Atlanta Pummels Ineffective Fire

ATL v CHI 2017-03-18

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

When Chicago Fire Equipment Manager Brian Sauer packed up the gear for the road trip to Atlanta, he likely did not put life preservers on the list of things to bring. Too bad, because the Fire looked like castaways floating at sea for much of the 4:0 hammering administered by the home team. The Fire were beaten soundly in every phase of the game. Clearly, Atlanta is not your typical MLS expansion team.

The match blew up in the Fire’s faces within the first quarter hour. Brandon Vincent’s unfortunate own goal in the fourth minute gave Atlanta a huge emotional boost and the unwarranted dismissal of Johan Kappelhof in the eleventh minute threw Veljko Paunovic’s lineup into chaos. No one can say for sure how the Fire might have played at even strength, but the ferocity and relentlessness with which Atlanta attacked the Fire was draining and debilitating. 

While statistics don’t always tell the story of a soccer match, these numbers are utterly astounding. Atlanta had 83% possession to the Fire’s meager 17%, and that translated to Atlanta completing a staggering 870 passes to the Fire’s 117. Putting that into perspective, an MLS team should expect to complete 117 passes in the first half hour. The other statistics only amplify Atlanta’s complete dominance.

Paunovic altered his lineup when Michael de Leeuw was ruled out due to a hamstring injury. Luis Solignac took his place to be the running buddy up front with Nemanja Nikolic. The defense and midfield remained unchanged from the Fire’s first two matches.

ATL v CHI lineup 2017-03-18

The Fire bumbled their way into an early hole, thanks to some shoddy defending in the fourth minute. When Dax McCarty came up empty in a one-on-one duel in front of the Fire penalty area, Atlanta pounced. Hector Villalba had three Fire players in front of him and slipped the ball to Julian Gressel on the right side of the area. Vincent failed to get close enough to Dressel to challenge him and the shot ricocheted off of his foot and past Jorge Bava. McCarty, Vincent and Joao Meira all had the chance to close down Villalba, but failed to get the job done.

Bad turned to worse seven minutes later. Dressel played a through ball for Josef Martinez, who was taken down by Kappelhof. Referee Jose Carlos Rivero went to the back pocket and sent off Kappelhof for having denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Kappelhof actually denied Martinez the chance to run onto a through pass; there was no scoring opportunity. Martinez never touched the ball (thanks to Kappelhof’s foul), so he hardly could have been in a position to have scored a goal. The goalscoring opportunity in this situation was dubious and far from obvious.

The red card changed everything for the Fire. In addition to losing their best defender, Paunovic was forced to bring in Jonathan Campbell and sacrifice Arturo Alvarez. Despite the abruptness of this turnabout, it was up to the Fire’s ten players to figure a way out to keep the ball and get back into the contest. This is where the Fire failed miserably and they were basically pinned back in their end for the entire match. The Fire held on to that 1:0 scoreline until the half, but there was little to indicate a halftime chat would change things.

It was only a matter of time before Atlanta would add to their lead and put the three points on ice. The Fire were guilty of innumerable giveaways and the pressure just kept piling up. In the 60th minute, Miguel Almiron exploited some naive defending by the Fire when he sent Martinez into the clear to go one-on-one with Bava. Martinez solidified his stature as a genuine MLS sniper when he fired past the sprawled Bava. Martinez was running into space between Campbell and Meira. Both backed up as Almiron advanced the ball and neither were in a position to contain Martinez if Almiron played him through. Meira appeared content to let Martinez run into an offside position, but Campbell kept backpedaling and stepped up too late to catch Martinez straying.

Villalba made it 3:0 seven minutes later. The Fire penalty area was in a shambles and Campbell’s weak clearance of Greg Garza’s entry pass from the left wing went directly to Villalba at the top of the area. He drilled a shot into the back of the net that gave Bava no chance.

The defensive clown show came to a crashing conclusion in the 82nd minute. Midfielder Yamil Asad calmly dribbled along the left flank and sent a pass into space that sliced the Fire defense into shreds. Martinez ran in alone on Bava, who managed to shepherd him wide, but Martinez sneaked a shot into the goal from an incredibly difficult angle. Meira had the initial marking on Martinez, but erred badly when he thought that Asad’s pass was intended for Villalba, to whom he stepped up to mark. No one picked up the sprinting Martinez, as Vincent and Brandt Bronico did a great job of marking the totally uninvolved Jacob Peterson on the right side of the area. The lack of communication and teamwork by the Fire on that play was embarrassing.

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez likes to talk about how a team responds when they get hit in the mouth. The Fire sure got hit in the mouth and lost a bunch of teeth in the process. How they bounce back in two weeks will be telling.

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