Fans had already watched Chris Rolfe miss the goal entirely on a penalty kick and each passing minute seemed to heighten fan frustration, although the stalwarts in the front of the section continued to sing and cheer. An unidentifiable, accented voice could be heard throughout the section exclaiming "This is Sh@# football!" Although the Fire had achieved their season’s second goal off of a Hunter Jumper cross to Daniel Paladini in front of the goal in the 41st minute to equalize the match, confidence in the Fire’s ability to score still seemed to be at a severe low point. Each attack on goal continued to fizzle. One might think the goal was the size of the reactor vent on the Death Star requiring a perfect shot and the use of the force to hit. Stay on target. Stay on Target. Negative. It didn’t go in.
The fans, if not the club itself, began to wonder were our expectations for this season too high? The 2012 season ended on a sour note for Fire fans. After squandering an effort that had the Fire within 1 win of Kansas City for leading the Eastern Conference and a chance at the Supporters Shield, fans were still confident. The Men in Red had locked up a spot in the playoffs and post season action was inevitable. The acquisitions of Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald in mid season had added a credibility to the attack that had left the Fire when Sebastian Grazzini had departed earlier that year. Although Rolfe and MacDonald helped lead the Fire to an important play-off berth the honeymoon period had dissolved. MacDonald showed a knack for holding the ball up but he did not show the killer instinct needed to become a much needed goal scorer. Teams read the scouting reports and learned to neutralize Rolfe’s cunning attacks by smothering him with defenders and limiting his space to work. The results were dropping towards the bottom of the playoff table and losing the one match elimination to the Dynamo.
Perhaps this should have been a warning sign? Still, expectations for the Fire in 2013 were high in the off-season. After all the club had made a playoff appearance in 2012, something they had missed in 2011, and the team unity under Frank Klopas seemed high. The off-season brought in some new faces that seemed likely to improve the club. Klopas signaled that he was putting his stock in established veteran presences as he traded a 2013 international slot to the Red Bulls for Joel Lindpere and sacrificed a first round pick to Colorado in the Superdraft for Jeff Larentowicz. The trade that followed of Dominic Oduro for Dilly Duka (and some useless rights to Robbie Rogers) seemed to shore up a midfield which had need of some depth. Macion Santos, who was acquired in the re-entry draft, was added to provide substitution minutes for Rolfe and MacDonald who could focus on their attacking game with the revitalized midfield feeding them the ball from behind. Combined with the robust returning backline of Segares, Berry, Friedrich and Anibaba and with Sean Johnson in his house the Fire looked ready to go places in 2013.
It’s possible that confidence was bolstered by the pre-season performance of the Fire. Flashy performances by speedster Yazid Atouba, who was acquired late in the Superdraft, were encouraging. Yazid's two goals gave promise, as well as provoking key fouls near the box during pre-season matches. Things were looking up. Nabbing their first Carolina Challenge Cup was icing on the cake. Still there was reason to be concerned however. Rolfe and MacDonald, who were billed to lead the offensive efforts for the Fire, experienced a famine of goal scoring leaving some to wonder where the goals were going to come from in 2013. The veteran players brought in to work with the returning midfielders were still feeling out each other. Tweed argued that there were not enough returning minutes to the Fire and the group would need to clock minutes together before the goal scoring would increase. In addition, injuries to captain Logan Pause and defender Arne Friedrich before the season even began threw a wrench into Klopas’ game plan.
The resulting combination of injured players, new faces establishing an on field rapport with the returning players and the lack of cohesion that resulted from all of this has been a rude awakening for fans who had expected the Fire to pick up where they left off 5 matches before the end of the 2012 season. The back line without Friedrich was not the anchor it was expected to be. The Fire seemed to lack consistency at maintaining formation when moving forward on the attack. The lack of results was first felt on opening day in LA. Feeling optimistic without Landon Donovan to face, the game plan was to shut down Robbie Keane as the Fire pushed for a result against the Galaxy. Consequently, no one from the Fire seemed to see Mike Magee coming. A 4-0 decision against the team pulled a rug out from under the club's confidence.
Wiith an upcoming home match against a perceived weaker side in the Revolution, fans headed to the park with more confidence. Brushing aside the 4-0 loss, the Men in Red took the field against New England in week 2. Fans felt secure in a Fire team that would surely return to form on their home turf. Despite the Fire having more opportunities in the match, Jerry Bengtson’s 62nd minute header put the Revolution up and the Fire were not able to equalize. Fans were disappointed but were not in panic mode because the Fire were able to press a number of opportunities (without finishing, a familiar lament for Fire fans in recent years). However there were some dire warning signs. Sherjill MacDonald, the highest paid player on the club, looked fatigued and his fitness was called into question by many analysts. Rolfe left the match in the 65th minute and the team simply could not put one in the net. The results were brushed aside by player statements regarding it taking forwards time to warm up.
The third match took the Fire to cold Kansas City to take on the 2012 Eastern Conference leaders. Sean Johnson emerged on the pitch with the focus of a witch doctor fresh from a sweat lodge, swatting away shot after shot. A concerning note was that Kansas City out possessed the Fire 73 percent to 27 percent which does not speak well to the Fire’s passing game. Clearly it was Frank Klopas’ game plan to defend against Sporting’s attacks at all cost, rarely pushing an attack. The results were a 0-0 draw leaving Sporting fans whining about how difficult it is to score when the opposing team spends most of their time in their own half. This is likely sour grapes in that it is a reasonable strategy to play for a draw on the road when facing a club that is perceived to be stronger. This match was re-assuring in that Klopas demonstrated a willingness to change his game strategy based on situation. Under normal circumstances the results would not be bad but the Fire went through their third straight match without a goal and the Fire faithful were beginning to be on a real edge by now.
The 4th match of the season would see a team still struggling with injuries on another cold dreary day. The Fire faced Chivas with palpably more apprehension. Although most thought the Fire should be able to handle the Goats, confidence was at a low point. Paolo Tornaghi manned the goal with Johnson on international duty. The Fire went down 0-1 again but Patrick Nyarko was able to put the Men in Red on the board for the first goal of the season in the 64th minute when MacDonald found him open in the box. From there things would spin downward as a couple of mental errors and questionable play by Tornaghi and the rest of the Fire led to a loss 1-4. MacDonald again looked lazy and unfit on the pitch and the Fire in general looked like they could not keep pace with Chivas.
The Fire would have a bye week and break from MLS action to reflect on the loss. This brings us to where we began in the April 7th match against the Red Bulls. Ultimately Klopas ordered a timely removal of MacDonald from the match. Maicon Santos achieved a brace in the final seven minutes of the match leading the Fire to achieve their first win of the season and jump to a goal total of four on the season. Paladini's performance was admirable and likely the best of his professional career. If the team performance was not tight it was serviceable. The Fire beat a Red Bull side that was expected to win and in an instant gave fans something to hope for and a feeling of anticipation that this might be the turning point.
This past Sunday’s match in Houston brought another let down for Fire fans. Traveling to the city where the Dynamo have been virtually unbeatable with no losses in all competitions in 35 consecutive matches, it would not have been shocking to see Klopas employ the same strategy he did with Kansas City and play for the draw. Instead, the Fire were riding a wave of energy from their first home win and came out of the gates aggressive. The match featured some encouraging play from the Fire pushing the attack and keeping some serious pressure on the Dynamo. In the first half, the Dynamo were forced to rely on quick counters to mount any serious attacks on the Fire who seemed to be controlling the pace of the match. Despite dropping behind on a Will Bruin header the Fire bounced back in the 29th minute. A throw in to MacDonald led to a pass to Paladini in the box who had enough space to make a light tap to an open Rolfe. Rolfe finished it for his first goal of the season.
Ultimately the Fire would fall behind again in the 81st to the efforts of Brad Davis, who sent a ball bouncing through the defense, but it may have been the best technical match they have played all season. The Fire looked hungry all night and did not give in, which is encouraging. But clearly some questions remain on whether expectations were too high and whether the Fire can perform in the East and around the league. Commentators from around the Chicago Fire blogosphere will argue that until the Fire acquire a legitimate goal scorer up top they are never going to meet stated goals of going deep into the playoffs and beyond. It also remains to be seen whether the club can stay healthy enough to put the best starting 11 up each match. Is there is enough depth to carry the club through injuries? Right now that answer has to be no.
The Fire are not going to be successful until Sherjill Macdonald can develop a spring to his step, a hustle to the ball and a bit more grit when challenged by defenders in order to take some pressure off of Rolfe. Santos can not be relied upon to be the primary goal scorer and must be relegated back to a reserve role. The team as a whole will need to show improved passing and much better finishing if they are going to perform at the level most of us expected before the start of the season. However, fans should not pull out their razors just yet. The April 7th match against the Red Bulls showed that the team can make some adjustments, play a little tougher and get some results. Some modest progress was made with the team attacking as a unit, and this carried over well on Sunday against the Dynamo.
It is also noteworthy to mention that the results against New York were achieved without the complete "A" team with key players Segares, Nyarko and Friedrich out on injury. With a return of Arne Friedrich it is possible that the back line can return to being the barricade fans counted on throughout the summer of 2012. This would free up the midfield to press the attack and support the strikers. Lindpere and Larentowicz clearly have the talent and experience to contribute moving forward and as they have increased repetitions working with Patrick Nyarko and the rest of the returning players they will likely become more effective on the pitch. If the midfield can increase aggression and contribute more, Rolfe may be able to get the space he needs to begin scoring goals again at the rate that was seen upon his return to Major League Soccer.
Perhaps the best chance for the Fire to turn the season around would be a mid-season acquisition of a legitimate goal scorer. If the Fire were to acquire a serious threat before the summer window comes to an end then the loose MLS play-off structure could allow for a late season push. It is possible that we all were blissfully unaware of the warning signs and the Fire were destined to perform far below our expectations as fans. But as fans a certain level of optimism is what keeps us making the long drive out to Toyota Park week in and week out. With improved team effort, enhanced performances and players returning from injuries perhaps the Fire can begin to achieve at the level we have come to expect.