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The Swagger: Chicago Fire 2, Real Salt Lake 0, recap

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Men in Red strike twice early, ride confident defensive effort to flatten undermanned Royals

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Chicago Fire
Arturo Alvarez (L) celebrates his 15th-minute strike with teammate David Accam.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, it’s very early. Very early. But this Chicago Fire team just feels different, doesn’t it?

Saturday’s 2-0 erasure of a battered Real Salt Lake side wasn’t a dominating performance in any statistical category, either considered by itself or within a history of Fire home openers. Hamstrung by frigid conditions and a scrappy foe, the Men in Red didn’t string together passes until olés rang down, or construct incisive counterattacks through virtuoso acts of touch and power, or even consistently win the battle of wills that largely determines the game’s disposition when control is in dispute.

What these Fire did Saturday was something simpler but more profound: Chicago showed up with swagger. They played, from kickoff, like they expected to win, like winning was a natural consequence of playing their football. The Men in Red were not the Men Having A Panic Attack, as has so often seemed the case since Blanco shrugged off to the Mexican second division.

Scoring goals helps. Even the most confident group can struggle to keep their happy thoughts without positive reinforcement. After a patchy opening period characterized by ambitious passes gone awry, the Fire pounced on good fortune. In the 10th minute, the Fire - half-retreated to their defensive shape - swarmed forward onto a loose ball in midfield. Michael de Leeuw turned neatly and surged through the center, with Salt Lake midfielder Sunny racing back to harray him and Nemanja Nikolic trying - unsuccessfully - to keep a run onside.

Sunny’s lunging poke managed to punch the ball free from de Leeuw, but the now-backpass turned Nikolic from obstruction into a free runner, gloriously onside fully 5 yards behind the Royals backline. The Hungarian took his time, checking both shoulders and the keeper, before slotting easily to the back post for his first goal with the club. 1-0, Fire, and while it was fortunate it didn’t feel like fortune.

Even when the Fire weren’t on the front foot, there wasn’t a hint of the flailing, panicky defensive posture so familiar around Toyota Park. The vaunted central midfield of Dax McCarty and Juninho are freakishly talented at limiting angles of play through the middle, so much so that the visitors essentially abandoned the central zone as a creative space after the opening minutes. Funneled to the wings or forced to play over the top, Salt Lake couldn’t establish a rhythm sufficient to trouble the increasingly confident home side.

That confidence became full-on swagger in the 15th minute. Arturo Alvarez, utterly predictably, swerved from a right-flank spot immediately upon receiving the ball, keeping the ball on his preferred left foot and slicing infield across the top of the penalty box. The move’s predictability didn’t change the fact that threatening runs were developing all over the area - de Leeuw ghosting to the back post, Nikolic angling toward the near - and Alvarez’ feints were enough to buy a yard of space. The Houston native’s shot wasn’t well-struck, but it seemed to take a small deflection, wrong-footing Nick Rimando and doubling the lead.

2-0 to the Fire, 75 minutes to play: Cue ‘most dangerous lead in football’ talk. Cue the worrying, the whining, the whatevering. But … not today. This team is not those teams. There was no crisis of confidence. There was no wavering. Given a two-goal lead, the Fire turned dead-eyed and pragmatic, content to possess when they could do so, and to manage space and snuff out Royals hopes before the visitors’ eyes could even light up. At the heart of this snuffing, always, is McCarty, dictating spacing and talking marking assignments.

Their case, already made powerful by a cohesive shape manned by experienced professionals, was made simpler to prove by Salt Lake’s mounting injury woes. Water-bug winger Joao Plata didn’t dress for the game, and Homegrown winger Jordan Allen - whose form had been fantastic over the last few weeks - didn’t last a half hour before a thigh strain benched him. Without players capable of breaking the pattern, the visitors were stuck trying a series of hopeful balls to target man Yura Movsisyan, largely without success.

As the game petered out, the Fire were increasingly content to sit in a deep block and attempt to counter. This bit of swagger-overreach cost supporters a bit of anxiety, as a series of half-chances and scrums in the penalty area followed the Men in Red’s overall laxity. Still the best chances came to the Fire, with Juninho’s bullet free kick (well-saved by Rimando) in the 80th minute the pick of the bunch.

Even very experienced sides need a jolt of adrenaline sometimes, and today’s jolt came in the MLS debut of Brandt Bronico 5 minutes from time. Galloping about coltishly, Bronico helped make the final minutes simple.

A clean sheet. A win in the home opener. Four points from the first two games. Doesn’t this team just feel different?

The Fire (1-0-1) travel to Atlanta next Saturday to face the expansion side. Kickoff is slated for 3 p.m. Chicago time.

Notes

  • Overall, this performance was a notch below the second half in Columbus. Nikolic, in particular, struggled in combination - but then both teams seemed plagued by unforced wayward passes, possibly due to the cold.
  • Brandon Vincent was very, very good again as a classic fullback on the left. His ability to win the ball simply without leaving his feet is so powerful when isolated on the wing, and it’s not like he fumbles around passing out after winning it. Kid’s a keeper.
  • Michael de Leeuw surely is a second forward - he seldom looks to slow down or play back to keep possession. The thought here is that as he gets that little bit of sharpness back, those quick turns and one-touch combinations will come off more often.
  • As great as Dax and Juni are defensively - and, seriously, go watch that first half, watch RSL win the ball and turn and find nothing available again and again - they’re not guys who are going to consistently create a lot of chances. Their first impulses are simply too defensive. If the Fire aren’t going to create many chances from the press, this could become an issue rather quickly.