At least we now know this team can suffer together. The question that now looms is, how much suffering will be asked of us?
The Chicago Fire, fashioned in the national imagination as a potentially resurgent side after two creditable outings to start the season, collapsed spectacularly in the opening stanzas of Saturday’s showdown matchup with starlet darlings Atlanta United. Ten minutes in, the Men in Red had pulled off a rare game-opening own-goal/red-card combo, and rarely threatened the rampant home side thereafter en route to a 4-0 humiliation.
All along the way to a discouraging drubbing, the beleaguered Fire suffered together, working hard in thankless circumstances, gamely minding their shape, making every transition difficult - but in the end their intelligence and bravery availed little against an avalanche of superior skill and intention from a dominant home side. Worn down by more than 50 minutes of dogged chasing, Chicago came completely unstuck in the final half hour, suffering in a different way that seems entirely too familiar for cf97.
The Five Stripes (as, I understand, Atlanta United wish to be nicknamed; let’s hope they’re still workshopping that) began the game brightly, challenging the Fire in their own end and cycling possession quickly forward to their sparkling attacking quartet. While the Men in Red struggled to play at Atlanta’s tempo, their comfort in their basic defensive shape made the host’s earliest looks half-chances.
The first goal came in the run of play but against the overall theme of persuasive skill. No, this goal came, seemingly, directly from Chicago’s apparently boundless reserve of ill luck. In the fourth minute, Julian Gressel sprinted forward from his holding midfield spot into the right channel, and was played into that space by Paraguayan wizard Miguel Almiron. Gressel’s first-touch cross sliced a low course into the path of Fire left back Brandon Vincent, who was retreating goalward, and Vincent’s desperate effort to get his feet straight was undone by the pace of the cross. The ball glanced off Vincent and screamed past a visibly disgusted Jorge Bava to give Atlanta a fortunate 1-0 lead it hardly needed.
The exquisite timing of Josef Martinez’s runs was highlighted when, barely six minutes later, Gressel played him through on a run that split Fire centerbacks Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira. Kappelhof’s desperate tug was adjudged the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity, and the Dutchman was sent to the showers with only 11 minutes in the books.
It is some credit to the Fire that they kept the game within reach for the next 50 minutes. Shifting to a 4-4-1, the Men in Red attempted to play pure bunker-and-counter football, often launching (and surrendering) attacks with long balls forward on their first touch. The security of the banks-of-four was obviated by the rarity of even half-chances in this alignment, but the game remained tantalizingly within reach as the hour mark neared.
Then, the deluge. Atlanta had never stopped probing, never stopped pressuring, and once the Fire started to sag physically, United’s breathtaking skill players put on a show. Over a 20-minute span, a 1-0 nail-biter turned into a 4-0 humbling, the talk of the Fire being dark-horse contenders rendered into the kind of early-season muttering everyone agrees to forget.
The decider came, inevitably, to Martinez, whose runs hadn’t stopped being perfectly timed. Jonathan Campbell’s looping clearance in the area only got as far as Almiron, who took a half-beat pause then rifled a skidding pass directly to Martinez’s feet as he slipped between Campbell and Meira. The Venezuelan striker’s second touch allowed him to skip wide of an onrushing Bava, and his third rolled the ball into the net for a 2-0 lead that truly broke the Fire’s resistance.
Campbell was again involved in the third goal, just four minutes later. United left back Greg Garza whipped in a hard cross to the penalty spot that Campbell half-cleared directly to the feet of Atlanta winger Hector Villalba. Villalba didn’t fumble the chance, following a decent first touch with a powerful finish. 3-0. Rout on.
Martinez got the fourth goal. Again, it was a beautiful run. This time, he finished from a difficult angle.
The Fire (1-1-1) host Montreal on April 1, on the other side of an international break. Atlanta (2-1-0) visit Seattle, the previous city to invent soccer, March 31.
Notes based upon further viewing
- The Dax/Juni midfield mitigated the damage until they just ran out of gas. Dax seemed surprised to get double-teamed in the channel, which Atlanta did often during their rampant opening barrage. The red card sucked the tactical nous out of the game, turning the Fire into long-ball hopers and the Five Stripes (again, ugh) into fantastical creatures of myth. 11v11, the Fire lose this game in a nail-biter, imo.
- Tata Martino’s ability to attract and organize talent - and Atlanta United’s ability to afford it - is on a completely different level than we’ve previously seen in MLS. People talk about Seattle, but this is another big jump in quality. Atlanta United look like someone’s hacked Football Manager save - ‘Sugar Daddy’ + ‘Unlimited Scouting’ + ‘South American prestige boost’ or something. Part of me wants to leave this save running overnight, so I can see if they can sustain it or if the strain breaks all these young players down.
- It’s not a save? It’s real life? Wow. And we have to play these guys twice more. But surely injuries will ... ok, who wants to bet their depth is worse than ours? News flash: The Fire will not challenge for the lead of the East this season.
- If you’re sorta new to soccer, and you find yourself wondering what people are talking about when they say that the Fire need a “No. 10” or an “AMC” or something, what they’re saying is that we need someone who plays (even if with a bit less efficiency) like Almiron. He’s got a subtle genius for showing at the right moment in a pocket of space you weren’t thinking much about, and an obvious genius for receiving a pass and delivering another, cleverer pass. Martinez’ runs would end in frustration in a Fire kit, because there’s no Almiron finding a way to fit the ball in there.