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New season, new coach, same problems. The Chicago Fire opened their 2014 campaign with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss away to Chivas USA. It was a tough loss, especially after the Fire fought back from down 2-0 to tie the match. It wasn’t the loss, however, that has some Fire fans ready to hit the panic button already – it was the manner in which they lost.
The 2013 Fire season was marked by a porous defense, a lack of finishing (outside of Mike Magee), and questionable coaching decisions. With the firing of Frank Klopas and the introduction of Frank Yallop, many Fire supporters thought that 2014 would be a new day for the Men in Red. Yallop quickly went to work rebuilding a back line that gave up 52 goals last season, bringing in Lovell Palmer from Real Salt Lake and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni from Seattle Sounders. He shipped Jalil Anibaba to Seattle and former Rookie of the Year Austin Berry to Philadelphia. These changes were seen by many as a “push” over last years back line, but we were willing to put our faith in Yallop and wait to see the outcome. Yesterday’s result didn’t inspire much confidence. Bakary Soumare looked truly awful (as he did many times last season) on 2 of the 3 goals, and the Fire were plagued by another defensive woe that doomed them last year – set pieces. The winning goal for Chivas came on a corner kick that was headed in by Bobby Burling who was virtually unmarked at the top of the 6 yard area. If the 2014 iteration of the Fire is going to be an improvement over 2013 then Yallop and Co. need to get the defense sorted out, and fast.
2013 also saw the Fire lack any true threat in the final third outside of Mike Magee. Yes, Magee had an MVP season and just barely missed out in the Golden Boot race, but for any team to be successful they need to have a second and third goal scoring option – this team simply didn’t have that. When Juan Luis Anangono was brought in last summer, many thought he could be the answer to the lack of goalscoring by this club. He showed some spark and ability, but didn’t necessarily have the finishing ability that you look for in a target man. The offseason additions of Harry Shipp and Benji Joya seemed to be a move towards more offensively talented players, something that this club needed badly. This brings us to problem number three.
Last season saw a number of coaching decisions that were both questionable and concerning. The most puzzling decisions always concerned squad management. Whether it was decisions regarding the gameday 18 or substitutions, Frank Klopas certainly gave the Fire faithful plenty to talk about in 2013. Again, the new coach and staff gave hope that 2014 was going to be different. When the 18 was released yesterday, it boasted a lineup awfully similar to the lineup at the close of 2013 with Palmer and Hurtado the only new faces in the starting XI. Mike Magee was starting the match on the bench due to a lack of fitness and a nagging injury, and newcomer Harry Shipp wasn’t even in the 18. And then came the 75th minute. The Fire had battled back from down 2-0 to tie the match at 2-2. There were still 15 minutes left in the match, and “Magic” Mike Magee was sitting on the bench. You just knew he was going to come on and score the winner. Midfielder Chris Rolfe was looking gassed, so Yallop with one sub left turned to his bench and called on….Logan Pause. The introduction of Pause into the match meant that the Fire now had 2 defensive minded midfielders (Jeff Larentowicz) on the pitch and the Fire were clearly bunkering down for the draw. A few minutes later Bobby Burling scored the eventual game winner and cue the Twitter rage toward Yallop.
Now, the match wasn’t all bad. Lovell Palmer looked good at the RB position. Benji Joya came on and scored a goal with his first professional touch of the ball. Quincy Amarikwa came on and provided an immediate spark to the side, netting the equalizer himself. And, Yallop actually cleared up the Rolfe/Magee/Pause situation in the postgame by saying that Rolfe had to come off with a hamstring knock and Magee wasn’t ready to go more than about 10 minutes, he had to bring someone else on. This of course didn’t stop the speculation that Magee is still fighting with the club over his contract, but in all reality, I don’t believe that’s the case.
In summary, I’ll say what I said on Twitter last night. It was a rough performance to watch as a Fire supporter. There is definitely a ton of room for improvement. However, it’s March, it’s one match and there is an entire season to make those improvements. I believe, and I hope I’m right about this, that before too long we’ll be seeing a lot more of Joya, Shipp, and Amarikwa, and a lot less of Alex, Rolfe, and Anangono. The Fire aren’t winning MLS Cup this year. They could make a good run in the US Open Cup, but they need to focus on developing some of these young playmakers and building for the years to come. I do believe they could be a playoff team, but maybe a 4 seed at best.
Next up: @ Portland – March 16, 2PM CDT