One of the stated goals of Nelson Rodriguez’ stewardship of the Chicago Fire is something that cuts against the grain a bit in the urban midwest - the idea that play should be gentlemanly, that the players should concern themselves with higher questions than mere pragmatism would require. Not only, “If I get there first, I can win the ball,” but also “providing I first make certain of the well-being of everyone in the area beforehand.”
Perhaps we should state, right up front, that that ain’t how we usually do things ‘round here.
Tonight, it looked like the Fire didn’t really wanna get Capone.
So maybe it’s this new emphasis on fairness, even-handedness and absence of grift that informed this evening’s soporific 0-0 capitulation by the Chicago Fire to the impulse of charity. Dominance without goals, a symbolic victory in a contest that doesn’t recognize symbols. A gentlemanly response to ill-gotten fortune.
The difficult truth is that the Chicago Fire, in 2017, do not possess the social or competitive capital necessary to make such a sacrifice anything other than real. The Fire of 2003, for example, could’ve taken this loss of two sure points as nothing more or less than a bit of kindness to the less-fortunate; today, though, after consecutive Wooden Spoons, the Men in Red are in a position of relative social disgrace. One cannot lift oneself from serfdom merely by acting haughty - it requires capital, and the coin of the realm in football is points on the table. Today, the Fire sniffed at coins they should’ve pilfered without hesitation.
The Deserving Unfortunates, played tonight by the ill-omened hosts, Orlando City SC, lost two men to red cards of varying qualities, and spent all their energies summoning the courageous pluck of the downtrodden. The Lions’ Rafael Ramos was the first unfortunate sent packing, given a red after a wicked but seemingly random collision with Brandon Vincent in the 26th minute looked, to ref Ted Unkel, like attempted murder. Midfielder Antonio Nocerino joined him in the showers 40 minutes later after cleating Matt Polster in the back.
The teams responded to Unkel’s interventions in disparate ways. Orlando City, who’d found their shape pulled limb-from-limb during a thoroughly searching opening segment - the Fire boasted 63 percent of the ball, and basically all of the threat, in the opening 25 minutes - reacted to the first red-card like an application of smelling salts. Shocked into proactivity, they defended with greater resolve after the dismissal.
Conversely, for the Men in Red the advantage seemed to push confidence over the hump to cockiness; despite their obvious advantage in position and personnel, the Fire struggled to make much of any one possession, seemingly confident that another, more successful possession was just behind. Critics that complained that Bastian Schweinsteiger, for all his pedigree, wasn’t the pure space-folding trequartista the roster needed will return to this footage for proofs.
None of which is to imply that the Fire played poorly, because they did not. The opening 25 minutes wasn’t a mirage, and Chicago both created the vast majority of the chances and stifled Orlando’s buildup and shape all over the pitch. In the early going, the Fire dealt with City’s attempts to shock-press them with an almost contemptuous disdain that was lovely to see - flowing into new shapes, with the midfield engine-room of Basti and Polster dropping into surprising positions and displaying immaculate poise and touch, the Men in Red played straight through a press that would’ve unmanned any CF97 side of the last five years.
But we know we’re at that point, right? The terrible Fire who automatically shit down their leg when pressed? Gone. We know that. The Fire who automatically cough up a set-piece goal in a close game like this? Gone, along with the Fire who answer a red card with one of their own, or the Fire who give up a soft goal and then try 35 crosses.
Maybe there’s a point to this. Maybe the fact that MLS is a more forgiving competition than most in world football means we can have games like this - gentlemen’s draws where a dominant team responds to questionable fortune by disdaining victory. But as a longtime football fan, there’s nothing I want to see more from my side than ruthlessness, and there was precious little on display today.
Chicago (7-3-4) will hopefully display zero empathy in a ruthless dismantling of Atlanta United next Saturday. Orlando City’s next game is an interesting US Open Cup match against upstart Miami FC on June 14.
- I was generally concerned - as was likely everyone in Fire-land - with the need to rotate Polster into the middle and play Drew Conner at right back again, but those two were really outstanding. Polster is growing before our eyes into a guy who should also be in the conversation for the USA, and Conner was bright, aggressive and lively.
- One of most exciting aspects of this Fire side, to an old football nerd like me, is its absolutely off-the-charts levels of intelligence. It’s such a pleasure to see the guys sussing out how to most efficiently press Orlando’s lopsided shape after the red card. And I’ve seen a lot of MLS teams play out of the back successfully, but I’ve seldom seen one that where playing out of the back seems to sucker the opponent into overextending themselves so blatantly, so often. Again and again, when O-City really tried to press the Fire high, Kappelhof and Meira would split crazy wide and all of Vincent, Basti, Polster and Conner would look for spaces and use simple 1-2s to dance around pressure.
- Orlando was very worried about Accam, but he wasn’t his usual self tonight. He seemed a step slower than usual; there was one particular foot-race in the first 15 minutes that he just pulled up from rather than compete, which isn’t vintage David. He did put in a decent shift defensively, and he’s become a well-rounded enough player that even on an off-night he’s an asset. But on his usual form this season, he wins this one by himself with a quicksilver bit of bolero.
- Orlando will tell themselves that they’d’ve won but for Ted Unkel, but to me they were getting methodically cat-and-moused to death before the red waved the bloody shirt and made it about more than just connecting passes and closing the space