Fire Create Boatload of Chances, Sink in NY
The Chicago Fire traveled to Harrison, NJ to take on the New York Red Bulls last Friday, intent on snapping New York’s 18-match home unbeaten streak, and solidifying their place in the Eastern Conference table. The Fire were not afraid to push the game at the Red Bulls, but crucial mistakes in front of New York’s goal prevented the Fire from cashing in on the plethora of scoring chances that they conjured. The Red Bulls parlayed Fire errors on the defensive side into a 2:1 win. After eight games, the Fire remain on eleven points in a tight race in the East, where third place and eighth place are separated by just three points.
Will the Fire come to regret coming away with nothing from this match? Poor execution in the basics was their undoing. Some of it may be corrected as teamwork and cohesion improve, but other problems are inherent because talent is lacking. Coach Veljko Paunovic is going to have examine which players can be flexible in new positions, or whether his team can adapt to new tactics to overcome their weaknesses. The other option is for Nelson Rodriguez to bring in new players to compete for spots.
Paunovic stood pat in his typical 4-2-3-1 formation, unchanged from the Toronto match, except for David Accam being preferred to Michael de Leeuw on the wing. His selections took advantage of the speed on the flanks offered by Accam and Luis Solignac.
Potential scoring situations abounded for both sides, as they combined for 24 shots, 14 by the Fire (5 on target). But the shooting accuracy was far from optimal and the squandered opportunities are likely to make Paunovic and counterpart Jesse Marsch pull their hair out. Both can rightly claim that their team could have won the match easily, had they converted their chances.
Red Bulls defender Kemar Lawrence started the string of misses in the 13th minute, when Joao Meira headed a cross from right channel to the left side of the box, to an unmarked Lawrence, who drilled his shot from 12 yards way over the bar.
The last 15 minutes of the first half provided action at both ends of the field. Accam started a promising attack along the left side, sending Nemanja Nikolic into space. He went directly to goal, cutting inside of Damien Perrinelle, Nikolic drove the ball diagonally into the middle, as Solignac made the supporting run. Goalkeeper Luis Robles intervened, snatching the ball before Solignac could reach it.
Moments later, New York midfielder Felipe flubbed an excellent opportunity. After a spell of sustained possession by the Red Bulls. Sacha Kljestan shot from 25 yards, forcing Fire netminder Jorge Bava to go full stretch. Bava could not hold the shot and Felipe arrived first to clean up the rebound. He slipped as he planted.his foot to shoot and scuffed the ball wide.
In the 35th minute, it was the Fire’s turn to be wasteful. Accam cleared the ball from the defensive half to Solignac on the right wing. Solignac cut inside and sprinted straight to goal. At the crucial moment, the ball got stuck between his feet as Robles closed in. Solignac’s weak, off-balance shot bounced off of Robles and right back to Solignac, who squeezed a pass into into middle for Nikolic inside the six-yard box. Aaron Long blocked Nikolic’s attempt and New York cleared the ball to safety. If either of the touches by Solignac or Nikolic had been better, the Fire would have put that goal in the bank.
Two minutes later, the Red Bulls snatched their advantage and the Fire helped. Daniel Royer played an innocent-looking square pass from the left side over to Kljestan. Juninho stuck a foot in and inadvertently sent Royer alone into the box. Michael Harrington started out marking Royer as the play was unfolding, but reacted slowly to Juninho’s deflection and allowed Royer to get inside of him, and had no chance to recover. Royer centered for the opportunistic Bradley Wright-Phillips to tap home. Meira could have helped the cause by marking the striker more closely.
The Fire played well enough in that first half, but little problems added up: poor finishing and substandard marking.
New York midfielder Tyler Adams looked set to register his first career goal in MLS in the 49th minute, but he sent an open shot from 18 yards into orbit.
The Fire leveled the affair in the 59th minute. Accam won the ball in a crowd of players and slid a pass to Dax McCarty, who drove straight up the middle. McCarty beat two Red Bulls at top of the box and drew a third player towards him. With a simple turn and shield, he provided an outstanding opening for Nikolic, alone on left side of the box. Nikolic picked his spot and sent a side-footed shot past the helpless Robles. With five tallies in eight matches, Nikolic is on the same impressive scoring pace that he displayed for Legia in the Polish league.
Seven minutes later, the Fire were poised to take the lead, but could not get the job done. Accam received a clearance from the Fire half of the field and quickly floated an excellent pass to the right post for Solignac, who got behind his marker and blew the sitter.
New York bagged the winner in the 71st minute and the Fire provided the assist yet again. Perrinelle sent a pass for Lawrence, running into the left channel. Solignac, who was forced to track back to mark Lawrence because Harrington was out of position, deflected the pass right into Lawrence’s path. Now in scramble mode in their penalty area, the Fire could not react in time. Lawrence provided a solid finish, low to the far post. Harrington’s poor positioning was absolutely stupefying. Rather than cover the outside, which is his responsibility as a fullback, he was caught inside, actually marking the man that Johan Kappelhof was already covering.
New York backed into a defensive shell last for the final ten minutes and did well to blunt the high level of pressure that the Fire threw at them. Paunovic inserted de Leeuw, Daniel Johnson and Arturo Alvarez during the final 17 minutes. His substitutions were like-for-like, rather than removing one of his defenders.
The Fire demonstrated an ability to hang tough against a good opponent on their field. There are, unfortunately, no moral victories at this level. Frittering away winnable points is never a good thing, and especially a team like the Fire, who have holes in their lineup that need serious attention.
Right now, the Fire are a team that has fundamental shortcomings at goalkeeper and right back. The problem at right back is a holdover from the 2016 season. Paunovic needs to consider the following to address these problems.
Leave things alone and outscore the opposition
The Fire have a bona fide striker in Nikolic and a midfield that can control tempo and control the ball. It is a team that is built to score goals. But scoring goals, however, is not a matter of flipping a switch and watching the ball land in the back of the net three or four times per game.
Play with three in the back
Paunovic tried out a 3-4-3 earlier this year, with decent enough results. He still had Harrington out there as a wingback, however, so that didn’t solve the problem, only repositioned it. Brandon Vincent can be a reasonably good wingback. Can Matt Polster, Drew Conner or someone else be repurposed or brought in to play there?
Get Jonathan Campbell back in the lineup
The Fire quite frequently paired Campbell and Meira in the middle of detense last year, shifting Kappelhof to right back. This change improves the Fire at right back, but weakens them in the center.
The Fire need to sign a new right back
This option is in the hands of Rodriguez and it comes down to his ability to manipulate draft choices, allocation money and international slots. If a new right back can be found, it keeps everyone else in their current positions.
The Fire need to sign a new goalkeeper
There is no internal option that offers an improvement over Bava. Matt Lampson is career backup goalie and rookie Stefan Cleveland is probably not ready to compete for the starting spot. The Fire misjudged Bava quite badly.
Bava (or even Lampson) could be an adequate goalkeeper only if he played behind a rock-solid fortress defense. The Fire don’t have that level of defense and would probably have to bring in more than just a right back to reach that level. Bottom line is that the Fire will have to admit their mistake and bring in a new goalkeeper if they are serious about being a playoff team this season.