There was a good deal of grumbling amongst supporters after the Chicago Fire lost handily to the Houston Dynamo last week. But after an appropriate cooling off period sense returned—beating Houston at home would have been a feat and the Fire is not the team to do that…yet. Predominately, the reaction was one of frustration, especially given that many thought the decisive victory against New York had the team turn a corner.
Unfortunately, the result in Houston put Chicago in the same position it was in against New York, another early season ‘must win’ scenario. This time around the situation was one of facing a long time rival, Columbus Crew; a rival that is currently playing better and due in no small part to a player traded away (forward Dominic Oduro). In the lead up to the match, Chicago were talking about it as being a proper derby and getting their mindset right for it. This showed on Saturday, Chicago came out attacking, which is something the team has been hesitant to do this season.
More than anything else, the face-off between the reds and the yellows was less than exciting. It seemed that Columbus had no interest in attacking. At no point did they seriously challenge Fire ‘keeper Sean Johnson. Yet given how shaky the Fire defense has been these first few matches of the season, it would be irresponsible to not give credit where credit is due. A clean sheet is a prize. Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry were focused; the two also played vital roles in the lone goal of the match. A long-throw from Anibaba found Berry’s head that flicked the ball up into space to find the screaming red head of Jeff Larentowicz. The goal wasn’t the only shot that Chicago had but it was the only one that was able to break Crew ‘keeper Andy Gruenebaum, who made great save after great save. Twenty-one attempts on goal, seven on target and seven blocked by Gruenebaum—there is a serious case to be made for Gruenebaum to be on the shortlist for player of the week.
The main concerns about the Fire going into Saturday’s match were the lack of finishing and defensive shallowness. It was revealed that centerback Arne Friedrich would still be out with injury and that rightback/centerback Steven Kinney was also out with another injury, meaning that Chicago had at its disposal 4 true defenders—Anibaba (RB/CB), Berry (CB), Gonzalo Segares (LB), and Hunter Jumper (LB/CB)—and two makeshift defenders, wide midfielders Michael Videira and Wells Thompson, drafted into filling in at rightback. It seems that Thompson has been given the rightback slot. He has acquitted himself well enough (despite the defensive failure in Houston against Brad Davis) and is certainly brings an attacking minded-set to the position. Management has announced that they’re actively looking to sign defensive depth, and with the new intra-league loan system announce we may see some movement soon. Even though the backline did well this weekend against Columbus, Chicago needs to add two more defenders, another solid centerback and a genuine rightback.
Against Columbus, the defense showed its quality (even though a cynic could argue that it was more a situation of the Crew being impotent in attack) and demonstrated how it could augment the team’s own attacking movement. Logan Pause and Jeff Larentowicz seem to have established a rapport and work as a stronger pairing than Joel Lindpere and Larentowicz. Lindpere has shown absolutely no quality over his first five matches for the team. Fortunately right winger Patrick Nyarko came out of the tunnel after halftime with passion to win. Nyarko was constantly pressuring the Crew, creating chances, providing service, and himself striking several danger shots. This attitude inspired several other players on the Fire and if it were not for Gruenebaum’s acrobatics, Chicago would have won by a larger margin.
Someone who was not inspired and seemed to grow more petulant as the match progressed was forward Sherjill MacDonald. There were several flubs from the big man up front as well as several emphatic gestures to his own feet when he felt his teammates weren’t looking for him. However, the other Fire players weren’t missing chances to find MacDonald, they were consciously looking passed him. MacDonald has inspired no trust in his teammates from his constant failure to convert simple chances or to provide sufficient hold-up service. Fullbacks Segares and Thompson never look to MacDonald, what short partnership that was developed with Chris Rolfe as dissolved, Lindpere himself has been entirely ineffectual, and although Nyarko is always looking to make the best move for the team you can see that he has little confidence in MacDonald’s ability. This all came to a head Saturday night when MacDonald was subbed in the 78th minute.
Chicago was looking to push for the win with the match still nil-nil. MacDonald had endured several hypothetical fouls or non-calls to his mind and had been stifled by the Crew’s big centerback who amassed around him and effectively closed him down. MacDonald was irritated and brimming with frustration, he was primed to make a mental error or a stupid challenge. As his number was put up to be subbed, MacDonald began to slowly stroll to the sidelines. Chicago had wanted to do a quick sub to keep their momentum going. In the broadcast of the match, you can see Jalil Anibaba literally jumping up and down screaming at MacDonald to hurry up. Then, captain Logan Pause comes over to MacDonald grabs his arm as though he was a pouting child and begins to pull him along faster to get off the pitch. MacDonald shook Pause off and on the sideline there seemed little more fuss made.
This scene revealed two things. First, it showed that Chicago is not a complacent team and that they are hungry to change their early season form around. Second, it showed that MacDonald is out of step with this team. As a Designated Player there are (arguably, unfair) higher expectations for MacDonald than there would be for other players. Thus far, MacDonald has not met any of the expectations and has shown little ability to do so. There is a growing current in the supporter’s sphere to ship him out in July if not sooner. It is unfortunate. If MacDonald weren’t a DP the criticism would not be as acute and there would be freedom to not play him as he sorted things out. Unfortunately, big signings are expected to start every week. Chicago keep putting MacDonald and Lindpere out there hoping that they’ll find the plot, yet it seems that they are just getting more and more lost. One has to wonder when will be the breaking point and if decision made about the two may come too late.
(image courtesy of chicago-fire.com)