Chicago Fire 2007 Review: Lazarus Rises, Plays Stubborn D…and…

Chicago Fire
Record (W-L-T): 10-10-10; 31 GF, 36 GA
Source Material: Schedule/match reports; roster

Overview
Do you remember, kids, just how goddamn awful the Chicago Fire seemed in May? It wasn’t so much that they handed Toronto FC their first win in franchise history, but the utterly supine crouch from which they did it. That was only one of several lopsided losses (ouch!, ouch!, ouch!) – e.g. any game in which a team gives up three goals and loses by at least two – from the first half of the season: May featured three such losses and the Fire added one in June, as well as a 4-0 collapse to the Houston Dynamo in July.

As MLSnet.com’s review of the Fire’s 2007 points out, that big ol’ loss to Houston also happened to be Juan Carlos Osorio’s debut as a coach in Major League Soccer (MLS); he took over from former coach Dave Sarachan in early July. Given what the rest of their season looked like perhaps it’s fairer, then, to credit that loss to the Sarachan hangover – a period characterized by what looked like racking self-doubt among Chicago’s players. But those lopsided games left after that loss to Houston, never to return for the rest of the year. There’s no question that Chicago turned around their season under Osorio, but the extent to which they did so, as well as how they did so, bears noting.

Looking from the outside in, I assume 2007 was hell on Chicago fans. Sure, they started well, but when they went down – holy shit – did they go down. It played out on the field like some kind of unspoken campaign in support of relegation in the American game. Their late-ish summer rally (August, September) only looked impressive against what came before; that the teams they beat – Toronto, the Columbus Crew, and the Kansas City Wizards – impressed fewer than most always left open the question of whether Chicago was for real. No less significantly, they followed this with a string of ties – four straight, in fact – that, at the time, might have been mistaken for little more than slow steps toward respectability. Continue reading

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Eastern Conf. Final: Reputations Polished and Dented

Is that all there is? The New England Revolution beats the Chicago Fire, who beats DC United? Will it take the revival of Kansas City, or the arrival of Red Bull New York, or – god forbid – the Columbus Crew to confound this predictable procession? Lord, I hope not, because the status quo sure looks set to hold for a damned long while.

Not that I’m complaining – writing, after all, as a Revs fan – or not that I don’t think New England deserved to win. Truth be told, the Revs played as well last night as they have all year, smartly ceding possession to Chicago where it couldn’t hurt them and clamping down like a pit bull where it mattered on defense and creating space and possession in the attacking third. If there’s a complaint to level against them, it’s that they were a little slow to fire into half-openings; worse, when gifted a couple glorious openings, key, veteran players – Steve Ralston and Shalrie Joseph – fired embarrassingly high and appallingly wide.

Of course, the offense – or, rather, Taylor Twellman – got it together the one time required, scoring off a bicycle kick that, even in real time, somehow developed in slow-motion; with the ball arching in the cold air, Twellman squared his body with his back to the goal, while Dasan Robinson and (was it?) C. J. Brown quickly closed the space until there was nothing much wider than a foot’s width opening through which to strike. Twellman’s foot squeezed through, the ball bounced into the corner of Matt Pickens’ goal, and that, though we sensed it more than knew it at the time, was the end. From there, the entire team scrapped all over the field to make that lone goal stand up.

In fact, the Revolution looked more like scoring a second than Chicago looked like scoring a first. What Chicago didn’t miss, Matt Reis swallowed up. Worse, things too rarely reached that point. Chicago’s forwards struggled in particular: Chad Barrett by bolting aimlessly around and Paulo Wanchope by lumbering a step or two behind every play. New England shut off supply by shutting down Blanco and Rolfe, the latter of whom the Revs abused just shy of illegality. Referee Kevin Stott admirably let the teams play, but, in what had to be one of the greater surprises of the night, both teams played a fairly clean game, leaving Stott little cause to wave around cards; maybe yellow card trouble isn’t always a bad thing.

For my money, two things, one avoidable, the other not, sunk Chicago. First, the unavoidable piece: their most effective players on the night – Gonzalo Segares and Wilman Conde – played too far back and had too many defensive responsibilities to help with the attack. As for the avoidable, that came with choices of personnel and substitution: subbing Barrett, whose sheer effort may have produced something eventually, didn’t add up, nor did introducing Calen Carr with only minutes remaining. But, to return to something I commented on last night, the biggest problem came in the personnel department: starting Wanchope can be excused, but leaving him on at least 45 minutes too long cannot. And, of course, Justin Mapp finally came on the field for the Fire, but a visible disconnect between him and the rest of the team came with him. Continue reading

New England v. Chicago Preview (All Right, All Right; I’ll Do It)

I’m about to do something I almost never do: preview a game, namely, the Eastern Conference Final pitting the New England Revolution against the Chicago Fire. For the record, I blame the quality stuff other people are turning out. Even MLSnet.com’s typically tepid preview contains a vital information-nugget: Shalrie Joseph will have to sit out the final if he picks up a yellow in the semifinal. That’s pretty big, bigger than Taylor Twellman being in the same situation to be sure. I also learned that Kevin Stott will officiate…though I can’t remember whether I have an opinion on him or not.

Before getting to my thoughts, here are the other “inspirations” that got me thinking too much about tomorrow night’s game. Ives Galarcep turned in pre-game analysis for ESPN that hits plenty of useful highlights, most notably the potentially defining match-up between Joseph and Cuauhtemoc Blanco – more on this later from me. A couple people took up the rivalry thing: Blue Blooded Journo conducted a Q & A with himself in which he looks into everything from Chicago’s fans to the horror that is Blanco’s face…Chicago fans may want to skip that one. Finally, even though Luis Arroyave failed to get “bulletin board material” out of either side of the rivalry, he passed on an absolutely brilliant alleged quote from Clint Dempsey:

Just last year, a scuffle nearly broke out in the Toyota Park tunnel with Fire defender Gonzalo Segares and ex-Revolution midfielder Clint Dempsey. Sources said Dempsey yelled ‘I don’t care–take me to jail’ as teammates tried to restrain him.”

I’ll be asking for a t-shirt for Christmas, along with another inspired by Britney Spears (credit to Ann Romano from the Portland Mercury): “Rehab Is Hard Y’all.”

Now, for my look ahead to Those Things That Will Loom Large in tomorrow night’s game. Continue reading

MLS Week 24: Four Teams, Two Games, Two Levels

I held true to my viewing schedule for once: my Saturday featured Red Bull New York’s gutsy draw against the Chicago Fire and the New England Revolution’s (at-long-last-hallelujah) sharp win over visiting FC Dallas. By coincidence, both games threw two roughly equal teams into contention. By lesser coincidence, the gap in quality between the respective teams showed in the quality of the games – simply put, FC Dallas and New England look playoff-primed. Chicago and New York…eh, less so.

Dallas and New England went at one another with unrelenting pace and energy. Dallas, in particular, aggressively pressured every ball anywhere inside their half – defenders attached not only to the player on the ball, but the team as a whole shifted quickly to cover any nearby players as well. The amazing thing: quick movement and passing generally allowed the Revs to play out of that pressure, while smart, well-executed dribbling took care of the rest. Dallas, facing similarly intense attention, very nearly managed as well…the final score, of course, speaks to where they failed.

Individual efforts on both teams added still more to the equation. Khano Smith ran the Dallas right side stupid, while Pat Noonan’s general unpredictability in the area sporadically unhinged Dallas defenders. James Riley served as the shaky presence in the Revs’ back-line, which Carlos Ruiz exploited a couple times; bustling efforts by Dax McCarty and Abe Thompson demanded the studied attention of the rest of New England’s defenders. In fact, it’s worth wondering whether the Revs’ defense is their greatest weakness going into the post-season; with Dallas, that’s less a question than a living example of an Achilles’ heel.

In the big picture, though, both Dallas and New England appear confident enough with most their players not just singing from the same sheet, but singing a decent song and well. Sure, Dallas would have looked that little bit better with Juan Toja on the field and they’re still figuring Denilson into the attack, but they’re up to beating any given team on the right day…obviously, Saturday wasn’t it for them. As for New England, let’s just say that was something else: a win they fully earned through hustle, smarts and coordination, as opposed to God punishing Carlos Mendes for…I dunno, idolatry or some such… Continue reading

Many (Tangential) Talking Points: RBNY v. Chicago

As noted below (no need for pingbacks; just scroll down for the good stuff), I hadn’t intended to post the notes I scrawled through one closed eye while watching New York edge the Chicago Fire 1-0. But since it contained a couple Big Picture, Major League Soccer (MLS)-wide talking point that bubbled up as I watched, it seemed worth passing on to the curious. A personal favorite came in the 35th minute, when I concluded that Cuauhtemoc Blanco is better for the league long-term than David Beckham: he brings this whole pro-wrestling villain vibe to games – just awesome to watch.

There are many more besides, good, conversation/argument-starting talking points (like the one on Osorio coming to coach). Enjoy.

Here goes…and, as always, I’m not promising coherence and anything not lifted from my notes verbatim appears in parentheses: Continue reading