Nose to the Grindstone, Three Points Banked
Following their 1:1 draw in Columbus in the season opener, the Chicago Fire came out intent to improve on that outcome in the second match of the 2017 series at Toyota Park on Saturday. The Fire blazed out of the gate and cashed in with a well taken strike from sniper Nemanja Nikolic. That lone goal proved to be enough, as an organized Fire defense thwarted the Crew at every turn. Poor marksmanship by the visitors certainly made the job easier for the Fire. The victory gives the Fire eight points from five matches and they trail first-place Columbus by two points; the Crew, however, have played one more game.
With central midfielder Juninho suspended, coach Veljko Paunovic shook up his formation into a 3-4-3. Johan Kappelhof, Joao Meira and Jonathan Campbell started in front of goalie Jorge Bava. Michael Harrington and Brandon Vincent morphed from their normal fullback roles into wingbacks, while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty patrolled the middle. Michael de Leeuw and David Accam flanked Nikolic up front. The switch in formation gave Campbell another opportunity to show that he belongs in the eleven, and it forced Arturo Alvarez into a seat on the bench.
The Fire were in the driver’s seat for the game’s first half hour. They did an outstanding job of circulating the ball quickly and efficiently. The Fire created spaces to maintain that ball movement, and Columbus were constantly in chase mode. The partnership between McCarty and Schweinsteiger was particularly fruitful and they became the team’s engine. The formation definitely played to the Fire’s strengths, although one might wonder whether it might be even more successful if a healthy Matt Polster were competing for Harrington’s wingback spot.
The natural outcome from all of this positive build-up was a goal and McCarty’s creativity and deft touch set the table for Nikolic. McCarty received a simple ball a few steps inside the Columbus half of the field in the 22nd minute and threaded a pass into the Crew penalty area that found Nikolic in stride. So devastating was McCarty’s pass that it eliminated five Columbus players. Nikolic read McCarty’s intentions and sprinted past some lazy marking to make himself a desirable target, finally getting the kind of service that he been craving this season. The finish of this goal was the least impressive aspect of it, as Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen allowed the shot to get between his arm and his body. It was the kind of shot that every competent goalie saves. The Fire nonetheless had earned a deserved lead.
Six minutes later, Accam danced his way past the lumbering Alex Crognale on the left side of the area and zinged a shot that Steffen did well to tip over the bar.
Paunovic stuck with his three-man backline for just ten minutes of the second half, bringing on Drew Conner for Campbell, and reverting to the Fire’s typical 4-2-3-1. Vincent and Harrington dropped back into their familiar positions, while Conner and McCarty took over as holding midfielders. The change pushed Schweinsteiger farther forward in midfield. The decision to switch was a bit of a puzzler, given the team’s strong start to the match. It’s hard to argue with the outcome, however, and Conner put in a very productive 35 minutes. When the time comes for Paunovic to rotate his squad, he can insert Conner without hesitation as a worthy partner for McCarty.
The aggressive Crew took control of the momentum for long stretches of the second half. Their dominant possession stats did not translate into dangerous scoring chances. The best they did was cause a moment or two of nervousness for the Fire, whose back four played stoutly. Bava was called on to make just three saves on the day, none of them close to becoming an equalizer.
The Fire were actually closer to scoring a second or third goal than the Crew were to scoring one. Schweinsteiger drove a free kick from the arc in the 76th minute, following Conner being tripped up on a strong run up the middle. Steffen displayed excellent reflexes on a ball that whizzed just over his wall. Schweinsteiger will rue not being able to get his shot closer to the goalpost.
Young Daniel Johnson made a forceful run to split two Crew defenders in the 81st minute and latched onto Nikolic’s well-timed pass into space. Johnson put himself in a great position to score when his deft fake took Waylon Francis out of the play. Johnson’s run induced Steffen to come out to challenge, and his partial deflection of Johnson’s shot allowed the hustling Nicolai Naess to clear the ball to safety. It was the second consecutive impressive performance by Johnson and the type of performance of which coaches make a mental note for future reference. It is refreshing to see Paunovic give his younger players an opportunity in important situations.
Not every win will get high marks for artistry and aesthetics. Sometimes a team needs to get a job done on their home field against a difficult opponent. After the Fire showed that they have the talent and the temperament to hold the ball and force their opponent into defensive retreat. The Fire also showed that they were ready to roll up their sleeves and shut down the other team in order to secure the points.