I don’t think anyone would disagree that 2013 has been a weird season for the Fire so far, even if we leave off the field antics to the side. For the first third of the year, the team couldn’t beat anybody and posted a miserable 2-7-1 record that included a 4-1 drubbing at home to league-wide laughing stock Chivas USA. For the second third, they’ve had the best record in the league (9-3-3), ground out results against the best teams in the league (RSL, Portland) and even beat a few of them (Montreal and Sporting KC), but sputtered to embarrassing defeats against inferior opponents in must-win games (DC in the USOC semis, New England in a six point swing for playoff position).
This wild inconsistency and apparent occasional total inability to even compete, let alone excel, in big matches, has many wondering whether this team has any kind of style of play under the guidance of Frank Klopas. I think that the team does play a distinctive style, which I’ll break down in a minute, but I should first note two things:
1. Style of play and stylish play are not the same thing. Style means a particular approach to the game. Stylish means attractive; some styles are, others aren’t.
2. Style and identity are different but related. Identity is about chemistry, cohesion, and conviction. A prime example would be last year’s Supporters’ Shield-winning Earthquakes team. Hate it or hate it, San Jose’s whole Goonies thing worked well for them. You don’t produce so many last minute comebacks through luck alone, even if you need some of that, too. Of course, their style of play contributed as well. Their main strategy was to turn the opponent’s box into a pinball machine and when you’re launching crosses in and pinging the ball of defenders like so many bumpers, sooner or later it’s going to drop, no matter how good the man behind the flippers is.
The Fire’s identity seems to be generally about a hard-working, tough-defending, team first approach. This doesn’t always produce the prettiest soccer, which can make the question of what exactly the team’s style is hard to answer. Nonetheless, I think a combination of data crunching and good old fashioned observations can cut through some of the clutter.
FORMATION: We know Klopas loves the 4-2-3-1 double pivot with two holding midfielders. He’s also rolled out a 4-4-2 fairly often, especially with Magee and Rolfe up top this season, although still with two defensive-minded midfielders. Consequently, the team does very little offensively in the middle of the pitch, which defines many other aspects of Klopas’ style.
WIDTH: Because Klopas’ central midfield is so defensively oriented, both in terms of tactics and players, much of the offensive duties fall to the wingers and fullbacks. However, the team generally plays fairly compact and narrow, shifting heavily when defending the ball while leaving one winger posted toward the opposite touchline, looking to start a counterattack when the d-mids win the ball. This was particularly noticeable on Friday against Sporting, when one winger would shift very far into the center of the field on defense in an attempt to crowd KC out of the midfield.
POSSESSION: The Fire do not hold possession well. Instead, they focus on sitting deep, absorbing pressure, frustrating opponents, and looking to break. In fact, the team is often noticeably worse when trying to hold onto the ball for long stretches of time. When the Fire earn a result (draw or win), they average 44% possession, versus 49% when they lose. In 2013 in particular, they have averaged only 41% possession when earning a result. Similarly, they pass the ball less in draws and wins than in losses, averaging 347 passes per result versus 371 per loss. Interestingly, their average pass completion is the same, win, draw, or lose: 75%, a fairly low figure.
ATTACKING: The team has three main attack routes. Play moves quickly from central positions out wide and the wingers run for the endline while the fullbacks overlap. Nyarko and Duka have both proved very dangerous making deep runs and cutting the ball back to the top of the box or across the face of goal. This seems to be promising for Anangonó, who was excellent at finding space at the 18 in his substitute appearance against KC. The second version of this play is the classic cross into the box to an onrushing forward; Lindpere seems to cross the most of the wingers and Anibaba among the fullbacks, while Segares makes more runs into the box. Nevertheless, the Fire generally cross less than their opponents, averaging more than 5 fewer open play crosses per game.
The Fire’s third attacking position is the basic through ball counterattack. When play is not moved immediately to the wings after winning possession, it is generally in order to put a forward or midfielder through on goal. The Fire are also fairly good at turning broken plays into scoring opportunities, although I hesitate to call this a "play" in and of itself.
It isn’t always pretty, but the bottom line is putting shots on goal. The numbers seem to bear this out as well: the Fire generally out-shoot their opponents, with 0.25 more shots per game; even better, they have about 0.66 more shots on target.
Curiously, for playing so many through balls and taking so many shots, the Fire don’t take an exceptional amount of corners; in fact, they have conceded 0.34 more corner kicks per game to their opponents under Klopas than they have earned. As was noted multiple times throughout Friday’s broadcast against Kansas City, they also have not scored directly from a corner in the last 30 games. This general weakness in the air may also be part of why they do not cross the ball as much from the run of play.
DEFENDING: Last year, World Cup veteran Arne Friedrich held the Fire incredibly stable defensively and mentored Austin Berry to a Rookie of the Year performance. Things have been shakier this year. Following Arne’s injury-forced retirement, Berry has had something of a sophomore slump (just as Sean Johnson did in goal after excelling in his first year). The return of Bakary Soumare has helped in terms of size, physicality, and experience, but Baky has also been mistake-prone at times; against New England last week, he made a number of marauding runs toward or even well beyond the midway line that stretched the Fire out of shape and led directly to the Revolution’s opening goal.
Fans will remember that the Fire were giving away set piece goals left and right in the first 10 games of 2011 under Carlos de los Cobos. The first thing Klopas did as interim head coach was to switch from a zonal to a man-marking system on set pieces and the Fire tightened up very well defensively, under the leadership of another seasoned but injury-prone veteran, Cory Gibbs. Curiously, the set piece curse has returned with a vengeance this year; now, instead of giving up goals direct off set plays, the Fire have struggled massively on second balls, either falling prey to ball watching tendencies or failing to get organized after an initial play breaks down.
The team has also been notoriously bad about conceding the first goal, far more than could be attributed to bad luck. While under Klopas’ first half-season in 2011 they only conceded first 10 out of 23 matches, since then they have given up the first goal 20 of 34 times in 2012 (60%) and an incredible 17 of 24 times in 2013 (71%). Of course, they have managed to mount a number of comebacks, but they only make it harder on themselves.
RESULTS: When the Fire win, it’s easy to forget about the missed passes in midfield, the lack of control in the center of the pitch, the defensive lapses. And yet, when they drop points, it is often in the most unspectacular, depressing fashion: every misplaced pass, every bad touch, every sloppy tackle becomes a painfully visible reminder of the team’s shortcomings. When opponents manage to contain them in transition and slow down their attempts to switch quickly into the attack, the team runs out of ideas and Frank runs out of options to change their approach.
There have to be some questions about the mentality that Klopas is able to instill in his team. It’s hard to know exactly who to blame for these recurring problems, but it was telling that Mike Magee’s arrival brought not just an upturn in form as well a vocal player who talked to teammates, fans, and media about changing the team’s attitude.
Even as Portland sloughed along to a 1-0 loss to Seattle in Sunday’s super-hyped Cascadia Cup / Dempsey home debut match, the Timbers’ Argentine attacking midfielder Diego Valeri was a joy to watch. Of course, Portland still lost.
So, the bottom line is and always will be results. You can make great passes and still lose; you can complete 65% of your passes and hold just 40.7% of possession and win 1-0 against a conference rival in a crucial 6 pointer, as the Fire did against Sporting. When Klopas can get the most out of his team’s grit and intensity, they can have a lot of success; but when things are not going their way, he has yet to figure out how to turn around a bad game.
This has led to an overall record of 36-26-20 for Klopas across three seasons (9-4-10 in 2011; 17-12-6 in 2012; 10-10-4 so far in 2013), which is not inherently bad. They narrowly missed the playoffs in 2011 after a dismal start under de los Cobos followed by a slow turnaround and final hot streak under Klopas, barely made the 2012 play-in game after a strong start to the season fizzled into mediocrity in the last 10 games, and are in danger of missing the playoffs again this year, thanks once again to a terrible start. Add in the 2011 U.S. Open Cup final appearance (2-0 loss at Seattle) and the Fire seem to have always been just on the edge under Klopas.
We know now how a Frank Klopas team plays. The question is, can the team truly excel in this style? So far, Klopas has made them almost-contenders. What will it take for them to be champions again?
Here are the charts summing up the data I compiled, sorted in a number of different ways.