Fire Defense Growing Some Teeth

Mike DiNovo - USA TODAY Sports

Matt Polster fights and defends his way onto MLS team of the week.    Mike DiNovo – USA TODAY Sports

David Accam and Shaun Maloney stole headlines Sunday after the two designated players scored and lifted the Chicago Fire past visiting FC Dallas, the bosses of the western conference and arguably the league going into the match. Accam produced an early game-winner in thrilling fashion, and Maloney converted an insurance penalty late in the match to secure a 2-0 victory at home. It’s welcome news for the Fire to score a pair of goals against one of the league’s best, but Chicago’s defensive effort against Dallas stands out more than anything to me.

Through the defense’s peaks and valleys this season, Frank Yallop has always stressed the need to defend as a team. There’ve been many occasions throughout the year where one or two botched defensive plays spoiled an otherwise successful day for Chicago, but he’s never pointed fingers or thrown the back line and goalkeeper under the bus. The players reciprocated that team mentality Sunday by turning in a clean sheet. In the post-game press conference after the Dallas win, Yallop told reporters he was pleased with the way his side defended as a unit.

The overall defensive shape was good, but Sunday’s backline looked as good as it has all year (before going down to ten men due to a late red card from Matt Watson). It was anchored by Eric Gehrig in the middle next to Jeff Larentowicz, who returned from a neck injury. Lovell Palmer also returned to the lineup at right back opposite to Joevin Jones on the left side. And Sean Johnson started at goalkeeper once again, turning in his fifth clean sheet of the year in all competitions.

This group at the back is the best available right now for Frank Yallop.

That’s why it was concerning to see Lovell Palmer leave the match with a left knee injury in the second half. Yallop was forced to replace him with rookie Matt Polster, which worked out Sunday, but he’s best as a holding midfielder.

It’s Polster’s contributions at defensive mid that earned him a spot on the MLS.com team of the week. He and Eric Gehrig were honored with the achievement after a solid performance against a top-ranked opponent. Gehrig finished with six tackles and ten clearances, and Polster was once again looking like a field general in his rookie season, something the Fire have needed in the midfield in recent months and years.

I don’t want to get too excited about one result, but it was a big one for the Fire. The club is no longer in last place, and more importantly, it demonstrated to the league that this side can compete with anyone, especially when its best 11 are on the pitch. As I wrote last week, there’s enough talent and time on Chicago’s side to be optimistic in 2015, as long as the core group can stay on the field. And even if the Fire can’t make a playoff push this year, there’s a USOC semifinal to look forward to August 12.

Before Chicago’s open cup date with Philly, the team will travel to Portland for a MLS match against the Timbers Friday, August 8.