Don't act like you didn't know how this game was going to play out. It was always going to be physical. Always. KC was going to play this like a playoff game and up the physical intensity. Which they did. Their game plan was evident from the first foul in the first minute. Beat Chicago up, get into their head and disrupt the flow of the game. If you want to complain about the officiating go ahead. Any seasoned viewer of MLS can tell you that physical play gets a pass as the season goes on. That doesn't make it right, just makes it something the Fire should be planning for. The game was allowed to be physical from the opening whistle. So at least Chris Penso was (sort of) consistent.
KC physically and mentally dominated the first half. They beat the Fire up and stole their lunch money. Imposed their will all over the field. The Fire created only one chance, a shot that Chris Rolfe pushed wide. After the first goal the Fire lost their defensive shape and mentally appeared to be on the ropes. To be clear the first goal scored by Graham Zusi should not have happened. It was a great finish but Zusi flashed in front of two defenders, neither of whom decided to go with him. Tactically the decision to not man mark Zusi has to be questioned. Zusi is clearly the best player on Sporting KC. One of the best creators in MLS and, as demonstrated last season, has an ability to score.
Hard to quibble with the starting lineup. Alex's play continues to be an interesting issue tactically. He doesn't fill the hole left by Pavel Pardo and his lack of defensive instincts combined with his natural tendency to push up the field was exploited by the Kansas City midfield. Pardo is an irreplaceable player. His smarts, passing ability and overall field general ability are second to none. His absence has been glaring in recent matches and the Fire finally ran into a team that found a way to successfully exploit it.
I love Sherjill MacDonald. He has been a very good player for Chicago since joining from the Belgian Jupiler league (or Juniper as I like to refer to it on twitter). Yet he needs to be greedy and shoot more often. His lack of trust in his shot is evident right now. Being the loan striker he has to at least attempt to trouble the keeper on occasion. I like that he is a smart player looking to hold the ball and get his teammates involved but at some point he has to start being more aggressive. It was badly needed on Friday with the offense sputtering to create.
The second half was better from Chicago. More fight and they stepped up to the physical challenge better than the first half. The challenge on Nyarko in the 50th minute was absolutely horrifying. How a yellow was avoided is mystifying. Nyarko, to his credit, battled on after this. He took several giant hits as the game went on. This was an example of the fight the team was able to bring in the second half. It may not have been exactly what you wanted or what was needed but the ability to take a knockout punch and stay standing has to be credited. Being able to stay in this game into the dying minutes when the kitchen sink was thrown forward is commendable. I felt a sense of pride watching the second half. There I was singing, watching my team take body blow after body blow but staying upright and continuing to press for the equalizer.
One bright spot in the second half was the tactical shift to two strikers when Oduro came on. That change flustered KC. The Fire looked like they had some pep in their step with Alvaro Fernandez directing the attack from deeper in the midfield with Rolfe playing behind the two strikers. It was daring and something different. While it didn't produce a goal the formation worked well enough to utilize at another time as a change of pace. A second tactical shift took place in the 70th minute when Guillermo Franco made his Fire debut coming in for Patrick Nyarko. This is another substitution I liked. Live this appeared to be a bit early but on after re-watching the broadcast it was clear Nyarko was running out of gas. This dropped Dom Oduro into the right winger position where his pace can be surprisingly effective. He helped create a few chances with solid runs with the ball from the midfield. Franco looked like he has something to offer. While his physical tools aren't fully back from his injury riddled time with Pachuca it was clear that his positioning, willingness to sacrifice for the team and soccer IQ are still top notch. Both of the tactical changes were an apt demonstration of Frank Klopas' growth as a manager. These kind of changes would not and did not happen during last year's late push for the playoffs.
Unquestionably the physical tactics and time wasting of Sporting KC got in the head of the Fire as the game wore on. The last 5 minutes of the game, including stoppage, were not filled with cool, calm decision making. Franco getting tripped in stoppage set off the powder keg. Klopas got run shortly after this and Gonzalo Segares got a second yellow for dissent a few minutes later. The NBC sports camera work was terrible on this. From the live view point the card had nothing to do with the challenge but with some yelling at the ref about the foul afterwards.
Some notes from the road trip: Excellent bus with great people. Seriously one of my favorite bus trips ever. Met some new to me supporters who were awesome. Sang my ass off and loved every minute of the trip home. Even the 2 AM stop at MacDonalds. Major props to Javier and his Los Comales crew for some sandwiches at the tailgate. Many more stories to tell but you'll have to find me in person for that. Heh, Heh, Heh.
Final take home from this game has me more encouraged than the previous performances. A never say die attitude in a hostile environment against one of the best teams in the league is nothing to scoff at. No we did not win, but we were missing one of our better players in Pavel Pardo and still managed to be creating opportunities until the very end. I expect the Fire to finish this season with gusto.