Orlando City SC 0
Chicago Fire 4 David Accam 3, 8, 62 (pk), Nemanja Nikolic 52
The furthest reaches of football ecstasy are more attested than experienced. We see a great goal on video, and the camera pans across the supporters who are plainly in the throes of ecstatic transport, their spirits communing with something higher while their bodies stay here, slobbering and gibbering and joyously shrieking profanities in every tongue on the planet. It’s an everyday thing to see. It’s not an everyday thing to experience.
Then there’s 8 minutes like the 8 minutes that kicked off tonight’s match against Orlando City SC. Let’s stay in the first few minutes of this one, shall we? Let’s just live there? By the end of that astonishingly dominant 8 minutes, the Chicago Fire were up two goals and cruising, and good bits of the packed and rollicking Toyota Park were spasming and foaming in delight. They’d cool down, but in mellow comfort, as the Fire delivered on all the promise of that 8-minute assay in perfection in a comprehensive 4-0 victory.
The match was exquisitely poised to become one-way business, with visiting Orlando City exhausted from a midweek match in Seattle and discouraged by the ongoing absence of striker Cyle Larin after his recent DUI arrest. The Men in Red had no similar difficulties - rested, healthy and riding a six-game home win streak, Chicago were conspicuous favorites to make it seven.
The danger, then, was that (even subconsciously) the Fire would recognize the signs (obvious immediately) of Orlando’s fatigue and relent, blunting their creativity and ruthlessness. The Men in Red answered by ascending to a slightly higher level of consciousness and, using the detached perspective presented by that ascension, methodically exhaust the visiting side with possession, wearing them out the way you’d wear out your six-year-old nephew at a reunion - chase it, kid!
The first dreamlike goal sequence was a product of that effort. It began just a minute into the game, with Matt Polster claiming a throw on the right. He checks down to Dax McCarty, just feet away, and McCarty, seeing the purple visitors compacting that side of the field, swings a long switch to left centerback Joao Meira, who prompts the ball forward to left wingback Brandon Vincent, stationed just short of the attacking zone on the left stripe.
Every pass is crisp. The ball moves, the group moves. It’s all so beautiful.
Orlando City aren’t broken yet - we’re barely 100 seconds into the game. Vincent is quickly doubled and driven back towards midfield; he gives ground but keeps the ball until Bastian Schweinsteiger shows in the left channel, like the friend necessary to really make the ‘wear out the 6-year-old’ game plan work. Vincent gratefully releases the ball to the German legend, and they take the measure of the Lions, from their higher plane: IS IT TIME? the groupmind asks, as Basti and Vincent exchange a few short passes, and Orlando surges forward again to pressure. PERHAPS ONE MORE ITERATION.
So Vincent cycled the ball back to Meira, who played it all the way back to keeper Matt Lampson, who gave it to right centerback Johan Kappelhof … to Meira … to Vincent, who was now back to nearly the identical position as when he and Basti swapped passes, with the crucial difference: Now IT WAS TIME. The 6-year-old was sagging; the shape of the guys in purple had turned to a lump with a few outliers, and Dax showed deep to set the fuse, giving the ball to Kappelhof to make the pass he’d been mentally measuring for a good 30 seconds, a back-spinning thru ball deep into the right flank that ended the preliminary stage of this exquisitely-constructed bit of play.
After more than 60 seconds of possession that barely scraped the midfield stripe, suddenly the Fire had runners all over the attacking end of the field, and Orlando struggled to mark up. Luis Solignac ran down the Kappelhof ball, then immediately gave to Schweinsteiger in the right channel and made a run infield, dragging markers away from Polster. Basti led the third-year man into space, and Polster took a moment to survey his options before fizzing a low cross slightly behind David Accam, posted up just on the doorstep of goal.
Accam turned all the sensuous, rhythmic buildup of the previous 18 passes and 60 seconds and provided the finishing move that put it over the top. Seizing on the slightly awkward entry pass as an opportunity, the explosive winger out-thought the field by backheeling the ball into goal with his first significant touch of the game. 1-0, Fire, Fire, Fire fucking fire fire oh my god really oh my god really this really oh did you see that oh my god I hope this never ends
The gibbering had barely died down when Accam rocketed onto another scooped through ball behind the Orlando line, feinted Joe Bendik to the ground and crushed the ball into the back of the net. 2-0, Fire, with less than 8 minutes elapsed. The Ghanaian wonder would go on to draw and score a penalty for his first career hat trick before leaving to a roaring ovation with 10 minutes left.
Nothing which came after diluted the domination of those opening sequences. The Fire shifted into a canny counter-punching stance, creating chance after chance behind the exhausted and disorganized Lions backline. Only an unusually profligate finishing performance from Nemanja Nikolic (who got his league-leading 14th but could’ve had a hat trick) kept the scoreline from reflecting the truth of the evening’s play: This was a blowout of historic proportions.
- Accam said in interviews afterward that he ‘felt he could do anything’ tonight, and he looked it. Performances like this make it more likely, not less, that the Fire will be forced to bite the bullet and sell David in the upcoming transfer window. Realistically, if a club in France (Rennes, say) offer $6 or $10 million for David - recouping his transfer fee and then some, a profit that would pay for operations for two years - it would be madness not to allow him to go. It’s not a knock on King David’s loyalty to acknowledge that he came to MLS as part of a larger project of moving to a top-flight European league, and his development since donning the Fire badge is a credit to the player, club and league - but this is how the soccer ecosystem works, and even with budgets inflated by long-term investor money, MLS isn’t at the top of that food chain. Because David’s main skill, his breathtaking speed, cannot be taught, only bought; if he can combine that pace with being an actual footballer, he’s worth a whooooole lotta money. Basically, the moment he explodes the ‘he’s only fast’ myth, MLS cannot afford him, and if last night’s performance doesn’t do it, what will?
- Is Matt Polster secretly left-footed? Polster’s developed this nervous tick when he’s not comfortable in possession where he needs to take a touch, center the ball and perform a little jump-stop - it’s like a mental reset to a base configuration, balanced, ball neutral. Unfortunately, he seems uncomfortable in possession frequently while playing right back - which makes sense as he’s still learning the position - but the end result is that Polster nervously checks up constantly, even when the right flank is completely swung open and all he needs to do is chase the ball in that direction. IT IS MADDENING and it makes him look like an extremely left-footed player trying to do a job on the right flank. I’m all down with playing inverted wingbacks who will help with interior battles, but damn, dude, take what they’re giving you.
- It’s so hard to convey the totality of the ass-whuppin’ the Fire just laid on Orlando City. Instead of shrinking from taking advantage of an exposed foe, the Men in Red took advantage of their dominant game-state (up two goals, huge advantages in morale and composure) to almost coast through the match, resting at will with the ball, then shifting tempos as soon as the weary Lions would gratefully relax and try to breathe. It was cruel and magnificent football, all made possible by that spellbinding eight minutes of domination.
- I anticipate some soliloquies about Schweinsteiger and McCarty in the week to come (maybe from me), but the whole defensoclysm machine works, to me, because of the intelligent and tireless running of Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac. Those two function almost as shuttlers in the defensive phase, and it’s their back-pressure that turns the ball over when Basti and Dax freeze out every forward option for that crucial moment.
- I also like the way Meira and Kappelhof seem to have grown into slightly different roles. Meira is the passing hub from the back, and makes reliable entry passes that allow him to stay focused on marking. Kappelhof is more swashbuckling, playing like a stereotypically Dutch centerback, running onto attempted through balls and driving into midfield with it at his foot, the attackers flat-footed and leaning the wrong way. The beautiful thing is that Kappelhof’s forward forays no longer provoke a general panic about space, as one of Dax and Basti (usually Basti) covers, pulling their markers clear and balancing the shape in case of a turnover.