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Words About Shapes: Capitulation, Not Conquest

Fire played better, but how much was New York in shambles? Sean Spence considers what went right last Sunday, and what it tells us about tomorrow's game in Houston

Paladini deserved MLS PotW after a joyous, exuberant 90 minutes Sunday.
Paladini deserved MLS PotW after a joyous, exuberant 90 minutes Sunday.

Fascinating, isn't it, this game? Soccer is so many things simultaneously that it's difficult to codify even a representative slice of it: It is business, and culture, and tribalism, and the use of culture by business to evoke feelings of tribalism. It is shape and space and group intention. It is eye-bulging effort and fickle, feline discontent. It is the movement of athletes across a field. It is the sartorial choices of the coaches. It is the howling, tub-thumping will of supporters.

But, at some level (the players tell themselves), it's still the same simple game. And it's true. It's all of these things all the time. All the fancy shape-thinkifying in the universe won't help a team that cannot pass the ball reliably, or whose average condition is more ‘beer league' and less ‘major league.' The game can be thought of as very simple - a child's game, for Zeus' sake! - if that helps. It's not, of course - complicating things is what humans do - but if it helps to think of this massively complex storm of emotional, physical and sociological vectors as simple, well, no one decides but you.

So, for those folks: Chicago won because they played harder for each other. The Fire wanted it more. When the game was there for the taking, it was the homestanding, desperate team from Chicago that rose up and took it. Clear eyes, full hearts, et cetera. Ya gotta believe.

Nice and simple. Also at some level true, so bravissimo for the power of simplicity.

Another way to explain the outcome was that the Fire simply played better soccer than they had previously. Fewer passes went awry; fewer first touches brought out groans; fewer runners enjoyed acres of space. The team was sharper in every little thing, and it showed in better retention of the ball, better movement into space, and better positioning after a turnover. They didn't give simple chances away as they'd done in every previous match this season. So they played better - also nice and simple, albeit less so than the above. Also, like the above, true. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

For me, the victory came from a few lovely revelations. The Fire found a simple shape the players believed they could play from, and they stayed secure within it, aided by the return of a wise mind in midfield. Danny Paladini played fantastically well as a pinched-in right midfielder. And the crowd at Toyota Park was treated to another complete loss of team nerve, this time pleasingly on the part of the visitors - New York's shape was a shambles after the 35th minute or so.

Frank keeps it simple, stupid internet haters

The shape was advertised as a 4-2-3-1, but if it was, it was a 4-2-3-1 where the central attacker didn't have to mark anyone. The shape looked like a simple 4-4-2 with the midfield playing narrow and deep, and the defensive resilience of the team in that shape was the basis for the success going forward. Two banks of four isn't sexy, but it is damned hard to break down if everyone moves as one and talks well - more on that below.

This game wasn't about shape vs. shape, though, not really. Neither coach did anything surprising. It was about will and discipline, a mental challenge at the team level, and New York came unglued while the Fire grew more confident and comfortable - a fantastic sign for Chicago, and a deeply familiar outcome for Red Bull.

Paladini was fantastic

There's a commercial that played frequently during the NCAA tournament recently. In it, there's this totally mindblowingly inspiring speech which, of course, this being the modern world, is actually Al Pacino playing a coach in an Oliver Stone movie. The speech centers around the idea that we are constantly, maddeningly close to success at every particular moment, maybe only an inch away, and (of course) "the inches we need are all around us."

I'm wondering how many times the team saw that advertisment recently. I'm wondering that in particular about newly minted MLS Player of the Week Daniel Paladini. Because Paladini was fantastic, yet for me, the difference in Paladini's game was incremental, not dramatic - inches, not yards. Recall the man has been at the center of virtually every decent attacking move for the Fire in this stultifying early season. Against Kansas City, he wins us the game with a better first touch.

He was particularly fine in a demanding role. Some players, asked to both provide ideas and intelligent runs going forward, and pinch in to the middle if needed, and please cover the winger at fullback - some players would feel it as responsibility, and shrink from it, perhaps citing fatigue, perhaps pointing at teammates. Paladini seemed to soak up the assignment not as duty but as freedom - he could push forward when he saw it, and jump into double-teams with Wells to force turnovers. He took to his duties with a joyfulness that was inspiring.

It's easy to underestimate Paladini. He's not a three-lunger, he's not a thug, he won't slalom through a defense. The best parts of his game are some of the subtlest. Which leads us to our next positive ...

Welcome back, Wolverine

Logan Pause is one of those dividing-line players for some internet Fire commenters. The argument comes down to a couple of well-worn sides. On one are the folks who point to his pass charts and lifetime statistics and conclude, with some justification, that Pause is where the attack goes to die. "He only passes backwards!" is a common complaint, usually with some graphics to illustrate.

The other side generally concedes the statistical evidence, but argues that Pause's role precludes him piling up passing numbers. I'm going to come out of the closet here: In my mind, if you can't see what Logan Pause brings to the team's shape, what the effects are of his wise mind keeping things together, then a review of the final 30 minutes of the Chivas USA game may be in order. And, additionally, I pity you a little, the same way I'd pity someone who hears a Bach fugue and says, "Dude, lotta notes."

Having Pause back in the center of midfield made the whole structure work. Without the ball, he spent a lot of time talking to the center backs, keeping the lines connected, specifically preventing them from dropping too deep as they had previously. In transition, he was nearly flawless at the sort of on-the-fly organizing which is hard to teach - assessing the runners, shouting marks, all while moving and marking himself. In possession, his status as ‘furthest back defensive mid' seemed to prompt Jeff Larentowicz not to lose his nerve, with the result that Pause and Larentowicz were much better positioned to quickly pressure the ball after turnovers than we'd seen at any earlier point of the season. Also, positioning him on the right side was a lovely way to buoy the confidence of Paladini and Thompson.

A general shout is due to Hunter Jumper. Lovely to see a guy absolutely buried on the bench get a chance and play well. He stayed within the team concept, played intelligently and within himself, and should be trusted as a backup going forward.

Mr. Wolfe weighs in

There's a scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson's characters are cleaning brains out of the back of a car. It is going well. They begin to appear smug. The clean-up man, the Mr. Fix-It, is named Winston Wolfe; he counters their smugness with a sharply-worded (and fantastically scatological) rebuke, which I will paraphrase here as "Don't start celebrating a job half-done." (NSFW, so GIYF.)

I'd like to suggest that, while the three points was lovely, the play was improved, and the group spirit palpably lifted, that Fire Nation take Mr. Wolfe's crude but memorable advice. What happened last Sunday was at least as much capitulation as it was conquest. We have miles to go before we sleep.

Specifically, New York's midfield simply stopped closing people down in the center of the field, especially in the second half. No one expects a Juninho/Dax McCarty midfield to break a lot of ankles, but the amount of space we were afforded in front of the Red Bulls back line was astonishing. New York's problems were at least familiar to Fire fans, since we'd seen exactly the same spacing issues and mental-fatigue failures the last game at Toyota Park.

I'd also like to point to the New York collapse when we consider Maicon Santos' two goals. Yes, he finished the goals, but he came in against a New York center back tandem which had taken an hour of punishment from MacDonald, and which was getting zero help from its midfield. After a few minutes' wandering, Santos' movement was good, and he finished twice, which is great. I'm certain the calls for the Brazilian to start will eventually be heeded if Sherjill can't find the net, and soon.

Whither CR17?

Finally, saddeningly, we come to Chris Rolfe. Somehow, despite Red Bulls all but conceding the ‘pocket' just in front of the centerbacks, Rolfe could not find a way to come into the game in that space. Rolfe is a player capable of carrying a team when he is in form, but - as the beginning of this season has made clear - he is also capable of floating through huge swaths of games without notable impact. Sunday, his movement and thoughts were sharp in the first half, but he seemed to press in the minutes after missing his penalty kick, understandably. He gave the appearance of a man trying to unlock New York with each individual touch rather than trusting the game to come to him.

Rolfe's career has been filled with quiet patches, often due to injuries, but also down to indifferent or unsettled play. He makes a habit of roaring back from these dips in form; in the long term, I'm not worried about Chris. He'll go on a tear where he snatches chances out of midair and feels all the runs around him instinctively. For now, though, Frank's got to find a way to either get more out of him, or find someone else who'll give more as a motivational stop-gap.

And now Houston

I'm not writing this as a preview for Houston, but I will add this: The Dynamo are extremely unlikely to crumble mentally the way New York did. We will need to bring the cohesion and enthusiasm we discovered last Sunday to compete in Texas' malarial swamp, but we'll need something more if the Fire are going to win there.

This would be an absolutely lovely time for Rolfe to find his form. As it stands, though, one point is what the team has to insure - keep it tight, communicate, stay connected, and wait for a wrinkle that gives you a chance. Baby steps.