In many ways, the Chicago Fire weren’t their best selves Saturday afternoon in Toyota Park. They didn’t start the game passing straight through an opposition high press, as they did two weeks ago against FC Dallas. They didn’t string together mesmerizing pass-and-move sequences in midfield, as they’d done against Colorado. They didn’t ruthlessly snuff out anything resembling an opposition attack, as they’d done against DC United.
No, tonight’s Fire - bereft of their captain Dax McCarty, and seeming a half-step slow in the first real heat of the summer - didn’t dazzle, and didn’t dominate. What they did was somehow more impressive: Without most of their cutting edge, Chicago found a way to grind out a 2-0 win against a terrifyingly energetic and skilled Atlanta side. In a game that was always going to be decided by will and concentration, the Men in Red seldom wavered, and that grit and wisdom was enough for the club’s sixth straight win at home.
So much of the Fire’s flash and inspiration comes from the boots of David Accam that it’s immediately obvious when he’s just a bit off - and Accam was, all day. He was still threatening, still made fantastic runs and tortured Michael Parkhurst with his speed constantly, but his touch and decision-making both seemed a trifle muddled - which was unfortunate, because the Fire quickly settled upon a tactic that depended heavily on the Ghanaian winger. Pulling the Atlanta press forward, deep into Chicago defensive space the Men in Red sought to create space for Accam and Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic to break into space.
It worked perfectly - but then, all tactics work pretty well when there’s a player of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s intuition at the center of them. Only the relentless perseverance of the visiting attackers kept the Fire from playing keepaway for huge stretches of the first half - but it did, as Chicago did all the hard work of finding a solution, then couldn’t manage the more mundane task of completing passes. Persistent Fire giveaways led to a few Atlanta shooting opportunities, most of which seemed to fall to Hector Villalba, who simply couldn’t finish to save his life.
Let’s use moments to stand for the whole, shall we? Villalba’s day - and thereby Atlanta’s hopes of getting on top and staying there - were summarized by his miss in the 12th minute. A loose Chicago pass in midfield had sent Villalba haring in behind, chasing down a through ball before spinning his finish through the legs of onrushing Fire keeper Matt Lampson, whereupon it rollllllllled about a foot wide of the back post. So close to a breakthrough - almost exploited the mistake - but didn’t, really, at all in any way that mattered in the end … that was Atlanta United today.
The Fire’s contrasting moment came just before the half-hour mark. An Atlanta turnover in midfield was immediately looped into space for Accam to run onto by Schweinsteiger - the plan, playing out perfectly. Except David’s not quite himself, and his touch fails after he feints the keeper to the ground, forcing him to run down the touch and spin back toward goal rather than finish. Now beset by two defenders and the rising keeper, Accam simply kept at it, didn’t panic, and didn’t try to do too much - feinting and feinting, he kept the defenders guessing while he waited for some other option to show itself, which it did upon Luis Solignac’s arrival in the attacking zone. Accam’s layoff to Luchio was soft as church music, and the Argentine mid crushed his finish finish past a helpless Alec Kann for a 1-0 Fire lead.
Here’s where the Fire’s guile showed: Given the advantage after 30 minutes of scrappy football where they were consistently second-best, the Men in Red got out of their own way, simplified the game, and focused now on being hard to play against. They were rewarded for their emphasis on solidity in the second half, when the mental and physical toll of Atlanta’s demanding pressing system started to really show. As United tired, Chicago simply kept their shape and waited, stroked the ball around and waited, keeping their powder dry.
The tension was taken out of the game just as the visitors brought in as substitutes the two men - Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron - who’d hounded the Fire into disarray in the fourth week of the season. They’d have no chance for similar heroics this evening, as Chicago put the game out of reach with a Nikolic penalty in the 70th.
The Fire killed off the game in similar fashion, seeming ready for every Atlanta wrinkle. Schweinsteiger’s ability to orchestrate changes in shape and tempo meant United’s tactical shifts were snuffed out in the short term by him shifting his responsibilities, giving Velko Paunovic time to make a series of subs that snuffed out Atlanta’s attack almost entirely.
Chicago (8-3-4) travels to St. Louis to play Saint Louis FC in the US Open Cup fourth round Wednesday evening. Atlanta (5-6-3) hosts Charleston Battery in the same competition the same evening.