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Pauno Needs to Snuff Out Mental Weakness

The past two seasons have shown Chicago Fire to be particularly vulnerable to late game collapses and this has been an indication of mental weakness.  Whether it is a product of the players’ mental fortitude or poor strategy from the coaching staff, Pauno needs to make it priority number one to eradicate any mental weakness in the squad.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

I sat at Toyota Park on Saturday afternoon in disbelief on several occasions.  First, I watched the pregame festivities and wondered how this was the same venue that hosted a windy, snowy affair just two weeks prior.  High 70’s and sun were a welcome sign for the Fire faithful as the team welcomed Montreal Impact to Bridgeview this weekend.  My second moment of disbelief came just 11 minutes after halftime when  Matt Lampson gave away a silly pass and allowed Didier Drogba to score his fifth goal in less than three full matches against Chicago Fire.  That was some way to end a team record for minutes played without conceding a goal.

The third moment of note did not leave me sitting in disbelief, however.  When Ignacio Piatti scored the game winner in the 91st minute, I promptly grabbed my son and headed for the exit.  It was that feeling of disappointment that Chicago Fire fans have experienced all too often the past few seasons under Frank Yallop and one we are hoping to be spared under Veljko Paunović’s leadership.  I was always critical of Yallop’s teams because they appeared to be mentally weak.  They did not seem capable of grinding out tough results and those failures just seemed to exacerbate the problem.  Some blame must always fall to the players, but stronger leadership could have helped to solve the problem.

Just How Bad Have the Collapses Been?

This kind of critique is not one that lends itself well to statistical analysis, but I felt there had to be a way to look back at the games of the past two seasons to verify my gut feeling about one of the 2014 and 2015 teams’ deficiencies.  While some of the qualifications on my analysis are somewhat arbitrary, I tried to find examples that could be narrowed down to mental lapses that cost the team points.  In my opinion, around the 70th minute, a coach is looking at his bench and deciding if he should use his subs on attacking reinforcements to go for more or to shore up the defense in hopes of holding on to the result.  If the team is leading or tied, at a minimum, the coach wants to keep things where they are to avoid a loss of points in hand.  If the players understand this, giving up goals after the 70th minute could be seen as a mental lapse of some sort.  Not marking on a corner, giving up a penalty, a goalkeeping blunder, or an own goal could fall into this category.  Granted, there are exceptions, but I chose to throw all those goals into this basket of mental weakness as the team tries to hold on to the result.

Here are the steps I took to find some meaning in the data:

1) Record the time of the final goal for both teams.
2) Disregard the games where Chicago Fire scored last (because this means they could not have blown a result late in the game).
3) Determine which of those games had the final goal being scored after the 70th minute.
4) Determine which of those games were draws or one goal losses (because it does not matter what the team did late in a 4-0 win or loss).

The resulting games were those that Chicago Fire gave up the final goal after the 70th minute and it turned a win into a draw (loss of 2 points) or a draw into a loss (loss of 1 point).

After filtering for the aforementioned criteria, the summary looks like this:


The results are not good.  Even if my assumption that mental weakness is to blame is not entirely accurate, there was some major problem that cost the team dearly.  The 2014 team dropped points during the last 20 minutes in 7 of 34 matches and cost themselves 11 points in the final table.  The 2015 team dropped points in 10 of 34 matches (even worse!) and cost themselves 12 points in the table.  It is interesting that the 2015 team performed poorer at the end of matches but didn’t hurt themselves much more in points dropped.  The reason for this is because 8 of those 10 collapses went from draws to losses (only technically costing the team 1 point).  This is a lipstick and pig scenario because that means they lost more games due to poor play in general and lack of scoring earlier in matches.

It is hard to say exactly how bad these figures are compared to other teams, but I think it is safe to assume Chicago Fire have been at or very near the bottom compared to other teams.  Perhaps it would be worth analyzing some other clubs with this criteria, but it does not really matter to Chicago Fire supporters.  Take a moment to think about it.  Over the past two season, IN ONE OF EVERY FOUR GAMES, THE CLUB HAS DROPPED POINTS AFTER THE 70TH MINUTE OF PLAY.  That is absurd and gives some explanation for the 24+ month depression that Fire fans have experienced.  This does not even take into account the depression from the blowout losses...

Thoughts for the 2016 Team

The sample for Pauno’s 2016 team is far too small to see how he compares, but I figured I’d throw it in there to demonstrate what effect a game like the one this weekend can do to this analysis.  Let’s hope the team recovers and does not have any more of these late game collapses going forward.  I’m sure they will.  Games like this happen, even to the best in the world.

What Pauno has to make sure is that games like this past Saturday against Montreal are outliers.  If Chicago Fire have serious aspirations of trying to get into the playoffs, they cannot afford to drop points late in games.  When players are physically exhausted, the best dig deep and stay focused.  The poor and unmotivated give into the pressure and make mistakes.  Pauno has supported his players at every moment of the season thus far and I do not expect that to change.  The players need to return the favor and show the mental fortitude to see out games against quality opponents.  If they do not, we might see the same downward spiral we saw under Yallop.  The club cannot afford to be a loser any more and the fans cannot stand the kind of heartbreak we have experienced the past two seasons.

NOTE: The final five games of 2015 were coached by Brian Bliss after Frank Yallop was fired.  The team was already too far gone at that point and the team collapsed in two of his five games at the helm.