While many pundits in the Fire community have leveled criticism towards the team after a dreadful start to the season (myself included), we can now look at the other side of the coin. I have always made it a point to criticize when I feel it is due. That also means that praise should be given when deserved as well, and these past 3 games the team certainly deserves some kind words for their recent play. It's only fair to look at the bright side of things right now, which is much more fun than we we had to write about the first month of the season.
That's not to say that all the team's problems are fixed or the team will roll to the East crown. There are still areas of concern, but some applause is due after the squad after picked themselves up and dusted off after receiving quite a wallop to start the season. It would have been easy to get down, take plays off, and feel sorry for themselves. To the credit of Frank and the team, that is not what happened. We know how our beloved Men in Red go about their business. Despite all the early despair, they trudged through everything like troopers. And now the benefit of their commitment (as well as players getting healthy) seems to be starting to pay off.
Going back to the New York game, the team certainly was in disarray heading into the contest. Fortunately, the squad found a spark from streaky striker-du-jour Maicon Santos, who came into the game in the 2nd half to provide a brace and secure the first Fire win of the season. While New York has their own issues, they are a good squad and the win was a huge lift to the team and the fans. The cf97 community finally had something to celebrate after an agonizing first 4 games.
Last week was of course a very tough test, heading to the heat and orange-ness of BBVA Stadium. Houston's impressive home unbeaten streak made the task of taking 3 points (or even 1) out of there seem nearly impossible for a still shaky Fire side. Yet the Men in Red came into the game with an unyielding fight, and if not for a fairly fluky goal courtesy of a collective 2 second mental lapse, the team very easily could have left with a point. Despite the blow to the gut courtesy of the foot of Brad Davis, I think most fans still felt good about the team's performance overall that day.
Which leads us to last Saturday. Personally, I was looking at the game as a real test of where we are at right now. A loss could have painted the previous 2 games an an outlier rather than an indicator of things to come. Fortunately, the team kept their steady improvement up and notched all 3 points at home. Considering the victory came over a bitter rival makes it all the better. While 3 games is still a very small sample size, I also believe it's big enough to take a real assessment away in terms of the true improvement so far of this 2013 team. The 2nd half against the Crew showed how the Fire can attack when they really want to.
One of the biggest areas of increasing strength that has spurred the team onto some success these past few weeks has to be the defense. Saying that not having Arne Friedrich hurts is like saying the sky is blue. Any back line is worse for wear without the curly coiffed international out on the pitch. We all know what his loss means, but we have no choice but to deal with it. As I talked about in my post about Arne's re-injury, a silver lining of his absence allows Austin Berry to attempt to grow into that leader role in the heart of the defense. So the net gain in the long term could be very good, despite the short term costs.
Even if Arne is healthy, he figures to be in his last season or two (at most) of play. We have talked quite a bit about the young CB duo of our future being the aforementioned Berry alongside Mr. Jalil Anibaba. Due to injuries, personnel, and Arne Friedrich, Anibaba has been playing RB mostly rather than his natural CB spot. At some point though we all knew he would move back to the center of the defense alongside Berry. That has happened sooner than expected with Friedrich being out of the lineup. Again this can be looked at as a possible example of addition by subtraction in the long run.
How do we get that snazzy, shiny CB duo of Anibaba and Berry that can dominate opposing teams for years to come? By having them play together for an extended period of time so the two can grow together as a unit. As with any young players, there will be growing pains. While occasional mental lapses have really cost us on defense, this is something that has smoothed out over the past few games. While young players make mistakes (it's the nature of the learning process), I look for these to dwindle over time as the tandem get more time together under their belts.
We know that Austin has leadership ability. Anibaba does too, as he displayed Saturday after Higuain bumped Sean Johnson late in the game. The first guy on the scene, Anibaba had SJ's back and got in the face of the opposing Crew player. Both Jalil and Austin played a very solid game defensively and even offensively against that yellow team. Furthermore, they have been a big reason why the team has fared better these past few weeks. Other than the mental lapse in the Houston game (which the entire team needs to work on preventing), they have done very well against some quality opposition. They faced a dangerous New York team, and tough Houston side at home. Throw in a speedy former Fire play in Dominic Oduro and the trifecta is complete. In all 3 cases, the two helped spur a back line to solid defensive performances and 6 out of a possible 9 points.
Apart from the defense, midfield is starting to sort itself out a bit too. While I was one of the most vocal proponents for Frank going away from a 1 DM look, I have to admit that with our current personnel the 2 DM set is our best option. As much as we would all like a 1 DM formation, it's clear that our last few games (which have been our best games to date this season) have come with Logan Pause and Jeff Larentowicz staying deep. Both players are grizzled veterans, but it would also seem that neither one is capable of handling the single DM role by themselves. They did a great job together against Columbus. Larentowicz has seemed to finally be rounding into form of late, so hopefully he can keep it up consistently.
Moving further into the midfield, Joel Lindpere is still being held hostage in some remote location while his lesser skilled Doppelganger is manning the pitch. OK, that may be a bit extreme but the Estonian international still seems lost after a good handful of games with the Men in Red. Despite being deployed out on the wing (at least according to the starting formations recently), Joel tends to drift back into the middle of the pitch. He desperately wants to play the CAM role that Hans Backe denied him, which led to his ouster in New York. Problem is, he doesn't seem to be able to handle that role anymore. I think the skill is still there, but he has to accept the fact that his role needs to be different in Chicago. The team comes first and that seems to be a team with someone else pulling the strings in the center of the pitch.
At this point in the article, it's time for me to jump on the soap box for a minute. I don't understand the Nyarko hate I read from time to time. I just don't. The guy was an absolute beast against the Crew. That's not the first time I have said that, and it certainly won't be the last. He single-handedly sparked the offense and started creating things in the Columbus game, especially in the 2nd half. Simply put, the guy plays his heart out, tracks back, plays defense, creates turnovers, and never stops until the final whistle blows or he is taken off the pitch. He personifies: Tradition. Honor. Passion. He gets kicked, prodded, pushed, pulled, and just plain assaulted most games. Yet he keeps his composure and continues to play on a high level without complaint.
The team came out with guns blazing in the 2nd half, and that was all started by number 14. The 2nd stanza Saturday night was right up there with the New York game for our best half of the year. Honestly, on any other night the Fire would have won 3 or 4 to nil. And Nyarko would have had a couple of those assists. He may not be a double digit scoring winger, but as long as he is fit I want him in my starting XI. Simple as that.
Finally, moving to forward, it was another mixed bag. Rolfe seems to be finding himself a bit more the past couple of games. As the midfield continues to improve, so should his chances. He had a few good looks against the Crew. Although he scuffed them, he has skill that correlates to goals. I am confident that he will get on one of his patented scoring streaks sooner rather than later. The problem has been that he hasn't gotten it really going yet.
The other member of the forward corps is Sherjill MacDonald. And the outlook is not good. He has struggled mightily this year. While he did have a couple of good passes in the Crew match, his petulant behavior came through when he was taken off for Maicon Santos. On the tv broadcast, you could clearly see Jalil Anibaba motioning for Sherjill to hurry up, rather than the slow sauntering walk off the pitch that he employed. Then the camera zoomed in to Logan Pause, who grabbed him by the arm and pushed him toward the touchline. Sherjill pulled his arm away from Logan with a pissed off look on his face.
While I understand that he was frustrated about 2 goals that he should have put in net and didn't, there is no reason to act like that. It would seem that the situation could be taking a turn for the worse. We have an unhappy striker on our hands that is not producing. While Maicon Santos isn't an every game starter either, it's hard to justify MacDonald starting every week when his play is not dictating it. And a relegation to the bench (or a player coming in during the summer as should happen) will be an even more ominous omen in his eyes. I can't see a happy ending to this situation to be honest.
Overall, there is more good news in April than bad news. And that is a welcome thing to say right now. While there is plenty of time left in the season, it would seem that some of the new pieces are starting to mesh into the Fire system. Frank still needs to figure out what is going on with LW and RB. I can't say that Dilly Duka is the answer right now. And while Wells Thompson can fill in at RB, it's not an ideal situation.
This weekend presents another tough challenge at Stade Saputo. The Impact have started off the season pretty hot. If the Men in Red can head into Montreal and continue their form of the past few weeks, they will head into a bye week on a pretty high note. If the Fire can keep up the play they have shown in April, I like our chances for a result come next weekend. The slow, steady signs of progress seem to be popping up here and there. While the hole is not filled yet, the team has started clawing its way up to daylight.