The Fire's offseason offensive makeover has been the subject of most of the photons spilled about the team since the close of the '14 season. For the first time, Chicago is home to three Designated Players, and all of them play in advanced positions on the pitch. The defense, it was thought, was a bit of a poor cousin on the Men in Red, bound together with wing-and-a-prayer acquisitions and a lot of hope.
Through 270 minutes of preseason ball, though, it's the defense which looks ready for prime time, putting up three consecutive clean sheets. Sunday afternoon in Portland, the back four again played a canny and cohesive game, backstopped by some timely Jon Busch interventions as the Fire drew Norwegian side Stabæk, 0-0.
The first half unfolded as something of an exercise in frustration for fans of the Men in Red. After a tenuous feeling out period, de Blaa settled on a tactic of squeezing the Fire's outlets from defense, daring the Chicago centerbacks to thread in a flawless pass that never came. As a result, Stabæk controlled possession for long stretches, with the Fire left hitting hopeful balls to new DP speedsters David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike, to little avail.
Still, there were glimmers of promise. Harry Shipp found a pocket of space after a throw in the 20th minute, only to see his right-footed shot flash wide of the far post. Igboananike sprinted onto a wayward backpass nine minutes later, but his attempt to finish with his weaker left foot was kicked out for a corner by impressive Stabæk keeper Sayouba Mandé.
Even more promisingly, the Fire managed to work through their confusion and find a way to break the Norwegians' press in the minutes prior to the end of the first half - such on-the-field solutions were rare in 2014, and rarer as the season wound on. One lovely possession close to the end of the half was typical: Shipp and Maloney drifted deep in midfield, deeper than Matt Watson, until they flanked Razvan Cocis. Stabæk's midfielders, unsure whether to follow - and thereby rob their defensive shape of its density - hesitated, and Cocis, Shipp and Maloney proceeded to pick them to pieces, making neat, shifting triangles and swirling into the attacking zone in five tidy passes.
The second half saw the more-hopeful play continue - the Fire had the better of play throughout the final 45. The closest call was an insane goal-mouth scramble in the 69th: Alex took control of a loose ball in midfield, and his looping pass forward was held up by Quincy Amarikwa. Amarikwa found Lovel Palmer overlapping into the box, and the right back's cross into the area bypassed Shipp to find Maloney at the back post. The Scot's shot was smothered by host of Stabæk bodies flung across the goalmouth in desperation, which also disrupted Mandé's attempt to play the ball ... meaning it instead fell to Cocis, whose desperate thump was also blocked ... which fell then finally to Watson, whose driven effort was also also blocked by the pile of bodies in the goal. It was the Battle of Thermopylae of preseason soccer sequences.
Sadly, a new theme crept in: Men in Red limping off the field. Accam, Maloney and Palmer all left abruptly and in pain. Maloney's suffering was only cramping, while Palmer's problem was described as a 'tight groin' - again, more a cramp than injury. Accam's problem, however, was described as a 'slight groin strain,' meaning his Fire career, long delayed by the African Cup of Nations and visa issues, is due for another short while in the waiting room.
The Fire play the host Timbers in the second round of the Simple Invitational late Wednesday night. Kickoff is slated for 9:30 p.m. CST.
Hot (Time) take
- I had to wince for Frank Yallop when Accam pulled up lame in the 57th minute. The wing forward is a big part of his plans this year, and questions will surely be asked about his playing an hour on artificial turf less than a week after arriving with the team if the injury grows protracted and niggling, as groin injuries are wont to do.
- For me, Joevin Jones was the most impressive player on the field for the Fire. Maybe it's beginner's luck, or maybe he's so calm he's almost on the nod, but he was both sprightly and responsible. Two moments stuck out for me: 1.) Threading a lovely pass forward to Maloney, eschewing the obvious hopeful ball for Accam to run onto around the 15th minute; and 2.) His almost blasé touch past an onrushing attacker at Busch's uncovered back post in the 79th.
- The defense really did look good. Adaílton seems to be just what we hoped for - a smart, experienced centerback without pretensions. Jeff Larentowicz may have extended his playing career by three years with this move. And Palmer is a pro's pro, a guy whose preparation makes it hard for anyone around him to loaf.
- With the ball, there were issues. The Fire experienced significant heartache just trying to move into the attacking zone; Stabæk's pressure was part of it, but the Men in Red made it easier for them by playing a narrow game. When the backs would resort to long balls over the top - reasonably, given the extreme compactness of the Norwegian's defense - the ball would run on the turf, availing little.
- I speculated before the game that Matt Polster might be an answer to "Who will play destroyer?', and damn if he didn't look pretty good in that role in the last 17 minutes. With the SIU-Edwardsville product in the game, the Fire shifted to more of a traditional point-backward triangle in midfield, and looked better for it. The rookie was extraordinarily vocal and assertive from the moment of his introduction, passed well, and worked out of a couple of difficult situations with the ball without incident. Worth another look, certainly.