From Bad to Worse – Chicago Fire lose USOC Semifinal

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Times keep getting harder for the Chicago Fire.  On a night where the team badly needed a victory in the most important game of their season, nearly everything went wrong.  Chicago was defeated by the Philadelphia Union 1-0 in a game where they came out flat, and never seemed to hit their stride. It was very troubling to watch in a US Open Cup semifinal.

And yet the night started with so much potential: A win would allow them to host the Open Cup final, after they won a blind draw at the US Soccer Headquarters. A bus of rowdy Section 8 and Sector Latino supporters made the trip to Chester, with tickets subsidized by the front office.  Mike Magee, Gilberto, and David Accam were all in the gameday 18.  The weather was good on the banks of the Delaware River.  And Chicago even looked like the better team for the first 5 minutes.  But perhaps the large “Hauptman Out” banner unfurled before the game by the Fire faithful was a sign of the despair to come …

Gilberto went down with an injury in the 21st minute, forcing Frank Yallop to insert Kennedy Igboananike  (Gilberto is listed as day-to-day). From this point forward, it was obvious that Plan A was “possess the ball and feed Gilberto” and there was no plan B. Where Chicago had initially tried to keep possession, they began lobbing long balls to David Accam and attempting to bypass the midfield on the flanks. Philadelphia dominated possession in the first half, and had many more shots on goal. In fact, it wasn’t until the last minute of the first half that Chicago even got a shot off, on a David Accam counterattack.

While Chicago looked better at times in the second half, Accam was having a poor game and was subbed out in the 58th minute.  Jason Johnson was brought on to replace him, instead of Mike Magee or Patrick Nyarko.  Yallop’s continued reliance on Johnson is puzzling, considering he has rarely offered a threat going forward.  He has pace and a good shot, but his passing and decision making are often suspect. Having burned two subs before the 60th minute, Chicago’s hand was forced.  They did not look a threat until after Seba Le Toux scored the night’s only goal, sending Philly through to the finals for the second straight year.

There were several extremely worrying patterns last night for the Fire.

From Bad to Worse – Chicago Fire lose USOC Semifinal

-The forwards looked very bad.

Gilberto, Jason Johnson, Kennedy Igboananike, and Mike Magee combined for one shot.  It was a desperate bicycle kick attempt in the last minutes of the game. This is Igboananike’s Opta chalkboard from the game.

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This looks like a poor night from an attacking midfielder. The problem was he was playing as a striker. I would go so far as to call this Opta board “Guly-esque”. There were times where Jones, Shipp, or Maloney would pick their head up and look for a cross, only to see Kennedy out wide, or completely marked in the box.  In 20 minutes of play, Gilberto may have spent more time in a central forward position than Kennedy did in the entire second half.  David Accam also had a poor game, perhaps hinting that when his speed is not at full strength, his decision making and passing do not compensate for the loss of pace. Mike Magee came on the field and immediately got a silly yellow card for dissent. He may have touched the ball once in the game.

-The tactics were ineffective.

For all the talk about a possession based, “attractive,” free-flowing system that Yallop talked up in preseason, the last three games have looked far from it. With all his players healthy, Yallop still opted for a counter-attacking strategy against Dallas, Portland, and the Union.  It was effective and understandable against the first two teams, but Chicago should really be able to pass the ball and maintain possession against Philly, who are the only team worse in league play than Chicago this year.  Especially after halftime, Chicago should have been able to reset their tactics to adjust for the Gilberto injury. While the Fire had more chances in the second half, they still lacked any creativity going forward and relied on the pace of Johnson, Jones, and Accam. It seems that when under pressure, Yallop still resorts to the “goonies” tactics of his San Jose teams- playing direct soccer even with players like Harry Shipp and Shaun Maloney in the midfield.

-Harry Shipp is not having the season everyone hoped for:

Shipp is a smart player, which is why it’s been frustrating to watch him turn the ball over so frequently in the past couple months.  While pretty much everyone loves to point out that Shipp is not a wide midfielder, it is still not an excuse for his poor form.  After all, he played wide during his rookie year and put up better numbers.  Shipp has been struggling to find the killer passes he so frequently played last year.  Perhaps it is a lack of chemistry with Accam and Igboananike, or simply missing the soccer IQ and intelligent runs of Magee and Patrick Nyarko, who have missed most of the year.  At this point, Nyarko looks like a better option than Shipp, in terms of pace, decision making, and defensive awareness.  Sean Johnson benefited from a benching earlier in the year; perhaps it’s Shipp’s turn to ride the pine for a while.

-What now?

So is the season over? Chicago is not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but practically speaking the Open Cup was Chicago’s best chance at any trophy this year.  The cup run was really the only thing keeping fans excited about what has been a dismal season.  There may be a reckoning sooner rather than later in Bridgeview.  Nobody is happy with how this season has turned out, and unless the Fire goes on a completely unprecedented tear to close out the season, it will be another campaign without playoffs.

The Yallop / Bliss regime has identified good players overall, and young ones at that.  Many teams in MLS would love to have Matt Polster, Joevin Jones, Gilberto, and David Accam to build around. As Director of Soccer, Yallop has done a good job of identifying talent and building a roster under the MLS rules.  But after a certain point, questions have to be asked about his coaching.  Yallop has rightfully asked us to reserve judgement until his team was at full health.  After three games with a full roster, it’s safe to say that tactically, almost nothing looks different from when this team was depleted with injuries.

For now, it may be another early start to preseason at Toyota Park.  Hopefully the offseason will bring less turnover than in years past.  There are a lot of good pieces to build around in this team.  Hopefully the club will be able to keep them on board, even if there is another coaching change- something that looks more likely than ever after this last performance.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images