Fire Go Jekyll and Hyde in LA

2017-05-06 LA v CHI

(Photo courtesy of mlssoccer.com)

The Chicago Fire finished off their third consecutive away match with a solidly earned point in a 2:2 draw versus the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday, but no one felt like celebrating. The Fire had roared out to a 2:0 lead in the first half in dominant fashion and seemed poised to bury the Galaxy. They could not complete the job, however, thanks to irresponsible defending during two Galaxy corner kicks in the second half.

The game had an air of craziness surrounding it right from the start. The Fire were up by a pair within 16 minutes, prompting Galaxy coach Curt Onalfo to replace captain and center back Jelle van Damme in the 33rd minute with Dave Romney. Then, midfielder Jermaine Jones was forced to withdraw just before the break due to injury. Los Angeles turned the momentum in their favor in the second half and managed to claw their way back to level things at 2:2. Fire coach Veljko Paunovic made his own curious substitution right after the equalizer, bringing on Michael de Leeuw for David Accam, whose play was responsible for both of the Fire’s goals, and who was a constant threat to the Galaxy backline.

Paunovic had made Fire training private earlier in the week, which led to speculation that lineup changes were on the horizon. Sure enough, goalkeeper Jorge Bava made way for Matt Lampson, and Drew Conner made his first professional start, coming in at right back for Michael Harrington. Both Bava and Harrington had been significant contributors to the Fire’s defensive problems so far this season, and especially Harrington, with his consistently poor positioning. Opposing left-sided players have feasted on Harrington’s loose marking. Conner had been groomed for a transition from holding midfielder to right back during pre-season training and had already made one substitution appearance there.

Although Bava may be less culpable than Harrington, he nonetheless has not shown himself to be superior to the man he replaced, veteran Sean Johnson. After seven years with the Fire, Johnson had clearly reached his ceiling, so replacing him was not a shock decision. But this was a decision that Paunovic and GM Nelson Rodriguez had to get right. With internal options being inadequate, the new keeper needed to be an upgrade. Given that Bava occupies a very valuable international slot, the scrutiny on his play was bound to be high. To this point, Bava has made some saves to keep the Fire competitive (Week 1 in Columbus), but the howlers (Week 4 versus Montreal) show why the Fire need improvement at the goalkeeper position.

The report cards on Conner and Lampson were not fantastic. Conner showed good aggressiveness and a desire to get forward on the flanks. His deep forays into Los Angles territory, however, caused him to be out of position on Galaxy counterattacks, necessitating help from centerback Johan Kappelhof. Conner also got turned the wrong way on a couple of through balls and lost sight of the runner he was supposed to be covering. One can hope that he took away some good lessons on defensive fundamentals from this first start. It is also worth noting that, although Harrington was in Paunovic’s squad on Saturday, the boss opted to bring in Jonathan Campbell as a defensive substitute in the second half.

The story on Lampson was neutral overall. He was hardly challenged by a Galaxy side whose only shots on target were their two goals and Lampson was blameless on both occasions. He did a reasonably good job of controlling his penalty area.

The Fire jumped into the lead after 13 minutes. Accam dribbled his way deep into the Galaxy penalty area, and just before he ran out of room near the goal line, he slipped a pass back for Nemanja Nikolic. The play begged for a first-time shot from Nikolic, but the ball got stuck between his feet. He took a touch towards goal and was tripped up by van Damme. Referee Kevin Stott pointed to the spot and Accam blasted past goalie Brian Rowe. Stott, however, detected encroachment by the Fire and ordered a retake. No problem for Accam, who slammed the ball home.

Just three minutes later, it wa Accam again, marauding down the left wing. His pass led Nikolic into space on the left side of the area, where he calmly side-footed the ball past the onrushing Rowe. The Fire were up by a pair and hungry for more.

They played with poise and confidence, making the Galaxy look as inept on their home field as Seattle did a couple of weeks earlier. The Fire worked the ball in and out of tight spaces with quick, precise passes and it appeared that it was just a matter of time before they would add to their total.

All of that positive play disappeared in the second half. The momentum of the match turned for two simple reasons: (1) the Fire were no longer able to control the tempo with a compact possession style; and (2) their marking scheme on two corner kicks hardly could have been worse.

Bastian Schweinsteiger summed it up succinctly: “Maybe we thought the game was done. We spoke about it at halftime. That was not the case. We didn’t find the free man, we rushed, we lost the ball too easy, then you lose a little bit of the control of the game.”

Los Angeles got back into the contest in the 56th minute. Romain Alessandrini sent a corner kick from the right side towards the near post. Daniel Steres made an unimpeded run for the ball and redirected it just inside the back post.

The scenario bizarrely repeated itself nine minutes later. Alessandrini crossed the ball from the left corner, where Romney headed it along to the far post, where Giovani dos Santos steered it into the back of the net.

In both cases, the Fire brought ten players into their penalty area to defend the corner and were faced with six Galaxy attackers. The Fire’s approach was to leave both posts uncovered and address the danger area in the middle with zonal marking. Their approach failed primarily because the players did not find opponents to mark.

On the first goal, Schweinsteiger started out closest to Steres, but did not follow the run. No other Fire players bothered to take account of Steres and stood flat-footed as the centerback headed home.

Joao Meira at least put up a fight with Romney on the initial ball for the second goal. Romney simply overpowered the smaller Meira and got to the ball first. The lion’s share of the blame falls to Brandon Vincent, who was marking dos Santos initially. Vincent started out badly because he did not set up goal-side of dos Santos, a fundamental technique that every player learns at the youth level. He then inexplicably pulled away from dos Santos when the ball came in and was hopelessly out of position when the gift landed at the feet of the Galaxy’s star striker.

Tactics for dealing with corner kicks have changed a lot in recent years. Back in the day, the standard procedure was to place a defender at each post and have everyone else man-mark the attacking players. Everyone sprints out of the penalty area once the ball is cleared. These days, the cool coaches have removed all protection from the posts in order to overload the box with defenders who are supposed to cover a space and then act when an opponent enters that space. The overload backfires if defenders don’t do their basic job, and that means getting a body on an opponent.

Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones and the new approach to defending corners seems like a solution seeking a problem to solve.

There are positives from this result, even if they are difficult to find. The Fire dominated the first half and needed to step on the Galaxy’s throat to put the game away. This is a mentality that must persist for the full 90 minutes. Unlike the timid road performances of the last two seasons, this Fire side has shown the initiative to go and seek goals. It’s a matter of finishing the job once a team has been beaten down.

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