Watching a home loss to division rival Sporting KC, followed by a loss in a home friendly in front of a crowd of Club America fans that far outnumbered the Fire faithful, followed again by a road loss to a gifted Whitecaps side is enough to leave a bit of pit in a devoted fan's stomach. Now might be a good time to pop a few antacids and reevaluate what direction this season is headed in for the Fire.
The Soumare trade followed by the Mike Magee acquisition clearly gave Pepto Bismol to an ailing Fire season. A bolstered defensive line followed by a goal scoring machine in Magee being thrust onto the pitch improved the figurative indigestion of the Fire and gave fans something to cheer for. But was this change sustainable given the current roster?
The fear that is ever present is that the Fire will slip back into the depths of despair from which the season began. Just when the weather turned for the better and ticket value and attendance started to creep back up from the bowels, the Fire had two significant losses in MLS play. Sure, Sporting Kansas City is arguably the best side in the East and the loss was not an embrace comparable to that which was seen earlier in the season such as against Chivas. We all can agree that Vancouver is a club on the rise and losing to them on their home (sorry excuse for) turf is not a horrible result either.
Still, it is apparent that some mistakes were made during these matches, many of which have been made at other times during the season. I remember sitting next to my father in the stands for the Sporting match explaining the caliber of player Graham Zusi was to him since he is a new fan. I no sooner said that you can not give a player of his quality that much space to work, then the ball hit the back of the net.
Although there is a clear improvement in defense from the beginning of the season and the Fire are finding ways to shut down a lot of plays that would have slipped through earlier in the Spring, the back line at times looks shaky, over matched and out of position. In the case of the Whitecaps the Fire defense seemed in control through the first half, although they may have chased the 'Caps a little. The second half was a different story and the back line seemed to come out over confident and cocky, and were completely embarrassed by a talented Camilo Sanvezzo.
I hate to point fingers at a sophomore Austin Berry but clearly his skill set benefited from working under the tutelage of Arne Friedrich. Soumare brings a strength to the central back line but does not seem to bring the same level of leadership to the young players there. The back line is clearly an area of the pitch that needs some improvements before the summer transfer window closes as the same cast of characters has to go out every significant match and grind it out. Depth is key. Austin and Jalil Anibaba have a lot of skill but need a legitimate back-up option.
The attack is in need of improvement as well. Magee's dazzling goal scoring efforts blinded fans for a while but the Fire attack has not been as deadly as is needed to make the playoffs in a competitive Eastern conference. DIlly Duka's emergence in the attack has shown promise and brought creativity. Alex has demonstrated a knack for picking pockets in the midfield and creating turnovers. Patrick Nyarko has been effective at creating space and drawing fouls. All, at times, have demonstrated pace and creativity in combining with forwards Chris Rolfe and Mike Magee. But no one other than Magee has shown a killer instinct in front of goal.
We can hope for a major acquisition to help with the attack, but it might not hurt to have a look at what changes can be made in the system. Pragmatically, it may be time to consider a shake up in the front line and/or midfield. Rolfe missed several opportunities against Vancouver which were potential goals. These are going to happen throughout the season, and Rolfe continues to combine well with Magee up top. However, a slight reduction in playing time for Rolfe should not be discounted just because of how important he was to the club as its lead goal scorer last season.
On the flip side, Quincy Amarikwa has shown hunger and skill with the ball in front of him when given the opportunity. Why not increase his minutes a bit to see what we have in him? He might prove a solid partner for Magee up top until a new player can be found. Why not try to find ways to get Daniel Paladini more time on the pitch? He is never shy about trying to score, which can fit in well with many of the other Fire players up top and in the midfield who rely on footwork and can often take one too many touches in the box.
It also might be valuable to look at the over all game plan for each match. There have been several matches this season, such as against the Houston Dynamo and against the Whitecaps where the Fire seemed to have a plan that worked for the first half of the match when a solid Fire shut down the opponent. In the second half of these matches, the Fire's opponent seemed to come out of the locker room with an adjusted game plan and found the Fire unprepared. Perhaps its time that the Fire are the club that changes strategies in the second half and shocks their opponent.
Whatever the Fire do, they need to do it soon. A solid push needs to occur to get the club back into the heat of a cluttered playoff race. The Fire have a lot of talent and I truly believe that even without new acquisitions they have the skills to compete against the best in Major League Soccer. Until they figure it out, I will keep the bottle of antacid close at hand.