Peine forte et dure (legal French for "forceful and hard punishment") was never widely used in the USA, at least not until the first half of Wednesday's Fire-Columbus MLS match. The medieval punishment, a sort of precursor to Contempt of Court citations, piled stones upon the chest of one accused (typically one who refused to answer questions leading to a plea) until a that person offered a plea. It is listed in Wikipedia under ‘Crushing (Execution).' Last evening, the Crew attempted to revive it, succeeding well enough to escape Chicago with their first road win of the season, a 1-0 suffocation of the Men in Red.
The Fire entered the match with a bit of wind in their sails, courtesy of Saturday's 1-0 surprising of Seattle. That wind vanished almost the moment the game kicked off, as la Maquina Roja quickly found themselves playing the Washington Generals in a pressing and passing clinic from Columbus. Buoyed by the return of talismanic midfielder Wil Trapp, and placed advantageously by manager Greg Berhalter, the Gold and Black were everywhere in the first 30 minutes:
The Fire played a simple empty-bucket 4-4-2, counting on wide midfielders Harry Shipp and Michael Stephens to be clever enough to create chances going forward and industrious enough to slow the visitors' advances down the flanks - but the Crew's default possession 4-2-3-1 puts tremendous pressure on flank defenders, and the two were too busy chasing to scheme much.
On the other side, the Crew played like a home team, pressing with increasing tempo and abandon over the first half. After a half hour, Columbus had more than 70 percent possession, and a vastly more pronounced advantage in actual attacking play.
Chicago's backline consisted of a battle-tested veteran right back, a young depth centerback, a rookie centerback who's played all season in midfield, and a rookie left back. Flattened out to the margins by the visitor's pressure, the Fire defense couldn't find a way to keep the ball, instead banging a series of aimless long balls which the tiny, speedy striking corps couldn't control. Then Trapp would appear and order would reassert itself, but a wrong kind of order; the yellow men ascendant, the red men downtrodden.
When Columbus had the ball, that same backline had plenty of opportunity to gawk as the visitors passed through them. Federico Higuain found room to display his finely-crafted wares, here a flick to save possession, there a fumbling dither which reveals itself to be a time-wasting pratfall that allowed a run to develop; there is no finer cat burglar in MLS.
Columbus with a solid game plan to ruthlessly press high forcing the #cf97 youngsters into passing mistakes.
— Nicholas Fedora (@nfedora3) July 16, 2015
Indeed, the game might have gotten out of hand early if it weren't for the fact that the Fire pay Sean Johnson to play in goal. The Milkman had the three saves required for the Aldi giveaway before halftime:
In the 14th minute, Columbus' Justin Meram wanders from his left-wing post to the right, bamboozling the Fire's marking, then slides a through ball to Ethan Finley who is suddenly behind the gape-mouthed Chicago backline. Johnson sees the play develop and charges out hard, blotting out the goal and leaving Finley to golf the ball off of him in frustration.
Barely 45 seconds later, the Crew are back on the ball after the Men in Red clear. Higuain is there again, dropping a little deeper now to keep the pressure on, finding Meram just now floating back to the left side with a first-time pass. Meram's cross finds MLS scoring leader Kei Kamara storming onto the back post, but again Johnson is there to turn the shot away.
Nine minutes after that, it was Johnson again, stretching to tip a Chad Barson header off of a Higuain free kick over the crossbar.
All of which is to say that Columbus' lead, when it finally came, felt more like confirmation than turning point. Patrick Doody gets caught upfield when a Harry Shipp pass goes awry, and the Crew break down that side. Of course it winds up on the foot of Finley, the league assist leader. Of course his back-post cross finds Kamara, the league goals leader, thundering goal-ward. Of course. 1-0, Columbus, in a game that felt more like 4-0. The half ended - mercifully - before the yellow lads could distribute any further abuse.
At the least, the Fire didn't go down without some flailing about. The Men in Red went for a full-throated attack as the second half wound down, pulling Michael Stephens, Kennedy Igboananike and Chris Ritter for Patrick Nyarko, Jason Johnson and David Accam.
As usual, it was the inclusion of Accam which changed the tenor of the match. After clinging desperately to a one-goal deficit for much of the second half, Chicago was suddenly ascendant with the Ghanaian in the lineup. In his first minutes for the Fire since June 6, Accam used his pace and palpable hunger to unsettle what had been a fairly complacent Crew defense. Within minutes, he'd produced a good chance for Shipp, drawn a sharp save from Steve Clark, and tortured Barson into a yellow card.
As in the first half, though, whenever the Fire seemed about to solve something on the field, Berhalter had an answer. Barson's yellow prompted his final substitution: Chris Klute for Barson - fresh, speedy legs to mark Accam. Their manager's calm shutdown ploy seemed to remind Columbus of their provenance, and they transitioned back to simple possession to see the match out.
Chicago wasn't completely done, though. Jason Johnson's short tenure with the Fire has been punctuated by his two goals, each of which won points and took place during stoppage time. When Nyarko slowed to better shape a cross in the 90th minute, and that cross found Johnson, for just a moment it seemed that there was still magic left in the world, and JJ had some of it. But his header dribbled wide, and the game ended with a series of angry postures from both sides.
This comprehensive stonking was so delightful that we're going to do it all again on Sunday, except this time in Columbus. The Fire will be 5-10-3 when that one kicks off, still 20th out of 20 teams in MLS, and this time concerned about setting the team up for a US Open Cup quarterfinal Wednesday against Orlando City. Peine forte et dure, indeed.