In a 2013 Chicago Fire campaign where Fire players, at times, seem inadequate to the task of putting the ball in net, it would be easy to make the forwards and attacking midfielders the scapegoat. Possession has not been a strong suit for the attacking Fire players and periods of sustained attack on the opposing goal have been infrequent all season.
However, the part of the squad that keeps me up at night, sweating under the sheets and staring at the ceiling overhead, is the Fire’s back line. The defensive effort has been rocky and lackluster throughout this season, giving up goals on both tactical errors and poor decision-making throughout the campaign. Going into the final three matches of the season, I am apprehensive about the ability of the team to prevent the winning goals from start to finish of each match.
I started the 2013 season with total faith and confidence in the ability of the Fire back line to be one of the sturdier lines in the league. After all, the Fire had returning center back tandem of German international Arne Friedrich and 2012 Rookie of the Year Austin Berry to shut down attacks in front of goal. Jalil Anibaba seemed to be settling in to the wing and could continue to back up in the center. The fear that Gonzalo Segares was leaving turned out to be just a move to lower his salary to a more team-friendly contract. Stephen Kinney, Hunter Jumper and Mike Videira were all options worth giving some time to. Even letting Dan Gargan go, a move that left many Fire fans scratching their heads, did not worry me too much, because I understood the need for the club to give minutes to younger players.
As with many things in life the defensive line that the Fire got was quite different than the line they expected. The loss of Friedrich to injury and retirement exposed the rest of the back line for its inexperience. The early season was weak, with the young tandem of Anibaba and Berry in the middle and an uninspiring-right-back-of-the-week where both Kinney and Wells Thompson saw time. Although an undeniable talent, Berry's inexperience was exposed in this hodge-podge environment. Segares was tenacious on the pitch, but the instability of the back line meant he could not push forward to support the attack. Anibaba was effective but unremarkable. It sure would've been nice to have Dan Gargan back as an option at that point, wouldn't it? The Fire lacked depth in the defense and Frank Klopas clearly had no faith in his cast of bench players.
But all this was supposed to change with acquisition of Bakary Soumare, right?
Soumare in the middle was, without a doubt, an essential acquisition for the Fire when he was brought in back in May. He stabilized the back line and allowed Anibaba to move back over to the right, ending the rotating cast in that position. Soumare - brought in just a week before Mike Magee - has been an essential part of the Fire's resurgence that has them within sneezing distance of the 5th playoff spot. He is aggressive, physical and has shown a propensity for breaking up the big play. However, Soumare is not without flaw.
The part that concerns me most about Soumare in the Fire back line is his questionable instincts. Playing a position where bursts of aggression making plays on the ball has to be balanced with the need to retain shape and prevent dangerous passes, there were times this season where Soumare just seemed out of position. Balancing the need for aggression with restraint is essential for a center back, and it is this part of the game which sometimes seems to be difficult for Soumare.
Soumare's acquisition also did nothing to fulfill an essential need in the back line - replacing the leadership that was lost when Friedrich retired. Berry and Anibaba are both young players who are still learning and they benefited last season from having a world-caliber defender to play with, organize them, and teach them. Soumare does not control the line with the same expertise which clearly led to the success of Berry last season. The rest of the line has seemed to follow Soumare's lead and slide out of position at times and have kept a shaky formation all season.
Without a doubt, the Fire back line was better last weekend against DC United ringing up a rare clean sheet for the Fire. As Mark O'Rourke pointed out in the post match chalkboard, Soumare seemed to benefit from the added time off following red card suspension and performed admirably in the shut down capitol. As HTIOT noted earlier this week, he was even ranked 17th on the Castrol Index.
As much as I want it to, this do not raise my confidence. To be frank, DC United is the last place club in the conference for a reason. United was also coming off of short rest because of the mid week USOC final. The clean sheet should also be more attributed to the performance of Sean Johnson, who stood like Gandalf the Grey against the Balrog, declaring "You shall not pass!" to every shot on goal. A lot of credit can also be attributed to Egidio Arevalo Rios stopping attacks in place in the midfield as well. Rios is a stocky little titan on the pitch and performed like a ball collection machine last Saturday. The back line played their part in the defense, but were not without flaw in their approach. Defeating DC was essential to keeping post season hopes alive - it was an uplifting display of quality performance - but the next few weeks are not going to be as easy on the Fire.
The Fire Defense must hold against both FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls on the road, with only one home match against Toronto to break things up. These are not DC United's attacks that the Fire defense will need to shut down. Dallas and New York both play very tough on their home turf, and mistakes will need to be minimized if the Fire are going to walk away with three points. Soumare will have to put up consistently strong performances if these opponents are to score less than the Fire offense. Berry will have to show that Rookie of the Year determination that earned him the title. Anibaba and Segares will need to remain defensive-minded and track back effectively.
The back line will likely have to do the job without Rios in front of them breaking up plays on this Saturday against FC Dallas. Rios will be on international duty representing Uruguay against Ecuador in a World Cup Qualifier. It will be interesting to see how Frank Klopas adjusts the line-up to compensate for Rios being away and whether he plans to boost the defense or focus on the offense.
I truly hope the Fire defensive line is able to come up big in the final matches of the season. As a fan I have found myself feeling more negativity about club performance than I ever expected at the start of the 2013 season. Believe it or not, I tend to be guilty of excessive optimism when it comes to sports teams I love, so I hope the bitter anxiety I have felt in general this season is an anomaly that can be corrected with three huge wins. Unfortunately, I have come to expect key mistakes in the back line. Here's to hoping the Fire defenders prove me wrong!