Finding Ways To Lose: Fire Defense Looking For Answers

Nam Y. Huh – AP

Nam Y. Huh – AP

It’s June, and in Chicago that means sports fans can finally enjoy outdoor sporting events without drinking themselves numb to forget about the cold (though I’m sure fans will continue to get embarrassingly drunk throughout the summer regardless of weather…looking at you, Wrigley).

It’s that time of year when it actually starts to feel like spring, which is why the Chicago Fire shouldn’t be allowed to play home games until Memorial Day at the very least.

The soccer gods blessed Toyota Park with flawless weather Saturday night, as the Fire hosted expansion team Orlando City SC for an important Eastern Conference matchup. There were no freezing rains to harshly greet a half empty stadium of fans, as is often the case during spring matches. But instead, a warm and tranquil sunset was the perfect backdrop for a lively sellout crowd of 20,124.

June may bring preferable weather for eating, drinking and watching sports, but in MLS terms, it’s a time of evaluation. After three months of regular season play, teams begin to understand not only the identity of one another, but more importantly their own identity. While the Fire have shown positive signs of development in possession and attacking play since the start of 2015, this team is still searching for itself on defense.

As manager Frank Yallop told the press after Saturday’s disappointing 3-2 loss, the entire team needs to toughen up defensively.

“We’ve conceded 6 goals in two matches. At any level, that’s not good enough. It’s a collective thing. It’s not one person doing it; it’s the team,” explained the second year manager in a post-game press conference.

After impressively going up 2-1 early in the second half on David Accam’s fourth goal of the season, the Fire conceded two late goals, losing a heartbreaker in front of a spirited home crowd that performed the wave for what seemed like a solid ten minutes. You did your part, Fire fans.

It would be easy to blame the 7th loss of the season on defender Adailton’s two own goals. That is a rare and unfortunate feat that most footballers will likely never have to endure. It’s bad enough conceding one, but it’s hard not to question a guy who gives up two own goals in one night.

I actually kind of feel bad for the Brazilian defender. The own goals seemed somewhat unlucky, and for large portions of the game, he and the back line kept his Brazilian counterpart and world famous forward Ricardo Kaká in check. That is, until Kaká’s perfectly waited pass found Cyle Larin for the game-winning goal, which deflected off Adailton and into the net just minutes before the final whistle. But you know, aside form that…

Or you could pin the loss on goalkeeper Jon Busch and the rest of the defense for allowing three goals at home, and six in two matches. Those aren’t exactly all-star numbers.

However, those explanations wouldn’t be fair or complete. Trying to explain the repeated, costly errors throughout the season and once again Saturday night, Yallop suggested that his side is simply missing some mental and physical toughness at times.

“Sometimes in soccer it’s not about pretty play. It’s about digging deep and making sure the opposition doesn’t get a chance, and I think that’s kind of missing right now.

“I think we’ve got some exciting players. I think that we’re still growing, but at some point you’ve got to put a line in the sand and say, ‘we’re going to be a team that wins games,’” said Yallop after the second loss in a row.

I would venture to say the Fire have improved defensively overall since the start of the season, but it only takes one mental error or one exhausted player in a crucial moment to unravel the other 90 minutes of hard-nosed defensive work. On Saturday, the Fire had three of those moments, which is not a good sign at home.

Harry Shipp Reflects on the Tough Loss

Midfielder and second-year player Harry Shipp was dreaming of Barcelona-type quality after the match. He discussed with journalists the unwavering identity of the recently-crowned 2015 European champions, whose Champions League Final victory on Saturday fell on the same day as the Fire’s loss to Orlando.

“You look at a team like Barcelona. No matter what the score is they’re going to keep playing the same way. They have that identity, and for us there’s so much fluctuation between playing long and keeping the ball, and I think any time you’re switching up in the course of the game it’s probably not going to bode well for you,” said Shipp.

To be fair, the Fire just finished its busiest week of the season thus far. Not only was it the third match in seven days, but the team has also been dealing with injuries all season and an international call-up last week, so the lineup and formations have seen lots of change. And with the U.S. Open Cup around the corner, the schedule will be just as busy in the coming weeks. Shipp knows there are no excuses.

“It’s tough being the third game in seven days…we knew coming into the game there was going to be guys moving around, whether it was in the starting lineup or throughout the game. But, it’s not an excuse. Hopefully we have smart enough soccer players on this team to play multiple positions and move around during the course of the game.

“[I]t’s not really a coaches game while the game’s going on. It’s on the players to figure it out. Unfortunately we didn’t do the best job of that tonight,” explained Shipp in a somber tone.

Fair enough, Harry. No one has more impact on the game than players on the pitch, regardless of whom the manager uses. But Frank Yallop and his staff will indeed have their hands full trying to field what will inevitably be a shifting lineup in the face of a demanding MLS schedule.

The Fire have a chance to regroup and rebound next weekend, as the team hits the road to face the New England Revolution in another crucial Eastern Conference matchup. (6:30 pm CDT – CSN Chicago Plus)