Soccer is a game of such mind-numbing complexity that, at times, it functions as a Rorschach blot: What an observer sees in close observation tells us more about that observer's state of mind than it does the actual events on the field. A game spent hanging on desperately becomes a stirring triumph when the winning goal favors your side; conversely, crucial breakdowns at a critical juncture can erase huge swaths of dominant football from memory.
The 2014 Chicago Fire are a lovely case in point. To some fans - typically those whose allegiance dates back to the early, dominant squads around the turn of the century - this team is just good enough to avoid summoning crowds complete with pitchforks and guillotines. "We are nowhere near contending!" they cry, pointing to five wins in 25 starts. To others - perhaps those whose fandom is of a slightly younger vintage - this is a team on the verge; its six losses in 25 are the least in the Eastern Conference.
Head coach Frank Yallop seems to side mostly with the latter group, as evidenced by his oft-repeated assertion that the Fire 'should've won' several of their astonishing 14 draws this season. "It's been a tough season," Yallop said after a loss to Montreal on August 16. "We have 13 ties, which six we should have won."
The task before us today, then, is to stare at the Rorschach which is this season to date and hopefully find some answers. Fourteen draws in 25 games is remarkable, but how so? Are the Fire just bare margins from respectability, or has their fighting spirit managed to keep a truly horrible season at arm's length? Is Yallop right to see the glass half-full, or is more pessimism justified?
Sister-kissing under the microscope
Let's go draw by draw, considering each in order. For each, I will offer a judgement as to whether the outcome was Just, or Points Stolen, or Points Dropped. In the next section, I will consider where the Fire would be in this miraculous mirror-universe where the outcome of a soccer match lines up perfectly with the run of play.
Draw 1: March 16 at Portland, 1-1. Fire lead for much of the match, but surrender a goal in the 79th to draw. However, Timbers dominate the final 30 minutes as Men in Red finish with only 8 healthy field players. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Draw 2: March 23 vs NYRB, 1-1. Fire take an early lead and defend well for much of the match, but let up a sloppy goal on a set piece in the 21st minute. Decision to play on the counter means 60 percent possession for visitors. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Draw 3: March 29 at DC, 2-2. Chicago again gets the initial goal, this time against the run of play, before DC sets siege. Subs Nyarko and Anangono combine for tying goal in 82nd minute to United's chagrin. Verdict: POINTS STOLEN.
Draw 4: April 5 vs Philadelphia, 2-2. The first appearance of the Keystone Kops PK Experience as Magee blows late penalty. Union score two goals late in the first half, but Fire win statistically in nearly every category. Verdict: POINTS DROPPED.
Draw 5: April 12 at Montreal, 1-1. Fire with second straight solid team performance, dominate possession and chances created. Di Vaio's brilliance puts MacInerney through for first goal, though. Verdict: POINTS DROPPED.
Draw 6: April 19 vs New England, 1-1. Anangono's Waterloo, as the 'transfer-fee DP' insists upon taking a stoppage time penalty and blows it. Verdict: POINTS DROPPED.
Draw 7: June 1 vs Los Angeles, 1-1. Freakish early-season heat wave renders each team immobile. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Draw 8: June 4 at Colorado, 0-0. The Fire have never had much joy at altitude, and three days removed from the soul-sapping heat of that Galaxy game, come out determined not to surrender a goal. They don't, but they also seldom threaten to score. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Draw 9: July 2 vs Toronto, 1-1. Luke Moore's red card gives the Men in Red all the ball, but a complete marking failure at the close of the first half costs them a goal against the run of play. Once Fire equalize, 10-man Reds muzzle Chicago convincingly. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Draw 10: July 6 at Kansas City, 1-1. Fire mostly handle Sporting's withering pressure, but seem content once even on the road. Sean Johnson makes several brilliant saves to preserve the draw against defending champs on the road. Verdict: POINT STOLEN.
Draw 11: July 19 at Philadelphia, 1-1. The 'Sega's arm' game. Fire control the game and the Union, but see their narrow advantage undone by a horrible penalty call. Verdict: POINTS DROPPED.
Draw 12: July 30 vs Vancouver, 0-0. Chicago, reeling after dropping a 5-1 stinker on the road against San Jose, 'set their stall out to defend,' as the English say it. Good news: They defended. Bad news: That's all they did. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Draw 13: August 2 vs Columbus, 1-1. Fire play well in first half, take one-goal lead into break, then inexplicably fail to mark Federico Higuain early in the second half. Milkman makes three great saves to keep it even; Cocis skies a golden chance in stoppage time that would've won it. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Draw 14: August 23 at Toronto, 2-2. Fire never lead on the road, but Amarikwa's tally in the 89th knots it. Even game between two teams unsure of their strengths. Verdict: JUST RESULT.
Which leaves us where?
By my count, the Fire should have won four of their 14 draws, drawn eight, and lost two. In our imaginary universe of explicable footballing outcomes, the Men in Red improve from 5-14-6 to 9-8-8, which moves their point total from 29 to 35. Factoring in the changes to the other Eastern Conference team's records due to this influx of righteousness, the current, Ultra-Just Universe MLS Eastern Conference standings would look something like this:
|Team||Actual W-T-L||Actual Pts||Team (Just Universe)||Just W-T-L||Just Pts|
|DC United||14-4-8||46||DC United||15-3-8||48|
|Sporting Kansas City||12-6-9||42||Sporting Kansas City||13-5-9||44|
|New England||11-3-12||36||New England||11-2-13||35|
By my calculations, Yallop is onto something when he says the team's play deserves a better place in the standings - though I put the number of draws they 'should've won' at four, not six. That said, even in our imaginary 'Just Universe,' it's not like the Fire are storming their way to the top of the Eastern Conference - they're at the top of the muddle for the final three playoff spots, not at the bottom of it.
That said, most of the 'points dropped' entries came early in the season - three of the four were consecutive contests in April. Since then, justice has been served more often than not, sadly.
For this squad, for 2014, it's hard to see anything from this ink-blot but mediocrity. Of course, your mileage may vary - so much of this analysis is based upon reading the Rorschach presented by each game. What's your analysis? Are the Fire closer to collapse, or contention?