To Chicago Fire fandom, starved as we are for those brighter feelings engendered by support, this dominant preseason - even on the back of previous dominant preseasons followed by dismal campaigns - is as intoxicating as stumbling into Oz’s field of poppies; if you let yourself go, you can float right to opening day. Two three-goal wins in five days - is this a narcotic? Do we really care?
Chicago’s magical-realist preseason continued Sunday night with a frisky 5-2 dispatching of Alessandro Nesta’s Miami FC at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The Fire played a split-squad scrimmage in one game, playing combo A/B squads for 45 minutes each, giving us a chance to really see the state of the two-deep roster.
For the record, the goals were scored by Luis Solignac in the 3rd minute, John Goossens from the spot in the 42nd, Arturo Alvarez in the 49th, David Arshakyan in the 52nd, and David Accam In the 63rd. The game was drawn briefly at 1-1 late in the first half, then blown open after halftime when la Maquina Roja subbed in all fresh legs.
The Fire finish up preseason with two more games in Florida: A midweek runout, again at IMG Academy, against USL side FC Cincinnati, and then what should be a full dress rehearsal at Al Lang Stadium in Fort Lauderdale against Toronto FC Saturday.
In favor of a traditional recap - since this game was more one for general trends and individual moments, and the result didn’t matter - I offer the following observations from two weeks before opening kick:
- The Fire have found a lot of success in the preseason off of a high press - each of the games in Florida has started with a very early goal created off of a turnover. This isn’t an accident - one of the foundational ideas of the gegenpressing movement is that the press is the best playmaker, and it’s proved that so far this preseason for the Men in Red. The question is, can the press continue to increase its pressure as teams shake off the preseason rust? Right now, the team is feasting on defenders in preseason form, and while it’s encouraging to see the positioning and ruthlessness, the pressure will have to be much sharper and more harrowing to be effective in league play. Can the Fire develop the combination of elite conditioning and group-think necessary to play this style against good sides?
- It’s not hard to see that Dax McCarty and Juninho are going to be a completely different level in central midfield than that to which we’ve become accustomed. Dax’s foresight in snuffing things out means the field seems to tilt our way; he turns 50/50 balls into 65/35 with anticipation, and excels at winning even 50/50 balls. One effect, over time, is that the other team’s guys stop contesting balls with Dax just a little bit, assuming he’s probably got it, and why waste the energy just to get beat again? Juninho’s anticipation is similar, but his intent is more forward; his ability to connect quickly to the flanks or in tiny bites through the middle allows the attacking quartet to carve pretty shapes in space.
- Michael De Leeuw really understands how and when to trigger the press. He especially reads moments when the opposition midfield isn’t supporting well, which allows the press to work without the deeper central mids having to chase too hard - they just mark up deep and wait to win the inevitable panic-clearance. And the man knows how to time a run at goal. He’s very good.
- Johan Kappelhof is the kind of defender we haven’t seen enough of in recent years - calm but not delusional, aggressive but not frothing. He won most every challenge that came his way, and bailed out his inexperienced partner a couple of times.
- If the Fire decide to go to a three-man backline at any point, Michael Harrington’s value jumps up a notch. He’s not a terrible one-on-one defender, and the acuity of his crosses could be a huge asset with strikers who make good runs. Just don’t ask him to play traditional fullback; his sense of risk/reward is forever skewed too far toward optimism for a post that calls for a grimmer outlook.
- It’s not hard to see what West Ham saw in Daniel Johnson - today’s performance showed great energy and verve, along with the ability to beat some guys off the dribble. Once Miami shaded him off his right foot, his influence faded, though. He’ll need to broaden his toolkit to consistently trouble MLS defenses.
- John Goossens and Luis Solignac had similar outings: Both played well within the team concept, while remaining a bit anonymous as individuals, and each got a goal. Solignac banged home a solid finish from de Leeuw’s forced turnover at the outset. Goossens scored from the spot, crushing the ball into the upper-right corner for a lead the Fire wouldn’t relinquish.
- Now I’m worried I’m not giving Solignac enough credit for a fluid and enterprising performance. He really does have good feet, and he and de Leeuw looked good as a hunter/killer pair up top.
- Jorge Bava looks, at this point, like a huge risk exquisitely poised to fail. American audiences - conditioned, one supposes, by extravagantly gifted hand-eye athletes in every sport - are particularly cruel to keepers who can’t make big saves or hang onto the ball. He’ll need to start well to keep “We traded Sean Johnson for this?” at bay.
- Taylor Peay started at right back, and the former Timbers man looked the part - except for the multiple times he was caught too far forward, including on Miami FC’s first goal. Clearly this is a position of some need for the Fire - after Harrington (a true wingback), the depth chart reads Kappelhof (a centerback), Joey Calistri (converted forward)?, … Matt Polster (currently injured) … ehhhh?
- Nemanja Nikolic has never-quenched thirst for goals, and I can’t love it enough.
- I’d like to think I knew Jonathan Campbell could stroke a 70-yard ball out to the opposite wing easy as you please, but I don’t think I did. Just think how lovely that long passing ability would be with the extra time afforded by playing a modern 5-2-3 with wingbacks? Ah, I’m just spitballing here. But Campbell’s passing to the flanks really tamped down Miami’s resistance through the middle part of the second half.
- I’d like to take a moment to salute Arturo Alvarez, who’s crafted a career renaissance for himself in a pretty unlikely locale.
- The kids are alright: Johnson looks the part on the wing, at least as a backup. Likewise Patrick Doody at left back, where he’s always shown physicality and a sense of space. Drew Conner paired intelligently with Juninho, shielding the back line to allow the veteran to scheme further forward before combining brilliantly with Harrington, Alvarez and finally Nikolic to set up Accam’s goal. Brant Bronico connected play conservatively but struggled to make an impact going forward.
- EDIT: I need to re-emphasize how good the final goal was. Miami was a broken side at this point, but Conner’s series of one-twos ... just so pretty:
Is this good? #cf97 pic.twitter.com/mLjrCFf5kf— Chicago Fire (@ChicagoFire) February 20, 2017
- Not good today: Despite the goal (which looked massively offside to me), David Arshakyan again showed little to indicate he has either the athleticism or skill to be anywhere near the field for a first-division football side. Perhaps when Major League Team Handball rolls out, he can ride the wave - but as a footballer, he looks lost, slow in the press, clumsy in the turn, unable to keep up with the combinations whirling around him. Matej Dekovic, draftee centerback, had a more credible performance than Arshakyan, but was caught on the ball by Miami’s press in the sequence leading to their first goal.
Fire lineups: 1st half: Bava; Brandon Vincent, Dekovic, Kappelhof, Peay; Johnson, McCarty, Bronico, Goossens; Solignac, de Leeuw.
2nd half: Stefan Cleveland; Doody, Campbell, Joao Meira, Harrington; Accam, Juninho, Connor, Alvarez; Arshakyan, Nikolic.