Fire Hang On For Massive Road Win

2017-06-20 NE v CHI

(Photo courtesy chicago-fire.com)

There are times in a soccer match when scoring a goal can destroy the motivation for an opponent to mount a comeback. The New England Revolution were that team on Saturday shortly after Luis Solignac put the visiting Fire 2:0 up in the 61st minute. It was the kind of authoritative strike that resulted in the Revs looking like they were ready to pack it in. Good thing for them that they didn’t succumb completely, because Matt Lampson’s failure to punch a ball clear led to Antonio Delamea’s response nine minutes later, and a game that was surely in the bag became competitive once again. The Fire managed to close out for a 2:1 win, but there were more than a few heart palpitations along the way.

New England created enough opportunities to get something out of this game, but the shockingly poor quality of their finishing right in front of goal was their undoing. Despite outshooting the Fire by a gaudy 24-8 margin, the shots on target were far more even (5-4 in favor of New England). They might easily have scored four, with a bit of luck. Instead, they spent the 90 minutes chasing the game, because of what the Fire did to build that two-goal lead.

The match marked the return of midfielder Dax McCarty, who had been away for two games following his call-up to the US National Team. The Fire got four points from those two games and were generally quite effective in both contests. But McCarty’s return raised the quality of the soccer on display on Saturday.

McCarty teamed with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho in central midfield, while Solignac and Michael de Leeuw patrolled the flanks for the Fire. Missing from the Fire’s traveling squad was winger David Accam, who did not make the trip for “recovery purposes.” From what Accam was recovering was not revealed. The rest of the Fire lineup remained unchanged from the group upon whom coach Veljko Paunovic has been relying the last eight games.

Winning away from home has been a huge problem for the Fire the last two years and they have begun the process of changing that mentality this season. In their last four road games, the Fire have two wins and two draws, and this is what good teams must do to compete for trophies. Against the Revs, the Fire began the game in a tremendous rhythm, circulating the ball left and right, up and down. It was clear that they were in Foxboro for all three points, not just the one.

They took a deserved lead after 18 minutes. Fullback Matt Polster played an easy pass from midfield to Nemanja Nikolic, whose exquisitely timed run beat the offside trap. It morphed into a breakaway on the right side of the box and Nikolic had only goalkeeper Cody Cropper to beat. Cropper saved Nikolic’s hard shot at the near post, but the rebound came right back to Nikolic, who slotted home. New England’s defenders gave up on Nikolic after he began his run to goal and left Cropper hanging out to dry.

Nikolic has been playing this game of tightrope with opposing defenders from the start. He had been caught offside quite frequently early in the season, but as the entry passes got better, and as Nikolic became more comfortable with his teammates, those runs have become superbly dangerous opportunities.

The Revs really should have equalized at the half-hour mark. Kellyn Rowe split Schweinsteiger and Joao Meira at the top of the Fire penalty area with a splendid through pass for Kei Kamara on the right side of the box. Kamara delivered a terrific diagonal pass to the far post, where Diego Fagundez flubbed a tap-in. Neither Matt Polster nor Johan Kappelhof reacted to Fagundez, who ran through unattended.

Six minutes later, the Fire were at it again. After an extended period of possession on the right wing, de Leeuw ran free and dropped the ball back for Schweinsteiger, who delivered a cross for Brandon Vincent, who knocked it down for Solignac, whose twisting, off-balance shot rolled wide of Cropper’s left-hand post. Solignac scored a balletic goal on Wednesday in St Louis to lead the Fire to an Open Cup victory, but converting this attempt was perhaps too much to ask.

New England opened the second half with renewed energy. But the Fire turned that right around for a 2:0 lead just after the hour. It started with McCarty, whose pass from inside the Fire’s half of the field to Nikolic was as insightful as it was simple. With the Revs caught flat-footed, Nikolic turned and found de Leeuw. The pass was a bit long, but de Leeuw stuck out a toe, which was good enough to release Solignac into the box. Finishing past the onrushing Cropper was easy pickings for Solignac.

The previous high energy on display by New England suddenly disappeared, much like the air rushing out of a balloon. For the next several minutes, the Fire knocked the ball around and hardly saw any pressure from the Revs. It was as though the Revs were ready to wave the white flag.

And then a momentary lapse from the Fire brought the stunned Revs back into the contest in the 70th minute. Midfielder Lee Nguyen served a ball into the mixer. Lampson came out to punch and failed to reach over Schweinsteiger and Juan Agudelo to win the ball. Delamea outjumped Brandon Vincent to nod into an empty net. Lampson committed the most fundamental of goalkeeper errors, leaving his line to clear a ball and failing to win it. These types of failures may be the reason that Lampson has struggled to be a consistent starter over a six-year MLS career. It’s the kind of error that can cost goalkeepers their jobs. The Fire, however, have no better internal options than Lampson.

New England messed up three outstanding scoring chances in the final eight minutes and had a legitimate complaint for a penalty in the 72nd minute, when Polster shouldered Nguyen to the turf as the winger dribbled near the left side of the area. New England’s inability to convert leaves them with nothing from a match in which the Fire let the door open for an equalizer.

So, it’s eight straight without a defeat for the Fire. Despite a mini collapse at the end, they can be satisfied with a productive outing at Gillette Stadium, a place where they had lost seven of their previous ten matches. It’s another building block on the way to becoming a contender in MLS.

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