As the final whistle blew at Toyota Park last night, there were no boos but also no cheers. Tweed put it best when I talked to him after the match, describing the result as "soccer purgatory." It many ways the performance mimicked many games this season where the Fire dominated possession and had the best chances but failed to score more than one goal.
There was a huge sense of optimism before the game when the news broke that both of the Fire’s new signings Pavel Pardo and Sebastian Grazzini would be in the starting eleven. There were lots of questions before the game over the fitness of Pardo but this was clearly a bit of mind games by the Fire. In the end it was Grazzini who was subbed off after 60+ minutes while Pardo lasted the full 90.
The Fire started the match in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Oduro as the lone striker, Paladini and Pardo in the holding midfield positions, and Logan Pause at right back. Creative midfielder Grazzini was given a free role. After only five minutes, the Fire were forced to make a change when Gibbs came off injured. He was replaced at center back by Jalil Anibaba. Anibaba, who played at center back in college, slotted in effortlessly next to Josip Mikulic.
The first half saw few real chances created by either side. Grazzini ran the show in midfield for the Fire, often dropping very deep to collect the ball before turning, beating a man and starting an attack. Oduro held the ball up well in the first half and often combined with wingers Pappa and Nyarko. The Fire created a few chances in the first half but never really tested Philly keeper Faryd Mondragon, with Pappa hitting a volley straight at him while Gazzini and Nyarko blasted shots over the bar. Pardo and Paladini did a fantastic job breaking up Philly attacks and their distribution to the attacking players was also excellent. Gonzalo Segares, a player who is rapidly becoming more known for his attacking play rather than his defending bombed forward time after time and combined well with Pappa and then Nyarko on the left wing. On the other side of the defense, Logan Pause had a solid first 45 at right back. While not advancing as far forward as Segares, his distribution from the back was excellent, completing 84% of his 67 passes in the game.
Ten minutes before halftime, disaster struck. Philly gained possession outside the Fire box from a long clearance and attempted to play a through ball which was intercepted by Anibaba. The ball bounced straight to the advancing Panuovic who curled an unstoppable left footed strike into the bottom corner past the diving Sean Johnson. Philly’s first real chance, and only shot on target the whole game, found the back of the net. Philly had looked average at best before the goal, with former Fire player Justin Mapp posing the only real threat. Mapp, like Grazzini on the other side of the ball, had a free role but for the most part was well contained by Paladini and Pardo. As the halftime whistle blew, the Fire found themselves down a goal at home, something that has become all too familiar at Toyota Park over the past few seasons.
The Fire continued where they left off in the first half and were eventually rewarded ten minutes after halftime when Nyarko’s cross found Oduro in the box and after a scramble between him, a defender and the goalkeeper, the ball squirted back to the onrushing Pardo who slotted the ball neatly into the same corner that Panuovic had scored in the first half. With the equalizer in the bag, the Fire pushed for a winner, but sadly it wouldn’t come. Oduro had two fantastic chances to win the game after being played through by Pappa but both times his shot hit the keeper at close range. Grazzini was substituted after 66 minutes and received a big round of applause from the fans after a stellar debut. Nazarit came on, taking the target man role while Oduro reverted back to a winger while Pappa played in Grazzini’s more advanced attacking midfield role.
The last 20 minutes saw the Fire really push for a winner, leaving themselves exposed to the threat of a Philly counter attack but Mikulic and Anibaba came to the rescue with fantastic last ditch tackles to prevent the Union from stealing more than a point. Diego Chaves came on for the last eight minutes and the Fire switched to a more conventional 4-4-2 with Pappa and Oduro on the wings and Nazarit and Chaves up top. This switch made little impact and in the end the Fire had to settle for another draw, their 13th of the season. The six to one shots on target ratio looks all too familiar to Fire fans who have seen the team dominate games this season and still come back with only one or no points to show.
The Fire though can take a lot of positives from this match minus the result. Pardo and Grazzini had excellent debuts, Grazzini excelled in the free role and Pardo’s covering and fantastic passing helped the Fire start attacks quickly. Grazzini is the first player since Blanco who genuinely wants to possess the ball at all times. On a few occasions last night he dropped deep to collect the ball only to be overlooked, leaving him looking perplexed. Over the past couple of seasons, minus Pappa’s moments of brilliance, the Fire have lacked a player that has the ability to change a game, from what I saw last night and at Soldier Field against Manchester United, I think Grazzini can be that player. Paladini had a very tidy performance alongside Pardo in the midfield. Paladini has done more than enough to deserve a starting spot on this team and I can see him and Pardo forming a formidable partnership in the weeks to come.
The back line minus Segares was outstanding against Philly, limiting them to only one shot on goal. Anibaba and Mikulic had a great understanding, rarely putting a foot wrong. Logan while truthfully not tested too much but a solid game at right back his only flaw being over hit crosses. That being said if you ask any manager, he or she will take over hit crosses all day as long as the defender is doing his job on the other end. Segares was the only blemish on the back four’s performance. He was beaten numerous times by ether pace, skill, or poor positioning and is really becoming a bit of a liability for the Fire. Sega has clearly lost something since his return from Cyprus and I hope for his and the team's sake that he can start to get back to the form he was in before going to Europe.
After last night’s result, Sunday’s game against Vancouver is a must win. If the Fire play like they did against Philly, the goals will come. The Fire should take inspiration from, of all places, Kansas City, where the Wizards are currently on a 14 game unbeaten streak. A similar run in the last third of the season is something the Fire must try to accomplish if the team has any hope of making the Playoffs.