As we prepare for MLS’s astro-turf ‘rivalry week’ and eagerly await the victor of storied competitions like Philadelphia v New England or Columbus v San Jose, many Chicago supporters are still licking their wounds having lost at home for the first time in ages to their truly hated foe New England. I shouldn’t be snarky about rivalry week but I can’t help it. The promotion feels like part of a larger MLS plan to create a college football bowl game-like atmosphere, that is a circus of meaningless or inappropriate sponsorships, out of supporter cups. But rather than impotently whine, I’ll just focus on supporting my club.
To that end, I have to impotently whine about the club I support. The Chicago Fire has been truly awful in the first two matches of the new season. Two matches are hardly an indication of a team’s quality, but Toronto went on a bit of losing streak to start the 2012 season and it crushed the organization and fans. Point is, don’t panic but don’t let it slide either. With over 180 minutes played and no goal scored but five goals conceded, there is a concern that the attacking core of the team has either started the season out with the yips or simply doesn’t have the quality to finish. If it’s the yips, then patience is the key. Not grumbling, anxiety-inducing patience but genuine patience, calm and confident trust. If it’s finishing that’s lacking, well that can only be remedied in one of two ways: hardcore practice drills coupled with hours of intense analysis from an acute sports psychology perspective and a new guy. A new guy won’t show up (if at all) until July. So practice it is!
And practice is the route that Chicago needs to go. The season opener against Los Angeles saw a Fire squad that looked lethargic and confused, a combination that lead to a 4-0 drubbing. It was a shocking display especially given how well the Fire had done in the preseason and how well the team looked to be integrating its new personnel. Skip ahead a week, the home opener saw the team shake off the lethargy and confusion (for the most part) but replace it with uncontrolled energy bordering on panic and a stubborn lack of creativity. The frenetic pace of the first half of the match against the Revolution had the look of a taken-too-seriously pick-up game between also-rans and semi-pros. It was unpleasant to watch. Misplaced passes, stone-like first touches, an arrogant belief in one’s own mediocre dribbling, and a stubborn refusal to adapt the game plan were all dominate features of Chicago’s play. The display with the New England Revolution was embarrassing because it was a match that prominently featured each and every negative criticism MLS haters have leveled at the league for years. I told friends of mine to watch this match, soccer literate people, to do my small part to “grow the game.” And now I look like an idiot for having inflicted this distasteful display on others. It was embarrassing; I was ashamed for the team.
No supporter should tolerate such a feeling. And while the negatives were certainly glaring there were positives. First off, the negative criticism being hoisted upon Sherjill MacDonald is a bit misplaced. MacDonald is a true professional, he knows what is expected of him, accepts it and demands improvement of himself. As a DP, MacDonald is being held to a higher standard than a ‘regular’ player (and should be) but it is not negative to say that MacDonald is not DP material. If, over the next few games, MacDonald doesn’t make significant improvements in his finishing and hold-up play, then we need to start having a serious conversation about his contract. Supporters should also keep in mind that while not a streaky player, MacDonald does take a bit longer to warm-up his form than we are use to. We can’t expect him to be a different kind of player than what he is and to demand him to be something he isn’t is unfair.
Fortunately, Dilly Duka is turning out be to the player we all thought he’d be—a left winger that has little to no problem drifting centrally to lead attacks. Over these first two matches, Duka’s performance has been mixed. He has varied from long stretches of complete silence to intense moments of tremendous effort. This last trait has been increasing and Duka’s form is on the up-swing early. This is especially welcomed since would-be playmaker Joel Lindpere has suddenly taken several steps back in his comfort with the team. Lindpere has appeared lost on the pitch, his vision has been non-existent, and his creativity stale. Because of Lindpere’s dip in form, Duka’s performance has become more important. Meanwhile, Patrick Nyarko is probably at least two matches away from being truly ready for regular season play, Chris Rolfe has not been able to make his presence felt in the least, and Jeff Larentowicz finds himself having to shoulder the whole of the midfield. Without significant improvement from these six players—MacDonald, Duka, Lindpere, Nyarko, Rolfe, and Larentowicz—Chicago will be hard-pressed to pick up points in these early season matches.
It feels as though Chicago is still looking for a tactical formation that can best utilize its personnel. Or, rather, waiting for its personnel to take to its tactics. With the vast number of midfielders on the team roster, we need to stop expecting goals to come exclusively from the team’s forwards (Maicon Santos, Sherjill MacDonald, and Chris Rolfe). Goals, this season, will be generated by the midfield and be scored predominately by the midfield. We all need to embrace this fact. Such is the reason why ball control is so vitally important. The Fire don’t need to dominate possession but they do need to master control when then they have possession, this is the only way that the midfield will truly meet its potential.
When Logan Pause comes back from injury and is match fit, Chicago need to embrace a tactic that grants fluidity between a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3. Something that will look like this:
Pause is still a few matches away from fitness, but it would be a good idea to get a jump on this tactic by applying it to this weekend’s competition. Insert either Daniel Paladini or Alex into the position Pause would occupy and the effects are still the same (if anything, a bit more attack minded). Giving Sporting Kansas City a bit of its own medicine could give Chicago a much needed boost. Movement will be the key for Chicago against Kansas City. Although Sporting Kansas City has been experiencing its own underwhelming opening to the season and aren’t nearly as dangerous as they were last season, the team is still dangerous. The Fire will not be able to merely wait for mistakes or bully the ball through the middle of the pitch. No matter the forward, the Chicago midfield will need to keep the ball on the ground and control it. They must closed down service from Graham Zusi and do their best to stifle Kansas City’s only goal scorer thus far, Claudio Bieler. Neither of these tasks is complicated but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t difficult. Yet if Toronto can do it, Chicago can.
(image courtesy of Getty Images)