It’s not enough to say the Chicago Fire are good at home. “Good at home” sounds like the Men in Red are ideal roommates, neat and thoughtful - which they were tonight, doubtless - down to do some dishes, an easy couch-mate for bingeing Game of Thrones, what have you.
What “good at home” doesn’t suggest is that what it’s like to visit Toyota Park against these Fire, to come in full of energy and with a solid plan, to have spent days telling yourself “these guys are beatable!” and watching film that proves it - only to have your elaborate plans anticipated and dismantled before they even begin, and then have your frustration and building rage used against you. An effort to punch the Fire in the mouth comes to nothing, as they will assume no set form, leaving one looking a bit silly waving a fist around at nothing much at all.
This evening’s victims were the New England Revolution, who had seen the first full flowering of this Fire collective on their previous visit to Chicago. The Revs’ quality going forward made their furtive goal-ward stabs nerve-wracking, but this game - like the one in April - was dominated start to finish by our Men in Red, controlled by their shape, made tame by their ability to keep the ball, and put to rest by their cutting edge around goal. The 4-1 scoreline was perhaps a bit flattering to Chicago, but nothing about this game suggested any other outcome was possible. If these teams played forever, the Fire would win by infinity.
In a welcome return to earlier form, Chicago burst out of the gate after the opening kickoff, thoroughly controlling play until the game-state changed in their favor. The Fire’s third possession saw Matt Polster pull down a long switching pass deep on the right wing, take a heavy touch toward the top of the box, then spin that straw-touch into gold with a surprisingly sharp finish from 20 yards, spinning an outside-of-the-boot shot with his right foot around Cody Cropper and into the back corner of the net for a 1-0 Fire lead just 8 minutes in.
New England responded to the goal by trying to play very quickly to their front-runners, a trend they’d continue most of the night. The Fire seemed content to keep the ball look for openings, while the Revs went for the end zone repeatedly, to little effect. They tied the game on a set piece, with Kei Kamara doing what he does, beating Johan Kappelhof to a floated cross from Lee Nguyen to head home midway through the first half.
This is where the Fire have come undone in their few games over the last month - something will go wrong (even something that’s basically impossible to stop, like Kamara jumping over everyone to score) and the doubt will creep in. The patient possession game gets less patient. The other guys start to see what they’re doing is working. The structure crumbles at the margins, and all that’s left is personal heroism, more or less.
Tonight there was none of that. La Maquina Roja just rolled back into operation after the tying goal, keeping the ball in a shape that morphed from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 to 5-3-2 and back again. Juninho restored the lead before halftime, running onto a lovely dummy by Bastian Schweinsteiger to fizz a low shot to the same corner that Polster used and give the Fire a lead they would not relinquish, 39 minutes in.
That pass was rolled infield by Patrick Doody, a guy who has spent most of his career bouncing between the subs bench and USL side Saint Louis Utd. The third-year Homegrown left back out showed that assist was no fluke early in the second half, when his searching cross from deep on the left side found Michael de Leeuw storming the back post for a simple header: 3-1, Chicago, now cruising.
With the lead now established beyond a doubt, the tiring Fire did have to weather several New England counter-attacks, and the substitutes tell the story of a team trading forward thrust for defensive balance - David Accam, constantly threatening as usual on the evening, was pulled in favor of a third center-back in Jonathan Campbell, the peerless Dax McCarty subbed out in favor of Drew Conner’s fresh legs, and Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic sat to allow Luchio Solignac to sabotage New England’s play out of the back.
The final substitute got the final goal, with Doody and Solignac combining to create something out of nothing from a 2-on-5 late in the game. Doody beat a half-assed New England double-team to slide a ball to Solignac in the area, and the Revs seemed astonished at the Argentinian’s brashness when he danced toward goal and stroked home his sixth of the season: 4-1, Fire, where it would end.
Chicago (12-5-5) remain three points back of Toronto FC in the Supporters Shield race with a game in hand. The Fire travel to Columbus next Saturday evening. New England (7-10-5) host Vancouver that same night.
- Whatever his pedigree, Doody has consistently played well when given a chance to wear the Fire badge, and his play these last two games set him up to battle prohibitive favorite Brandon Vincent for time at left back. Four assists in two games are part of the story, but more generally his ability to seamlessly fill that role surely means that Michael Harrington’s time with the Fire is very near its end.
- The Fire’s shape against two-striker sets is something that everyone talks about - is Basti playing centerback? For me, he’s not, because he’s not in that position without the ball - Basti dropping deep between the centerbacks is a structured dismissal of two-man pressing systems. And he’s not really a libero, because he’s not sweeping up behind the line then joining play - his pressing position is in midfield, and he steps into midfield as play moves into the attacking third. He’s just dropping that deep to make three lanes, the better to torture a pressing pair with an impossible-to-deny set of three triangles that include the keeper. Feel free to use this insight the next time your buddy who only watches the World Cup suddenly has Fire Opinions.
- This team is about 8000% more dominant with Dax on the field. He’s just so smart, and patches so many little things seamlessly, that everyone else’s confidence bounces just from having him around.
- Niko hasn’t scored much lately, but I expect Niko to break out hard in one of the two upcoming games on the road - at Columbus, at Montreal. Both sides have communication issues in central defense that Niko’s relentless grinding should be able to exploit.