Saturday. The Fire basically built a defensive fortress in front of their penalty area and simply would not budge in the face of increasing pressure from the visitors. Goalkeeper Jorge Bava was barely bothered by any of this, the best indicator of whether RSL’s pressure was genuine, or whether it was merely an accumulation of half-chances. At no point did the Fire defense look as though it was teetering on the edge of disaster. In fact, their defense looked like the foundation for quick-strike counterattacks.
The Fire broke into the lead in the strangest way in the 11th minute. Nemanja Nikolic opened his account thanks to what appeared to be a dubious offside decision by referee Kevin Stott. Michael de Leeuw looked set to push the ball quickly towards the RSL goal from 30 yards out. The ball suddenly wound up at Nikolic’s feet, setting him off on a breakaway, which he handily converted past the bemused Nick Rimando. Turns out that de Leeuw never touched the ball and RSL midfielder Sunny unfortunately sent it to Nikolic, negating his apparent offside position. Stott waved his arm emphatically to indicate that play should continue. Some RSL players might have seen the assistant’s flag go up briefly, which caused them to hesitate at the crucial moment. Nikolic kept playing and stroked the ball home.
The score went to 2:0 four minute later. Arturo Alvarez went on a winding run along the right flank, juking past three opponents before depositing a deflected shot from 18 yards past the stranded Rimando. The deflection might have been a cruel outcome for RSL, but the real damage on this sequence was done by RSL’s shoddy defending of Alvarez. The midfielder received a simple pass from Kappelhof 35 yards from goal and took off. He accelerated past the unprepared Luis Silva and then turned Kyle Beckerman inside out. Alvarez accelerated into the middle, where Sunny made a halfhearted attempt at a tackle. Chris Wingert, standing between Alvarez and the goal, did Rimando no favors by sticking out a leg to block the shot, rather than making a direct challenge on Alvarez.
To their credit, RSL managed to shake off the impact of their early mistakes and worked hard to get back into the game. They certainly turned the tide in the final 15 minutes before halftime and the work from newcomer Albert Rusnak played a big role. The 22-year-old Slovakian international was brought in as a Designated Player to ostensibly replace Morales, but the youngster, who has loads of talent and a brilliantly quick first step, is not ready to carry this team on his shoulders in the manner that Morales did for so many years.
RSL took up in the second half right where they left off in the first frame. The game was played mostly in the Fire end of the field for the final 45 minutes, but realistically, the Fire were closer to getting a third goal than RSL were to even getting one.
The Fire were organized and calculated in their defending and it ignited several dangerous counterattacking situations. Most of those fizzled, but it will be interesting to see how effective the Fire are on the break as teammates get to know one another better. Many of their failed counterattacks were the result of a slightly mistimed pass or touch.
In the 50th minute, McCarty cleaned up a sloppy RSL turnover and quickly fed Alvarez, who laid off for Nikolic at the arc. Nikolic tried to curl a precisely placed shot inside of Rimando’s left-hand post, but Rimando reacted well to push the ball wide.
Rimando was on the mark again ten minutes before the end, when he punched Juninho’s free-kick attempt from 25 yards to safety.
Two matches represent a very small sample set from which to make judgments about this Fire team and where they stand compared to their Eastern Conference rivals. A few things, however do stand out. By retaining Kappelhof, Vincent, de Leeuw, Accam and Alvarez, the Fire had some solid assets around whom the 2017 team could be built. And adding MLS veterans Juninho and McCarty has so far stabilized the midfield, which has had a knock-on effect of making it easier to defend collectively. The Fire have been kind of enjoyable to watch over limited stretches so far; it was hard to say that very often over the last two years of occupying the league basement.