With the Fire finishing up the first win-less month of April in club history, I am sure many of you are thinking the same thing as I am. Is it time to press the panic button? Right now, if you look at the math, we are a bit over 20% of the season completed. Although it seems like the season just started a few days ago and we still have time to regroup, 1/5 of the season is in the books. Last year, 20% of the season was at the 6 game mark, and we had two more points than we do now (in a season that most would have considered a miserable failure). We are actually worse than last year out of the gate, which is a scary thought in itself considering we missed the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history last season. Fire fans won't accept an encore performance..
Given where we are at in the standings, we don't have too much more time to mess around. When I went through the first draft of this piece in my head, I had figured it would have to be sour and depressing. Don't get me wrong everything is not roses and it's hard to be positive about anything right now. However, after rethinking what I was going to write, I found myself looking forward to May. Join me after the break for why I think you should look forward to May while giving a hearty goodbye wave to April (warning, a bit of heartache ahead first)...First things first, even though April was a hard month to be a Fire fan, we actually could have done worse, believe it or not. The team had not played together at all and we faced some formidable opponents. I think the hardest part about late March and April were the close games we gave away, which made the month seem worse than it was. Don't get me wrong, I am in no way happy with where we are at in the standings right now. But we also haven't been blown out of games either. The Portland game looked like that would happen, but the Men in Red fought back valiantly. One would expect that a truly bad team would not play as many close games as we have. Hopefully the trend of buckling late, especially with the lead, will stop. Kinney coming back could be a huge plus, and if Oduro/Puerari/Sega can start finishing some of these breakaways, we could start taking these close games we have been losing.
Let's track back quickly through the season to set the picture up. We opened the season against FC Dallas and got a draw. We missed some chances where we should have scored, but overall I think most of us were ok with the result. Let's not forget Dallas made it all the way to the MLS cup last year with MVP David Ferreira. To open on the road with a new team against a quality side, knowing we should have won and at least getting a point was a good start.
Next up was Sporting Kansas City. Although we nearly gave the game away late, we scored 3 goals and gave ourselves enough of a cushion to weather a torrid late attack from KC. At this point, we were all pretty happy. We had 4 points in 2 games, goals were being scored, and to top it off we beat a 2nd team Colorado Rapids side in the US Open Cup game shortly thereafter. Things were looking good. At least until we traveled to face the hated Seattle Sounders.
This is a game we should have won. As I mentioned at least once after that game, Kasey Keller stole the 3 points with a stand-on-your-head performance. It was like when Dominik Hasek used to have crazy games back in the day for the Buffalo Sabres (and then later the hated Red Wings- well, at least hated by me). We had chances, Keller made some huge saves, and we lost 2-1. At this point, I was still pleased myself. We were still in a decent spot, took a tough loss, but we did it at Qwest Field, which is obviously a hard place to play in.
Next came the first true test of our team's fight and character on the road in Portland. I am pretty sure we all knew this would be a tough one to win. It was Portland's first home game as an MLS side in newly renovated Jeld-Wen Field. Don Garber loves for the Fire to open other team's stadiums, as we get that "courtesy" later this year in KC. Portland came out with a crazy amount of energy, making it nearly impossible to get the win or even a draw. This is when the Fire could have laid down and died, like last year's team. Being down 3-0, I started to get worried, not just about that night, but about the next few games. To Chicago's credit, they fought back and got 2 goals pressing the issue until Portland got their fourth tally to ice the game. That sinking feeling in my stomach was growing.
What better way to get back on a winning track than having the Los Angeles Galaxy come to town with a severely depleted side? Easy win, right? They were so short on players I thought a couple of guys on my rec soccer team would be called in to play for the Galaxy. The problem was nobody told the Galaxy they shouldn't put up a fight. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead and we missed a couple of golden goal opportunities (Gonzalo Segares especially) that likely would have earned us the 3 points. We again showed resolve and heart, with Dominic Oduro scoring late on a magical shot from a tough angle to put a bit of fear into LA. By now Oduro's reputation for not finishing is a well known and often lamented fact by the Fire faithful. He can't finish goals that I could score, yet slots away goals that you make about 1% of the time. This was a loss that really hurt, we should have won that game by 2 goals had we converted our early chances. It would have completely changed the complexion of the game.
Up next was a Houston side that was coming off a hot stretch of their own and it was the same old song and dance. Diego Chaves continued his torrid start, netting an early goal that held up most of the game. Yet again, our defensive play, especially on set pieces late in the game, reared its ugly head. Just like the Fire of 2010, we let in a very late equalizer and ended up with a draw. I might as well have punched myself in the face after that result, as my gut had already been kicked when that goal went in.
Last we have Saturday's game. We were playing on the road against the defending MLS Cup champions. Colorado was putting out a much better side than what we saw in the US Open Cup. Normally, I think we all would have been fine with a draw when facing those odds, but if you have taken the time to read the last handful of paragraphs, you will know that is not the case. Maybe if we had trailed the whole game it would have been easier to take (in a sick, masochistic, only-the-Cubs-can-do-this-in-a-regular-fashion sort of way). Marco Pappa, acting as captain for the injured Logan Pause, rallied the troops with a late first half goal. Problem is that Josip Mikulic had to leave the game, and our defense turns into a walking (or in this case, running) car wreck when he is out of the line up. We let in the equalizer shortly after the half, and never could tally the second goal. It didn't help that Sega had another breakaway that we failed to convert on. This has to get better for us to start winning some of these close games. Right now our breakaway finishing is LaTroy Hawkins, when it needs to be more Mariano Rivera (or at least Joe Borowski circa 2003). Not always pretty, but effective enough of the time. Here's where we stand:
|9||Sporting Kansas City||4||6||1||4||1||10||13||-3|
By my count, had things gone even a bit more our way, we take 3 from Seattle, 3 from the Galaxy, and 3 from Houston on a conservative estimate. That gives us 8 more points, which would put us in a tie for first with NYRB. Now I know many readers might say that my outlook is a bit too rosy, but all of the games I mentioned above were winnable. We either didn't finish golden chances, or buckled defensively late in the game. The bad part is that those things happened. The good part is that we aren't looking at 5 or 10 deficiencies that cost us points, just a couple of key ones. It could be worse. Since April's results are done and in the past, let me know show you why a good May is VERY possible and why it could erase the dark April that was.
The main thing that sticks out here is the schedule. While we have already dropped points on games that we considered winnable, the teams we play in May REALLY are beatable in my opinion, at least for the most part. First off, we start with the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps.
|3||Seattle Sounders FC||12||8||3||2||3||10||7||3|
Vancouver has just as many points as us (in one more game played) and sit near the bottom of the conference like the Fire do. We have an identical goal differential and in general are very similar to us. So why the optimism, you ask? Well, Vancouver is 0-3-0 on the road. The very first game in May presents us with a chance to beat a very beatable team that doesn't have a road win yet. Plus, we may well play against 10 mean as Eric Hassli is a yellow card machine. He has had 3 goals in 5 appearances, so he can score, but he also got a second yellow (and subsequently a red for the game) by taking off his long sleeved jersey and throwing it into the crowd to celebrate a goal. He had a short sleeved jersey on under it, and while I gave him points for the planning, the MLS still considers this taking off your jersey. He had just scored a big goal for his team, and then was shown red moments after that. That's really got to make you feel dumb. I look at this Vancouver game as a MUST win for the Fire.
Next up is an away game in Toronto. It's been like a circus there for the past year or two, with players clashing with the front office, the front office unhappy, then fans unhappy, all while never having made the playoffs in their first four full seasons in the league. They have not done much this year. While they do sit one point above us, they have an extra game played, and have a worse goal differential. They are 1-3-1 this year at home, so they don't exactly "Protect That House". I chalk this up as another winnable game and a vital game at that.
Next on the slate is a trip to Philly. This will be a tough game. It's a hostile place to play, and Philly is currently in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference. They are undefeated at home with 3 wins and a draw; . I would love to get a point here, I would consider that a good showing. However, all 3 home wins, along with their lone road win, were all 1-0 scores. Their one loss was a 1-0 loss. They are obviously good at winning close games but if you look at the standings, they only have 5 goals for and 2 goals against. That's right, a second place team with only 5 goals scored so far. Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga aren't exactly lighting it up right now. 3 of those 5 goals came after the 61st minute, so that kinda scares me given the Fire's penchant for allowing late goals the past couple of seasons. I will give credit where credit is due, but you can't expect to keep winning 1 goal contests all year. At least not if you want to stay up top in the rankings. Playing close game after close game will take its toll on a team after enough of them, and they will need more scoring than they have gotten so far. That's why I think the Fire can at least squeak out 1 goal, and if we could get 2 somehow, stats say we are very likely to win. We haven't been shut out this year yet (knock on wood), so 1 goal hopefully would at least secure a point.
The final game of May comes at home against San Jose. The Earthquakes sit in last in the West, with 1 less point in as many games as the Fire. They are 1-0-2 in 3 games on the road, so that is not an insurmountable task to accomplish. They concede goals fairly evenly throughout matches, and we score them pretty evenly throughout matches. This is another winnable game in my opinion.
As can be seen, we should have a very good chance to take 10 points in May. At least, that's the optimist in me. We have already seen the Fire drop "winnable games". This makes banking on these points much harder. Say we still get 8 points (two wins and 2 draws). That would be much better than what we have been getting, and let's face it, we are about due to start getting a few breaks. Plus, if CDLC can actually get a lineup set, the team will continue to gel and play better as time goes by (theoretically at least). Plus if we can get a good May under our belts, things look up in June, and here's why...
With luck and no setbacks, we will hopefully have a healthy Steve Kinney back. His target return is May, but he will need some time to build his fitness up and log some reserve matches. I figure most of May will get a good jump start on this. If Josip Mikulic can stay healthy, Kinney will really help stabilize our back line. And let's be honest, that's been the biggest problem. Yes, not converting open chances has hurt, but we are still getting goals despite this. Jalil Anibaba has been getting better but an Anibaba/Kinney competition will make both players stronger. We might even see Anibaba or Kinney at CB. I honestly think the return of Kinney will have as big of an impact on this team as any change Carlos de los Cobos can make formation or lineup wise.
The other point to keep in mind is the transfer window. Frank Klopas has already hinted at filling a DP spot and spending money. Let's face it, if the Fire don't start winning these close games, we may well be out of it by then. But given the fact that the number of playoff teams is increasing this year, even if we are struggling, I think Frank may pull out all the stops and possibly sign multiple names to try to make a playoff push. Let's hope we don't need "last ditch" summer signings like last year. Even if we do better on the season from here on out, I still see us being active in the summer market as we have the money, and we need the help. A creative midfielder, along with back line help, should be our priorities this transfer window. Our moves should look to have a solid team in 2012 and 2013 with an eye for 2011.
Only time will tell the Fire's future. I will do another monthly recap at the end of May. Hopefully we will at least be mid-table, if not a bit higher, and all of our moods will be brightened. With a busy June that features 6 games against some tough sides, that makes May all the more important. I think it is a make or break month for our season. It's unfortunate to be saying that this early in the season, but one can't deflect the truth. If we don't win these very winnable games, we will be in a much worse place than we are right now. We need our big guns to step up, a full and raucous Toyota Park, and a bit of good luck for a change. I like our odds. I am calling a 3-0-1 month of May. Come on Men in Red! Rally the Troops! Tradition. Honor. Passion.