The Chicago Fire have the worst record in MLS when playing at home. After another loss at home to the Houston Dynamo, the Fire sit alone with a record no one wants to have.
A bad all-around performance has led to fans asking what is missing or what can be done to turn things around. Head coach Veljko Paunovic is obviously constrained in what he can do with the team sheet due to injuries and a lack of incoming signings. Still, those constraints serve to highlight the importance of getting team selection and substitution decisions just right.
Has Pauno been making the right calls? Let’s look at three issues from the Houston game.
Ellis Over Ramos
After the awful news that Matt Polster was going to be out for a while with an MCL tear, we made the argument that Rafael Ramos should be given another shot. He has made two appearances at the club since being acquired from Orlando City and his second was this past weekend where he played only 3 minutes. Before that it was a a bad performance against Minnesota United, away in a loss 2-1. That should not merit a permanent demotion.
Instead, Kevin Ellis has been elevated to a starting role. Ellis is great as a relieving player, and put in a pair of strong performances against Atlanta and Montreal (the latter yielded a late game winning goal), but he’s not a starter. Against Houston this past weekend, Ellis’ performance was painful to watch. He was consistently outrun by Romell Quioto and even got beat to a loose ball by 35-year-old DaMarcus Beasley. On a day when no one on the back line impressed, Ellis’ Thursday night rec league performance stood out.
Ramos offers a dynamic threat on the flanks that can create chances going forward, even as his skills as a defender are average at best. This team needs a jolt of energy and that is precisely what Ramos brings. The Fire are in need of someone with speed and attacking verve badly enough that it’s likely worth the risks that comes with his defensive deficiencies and volatile temperament. Pauno clearly doesn’t agree— and it may be costing us points.
Katai Coming Off Instead Of Tchani
I mean honestly. What was the plan here? The Fire had just surrendered the lead, and the obvious response would’ve been to take off a holding midfielder that had been underperforming and replace him with an attacker with fresh legs. Instead, Pauno left Tchani on and took off Katai, opting to remove one of our best attacking players for a central midfielder.
Why did Pauno do this? He was playing for the draw.
I get it, but when you are having an awful season, you have to go for the win at home. It’s that simple. Imagine a Daniel Johnson coming in for Tchani instead and you then have two good players on the ball behind Nikolic and Katai, with Mo Adams and Bastian Schweinsteiger behind them. That would have been better than sitting back and hoping for the best. Playing for the draw at home with half an hour to go has minimal upside, and you risk exactly what happened on Sunday.
Accommodating Gordon At Striker Over Nikolic
Finally, Pauno brought in Alan Gordon to try and get a late goal. Fine, whatever. But to accommodate him, Pauno had Nikolic— you know, the 2017 MLS Golden Boot winner— play out of position. Your best striker and you put him out wide. Madness.
Pauno took out Mo Adams after his plan backfired to preserve the point and then scrambled to bring on a forward. I know Gordon has some cult status as a last-minute scorer, but I just don’t see where that comes from.
Look at the numbers. Gordon’s entire brand is scoring in stoppage time to salvage a result. The last time he did this was for the Fire last month against Toronto. The time before that? May 2015 for the Galaxy. That’s a nearly three-year drought for something that is supposedly his specialty. That he keeps getting minutes is truly mind-boggling.
Even in isolation, Pauno’s tendancy to rely on Alan Gordon to get points late in the game is dubious. There are two possibilities: either Pauno overestimates Gordon’s abilities, or the 36-year-old keeps getting minutes for personal or non-soccer reasons. Fans and the media should ask why he keeps doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Yet, Paunovic’s reliance on Alan Gordon in the context of his other selections and substitution decisions reveals a pattern of poor decision-making. Pauno has not been getting enough out of a thin and injury-riddled squad. It’s time for the Fire head coach to put some bad habits aside and try new things.
And if he can’t— or won’t— then it might be time to bring in someone who will.