If you listened to the special MLS is Back edition of the North Lot Podcast we released after the tournament draw, you’d know that I couldn’t muster much excitement over the return of MLS and the Chicago Fire. With COVID-19 still raging and the recent (justified) reaction to the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of three members of the Minneapolis Police Department, thinking about and getting excited about soccer is just about impossible.
Adding to the non-enthusiasm caused by world events was fatigue brought on by a near decade of soccer teams that ranged from record-breakingly awful to above average flame-outs. Despite only two games being played, the preseason hype has worn off into familiar half-dread of Fire seasons past, and I didn’t see myself getting it back.
However, with the resumption of full team training on Monday and the kickoff of the tournament just over three weeks away, I figured I’d look at the last game they played, a 1-1 draw at Foxboro against the New England Revolution to at least remind myself how this team played in order to get ready to get back to doing my job; talking (hopefully competently) about soccer.
Under any circumstance, a draw away to New England is a feat for this club. The awful (despite having been replaced recently) field turf has been a constant reason for failure in New England for a long time, and they had to have played at least passible. So, I flipped on the game from my DVR, and despite everything going against it; the current situation in the world, the waning enthusiasm of watching this team, I found myself enjoying what I was watching. I felt in my heart something that I previously said I was incapable of feeling.
I got excited.
This team could be really good. And I don’t just mean in the pretender way that the 2012 and 2017 teams were good. They played with a certain level of confidence you see only teams going places play. They play with drive and purpose. The first ten minutes of the game was the platonic ideal of what former Hot Time EiC Sean Spence wanted to see out of the 2016 and 2017 teams. Decisive attacking play backed up by an energetic high press whenever they lost the ball.
When on offense, they took what they were given by the New England defense. The Revs were themselves playing a high press; attempting to destabilize the Fire’s inexperienced backline whenever they had possession of the ball. Bruce Arena’s side tried to leverage the fact that the Fire were playing a teenage rookie in Mauricio Pineda in midfield and an out of position Brandt Bronico at right-back by forcing them to make quick decisions while on the ball, and overwhelm everyone else when they didn’t. The Fire reacted to that by playing balls over the top and exploiting the space left behind by the Revs defenders, letting Przemysław Frankowski and Robert Berić run on to the ball in order to create scoring opportunities.
This was perfectly demonstrated by a sequence early on in the second half. Literally seconds after the kickoff, with the ball at Bornstein’s feet, an onrushing defender created a chain reaction that left no one in a passing lane to stop Berić from receiving a ball over the top. A lucky bounce off his head (something else that is different from past years) allowed him to backheel the ball to Fabian Herbers in enough space to hit a cross onto the outstretched foot of Frankowski. His toe poke was pushed to the side for a Fire corner, but it was clear that their game-plan of direct high tempo play was working. They would need another 20 minutes to equalize, but their goal came in much the same fashion. A long direct ball into a good cross into a shot on goal, this time coming from Gastón Giménez to Djordje Mihailovic to Bornstein’s head.
This is not to say there weren’t any problems. The Defense was slow to rotate and communication was lacking. That’s what caused the opening goal for New England. A Gustavo Bou switch to Brandon Bye was not read well at all by Djordje Mihailovic, and no one called to him that Penilla’s aborted run was covered, so he stopped closing out to cover that pass, giving Bye the space to cross the ball into the box. When combined with Francisco Calvo falling asleep, it was a perfect recipe to get scored on.
However, that should be fixed with the defensive reinforcements that got in just before the COVID-19 travel ban. The additions of Miguel Ángel Navarro and Boris Sekulić should fix the players playing out of position problems, and then the communication issues should get better with players being comfortable with their roles.
Unlike last year when I say something should happen, I firmly believe it will. I’ve bought in to Manager Raphael Wicky’s ability to get his players ready for a match, and his ability to effectively communicate what he wants to do to his players- something that former coach Veljko Paunović was not so good at.
It should be said that watching this game helped me understand my biggest point of contention early on, and that was Brandt Bronico at right back. Bronico was not put there to defend but instead to use his quick feet to attack from deep. Essentially, he was doing his usual job that he did in central midfield, except he was on the right wing. This was a lot more successful against New England than it was against the Sounders, and I don’t expect it to be a regular feature when the Fire get a proper right back at the position, but when that’s what Wicky had to work with, he did the best he could.
Despite myself, as I watched the match, I found myself getting more and more excited for the tournament and the Fire’s prospects of making a run in it. This team has the potential to really do something and not be a chore to watch game in and game out. I realize this is the smallest of small potatoes with everything going on as it is, but I just can’t help myself. I’m excited for the return of the Fire.
With all that being said, keep protesting police brutality and injustice. and staying as safe as you can. Wear masks and face coverings when in public spaces, and take care of your mental health.