Last year San Jose Earthquakes physically beat up and outworked a Fire team that could ill afford a loss. It was one of those very questionable losses that you could see coming a mile away. For whatever reason Frank Klopas deployed an odd lineup. Some of this was due to suspensions (Sega was suspended for last year's game in San Jose as well) but others were coaching decisions. Can you spot the questionable starter?
Sean Johnson, Jalil Anibaba, Dan Gargan, Cory Gibbs, Marco Pappa (Orr Barouch 72), Sebastian Grazzini, Pavel Pardo, Logan Pause, Baggio Husidic (Diego Chaves 60), Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro.
Please read my recap of the game from last year. I was full of frothy indignation.
If you'd rather not, here is the quick version. The main thrust of it was that Baggio Husidic was terrible. Frank Klopas made a bad decision by starting a lineup that was never going to succeed against a team that was going to kick, grab, punch, do anything in their power to win a game at home. So the Fire ended up losing, rather embarrassingly, 2-0 to Wondolowski's 10th goal of the season and Ramiro Corrales 2nd of the season. It sucked.
This has been a game I've been waiting for all season. Frank has been the coach for over a year now. This game should be a good barometer of where he is in his development. Can Klopas adjust to coaching against a legitimate MLS heavyweight in Frank Yallop? Just in case you doubt Yallop's pedigree please consider the following. You know the two stars that rest above the San Jose crest? Those MLS cups were both won under Yallop's first run with the Earthquakes in 2001 and 2003. He built an amazing team (Donovan and DeRo on the same squad) that then moved to Houston and was taken over by his lead assistant, Dom Kinnear, where they won even more titles. Yallop doesn't get talked about enough but he is in the conversation of great MLS coaches with Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid. So if Klopas can figure out a way to match wits with him, well then this team may have an inexperienced coach that is worth something.
So how did Klopas do? I'd say he did OK. This time around his starting lineup was better. Alex is a strong tough, physical midfielder who easily handled the early hacks of the San Jose midfield. He wasn't intimidated. The defensive midfielder pairing was strong as well. Pause and Pardo aren't the most physical duo in the league but they are also not guys who are going to get bullied around. The middle section of the field was rather stout for most of the game. Berry and Friedrich were also fairly solid.
The wings is where the team had issues. As HTIOT contributor Stephen Piggott pointed out in his tactical preview on Chicago-Fire.com, the wings were going to be a key point of concern. San Jose creates a lot of their goals from the wings, in particular their fullbacks pushing up. Tracking back defensively was going to be a main point of contention. Rolfe and Nyarko are both, typically, good at tracking back. Yet both of them lacked it at times this evening. Most of Sean Johnson's amazing stops were made against shots created by players occupying space on the wings almost always when they were 1-1 with the fullback. When the defensive track back wasn't there chances persisted. In the second half this got better. Some openings still persisted but they were significantly less. All credit to Klopas for making the adjustment at half but his players should have been more focused to start the beginning of the match.
Klopas' use of his subs were ok as well. Sherjill MacDonald got his first playing time in Fire red and looked like the bigger more physical striker we have been looking for. He played well and helped create a great opportunity for Logan Pause (of all players) to get one on one with keeper Jon Busch. I'd love to give credit to Klopas for the sub but everyone (and I mean everyone) knew MacDonald was going to come in around the 60th minute in this game no matter what. At least it looks like a useful player has been found. Hunter Jumper came in next and while I like Jumper I would have rather seen Bone or Paladini here as the midfield legs of Rolfe and Nyarko were beginning to show the amount of work they had put in (showcased by Pause being involved offensively late in the game). Personally I would have kept Alex on as I like the physicality and positioning he brings to the team especially late with a lead. The last sub of Paladini for Rolfe was called for and appreciated.
All in all I'd have to say this was a coaching improvement by Klopas. He showed a better understanding of what he needed to do to win the game and made some excellent choices in the starting 11 (Gargan over Jumper for example) even with his hands tied (No Pappa, Sega, Fernandez not yet available). A draw is a more than successful result considering San Jose's insane form this season. If it wasn't for the absolutely ridiculous amount of stoppage time (even non Fire people think this was insane) 3 points would have been won by Klopas. That would have been huge. Instead we are left with the feeling of being let down and (over?) examining the decisions that were made. Frank has taken a lot of criticism here and elsewhere regarding his tactical acumen. I'm glad to see that he is indeed improving. It may not be as quickly as I want but the trajectory of this team has been excellent during his tenure as coach.
Now comes the difficult part. The final stretch against all Eastern Conference foes. Klopas is really going to be tested during the last two months of the season and has a great chance to distinguish himself. The incoming talent combined with the outgoing talent make for a net positive gain. Now he just needs to figure out how to put it all together. This is going to hinge on his ability to adapt his preferred formation with the new talent. It may be as simple as slotting in new players (MacDonald for Oduro to name one obvious move) which could benefit both the starting line up and the bench. He may need to move to a 4-4-2 as was discussed on the Fire's pre-game broadcast by Evan Whitfield. Whatever the changes that need to be made, I feel significantly more confident in Klopas and his abilities than I did earlier this year. His growth as a coach is obvious. Now let's see that growth translate into more wins.