Chicago Fire 4 Nemanja Nikolic 14, 16, Arturo Alvarez 26, Michael de Leeuw 84
Vancouver Whitecaps 0
We are in the midst of something wonderful with this Chicago Fire side, something that is surpassing all the expectations of even its designers, like an exquisite sculpture that suddenly develops opinions - good ones - about its own deployment. Built to be a very good MLS side, the Fire are suddenly the best side in the league and still growing, still adding tactical wrinkles, still blooding in good young players. For the first time in years, no one cringes when it’s time to do “WHO’S THE BEST?” because, goddammit, the answer really is FIRE.
The latest evidence of the Fire’s growth into a truly elite MLS side came this evening in Bridgeview, as the Fire simply dismantled a pretty decent Vancouver side, 4-0. The Men in Red, after 120 minutes on turf Wednesday, and playing a reasonably in-form Vancouver side just 72 hours later, could’ve been forgiven for showing up in something of a cloud - but MLS Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic scored twice in the first 18 minutes, and the rout was on.
Nikolic’s goals - and Arturo Alvarez’s brilliant side-volley third, in the 26th- were just reward for the intelligence of Chicago’s tactical approach. The Fire reacted to Vancouver’s attempts to pressure by settling Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho in defensive positions, with Johan Kappelhof moving into a destroyer role and Matt Polster ranging very high on the right side. The result was that balls over the top were being shaped by the craft of the BastiJuni duo, while simultaneously putting a lot of pressure on the Vancouver defensive left.
Having thus exquisitely rigged the Whitecaps for exploitation, the Fire reaped their rewards. Niko’s first goal, in the 14th, was created when Joao Meira found Polster - waaaay up in the right attacking zone - with a long switching pass that Polster settled and centered for the Hungarian international to slam home. Alvarez’s goal also came off a Polster cross from the right side.
The second goal - the one that stretched Niko’s league-leading total to 16 - was something else entirely: It was Michael de Leeuw being Michael de Leeuw. Spotting Vancouver midfielder Matias Laba waiting for a ball to come to him, de Leeuw nipped in and won it cleanly, feeding Nikolic. Niko still had quite a bit to do, though, barging through a tough shoulder challenge from Shawn Parker to get to the through ball and lash it home first time.
Weirdly, after 26 minutes of tactical and technical domination and down 3-0 on the road, Vancouver didn’t have a lot of spunk. The Fire were able to manage the majority of the game in such a comfortable game-state that even the loss of Schweinsteiger to a hip knock did little to disturb the implacable control Chicago exerted over the match. That control was made even more complete when Laba scythed down Solignac in the 78th minute, earning a straight red card.
The final goal was the most celebrated by the Fire, as it broke de Leeuw’s season-long scoring drought. After several near-misses - including a long chip that was headed off the line - the tireless Dutchman completed a razor-sharp give-and-go with Nikolic in the 84th minute, receiving the ball on his right while slanting into the area. De Leeuw made no mistake with this final chance, slotting it to Vancouver keeper David Ousted’s back post to complete the rout.
The best team in MLS and climbing - these Chicago Fire are everything we could’ve hoped and more.
There’s four months left in the season, and parts of my mind - conditioned, naturally, by years of abject, demonstrably awful football, a steady devolution of talent and spirit - start counting down the games: 16 left … viewing success as something near a fluke, and desperately to be guarded. But this team is encouraging new thoughts, expansive thoughts - how high is up? Right now, this team promises to show us.
Our Fire (11-3-4) continue their delightful midsummer fixture-congestion festival on Wednesday in Portland. Vancouver (6-7-3) host NYCFC that same evening.
- Game state, game state, game state. Game state is like a team’s credit balance - establish a good one and every exchange is simpler, cheaper and easier, while falling into a poor one makes absolutely everything harder. These Fire have made a habit of coming out sharp, getting into a good game state, and then building from there.
- This team looks to be coming together as a group as well - the genuine outpouring of excitement by players and staff for de Leeuw’s goal was really great to see.