30 April 2012
Posted in Chicago Fire
The Fire are 5 2/3 games into the season with a key stretch of games coming up. The next few games should give us a better picture of how far the team has come this season but enough about the future, how has the team done up to this point?
The team has yet to hit its stride and who can blame them. Funky scheduling by MLS and Mother Nature has held them to the fewest games played in the league. I still don’t know why there was 2 bye weeks this early into the season and matching byes for Houston and Chicago instead of them playing each other. The team barely beat a struggling Toronto on the road and is coming off a tough loss to Seattle at home.
The Fire have started 2 young keepers this season and will continue to feature a young one in the starting XI. This will lead to growing pains, such as giving up an easy rebound or hesitating on a cross. With that being said, this a position the team has depth in and options going forward. Sean Johnson is coming off a whirlwind offseason that saw him train overseas, feature with the USMNT, and be center stage in the Olympic-qualifying debacle. This should be another season in which he grows as a keeper and takes a real stab at over taking Hamid as the USMNT #2 for the upcoming WCQ. If this happens, the Fire will have to rely on Tornaghi as their #1 during Johnson’s absence. He has proven up to the challenge so far and Klopas has confidence in him. He has repaid Klopas’ confidence with solid performances, especially in the home opener against the Union. Tornaghi comes from the Inter Milan youth system and does not appear to be scared of big moments but, as Johnson, he is a young keeper still learning his trade. Johnson’s continued struggles this season should open the door for Tornaghi to take another stab at it being the starter. Sean struggled early last season and was relegated to the bench for a few games before regaining his form/confidence and overtaking Conway for the #1 jersey. I think Klopas should start Tornaghi next week or in the first Open Cup game with the idea of him winning the position if he performs well.
The back line has been steady since Dan Gargan came over in a trade from Toronto last season but a long-term injury to Corey Gibbs has forced Arne Friedrich into the starting XI sooner than expected. The German international will pair with Jalil Anibaba in the center with Segares and Gargan in their customary positions on the outside. Long term, the Fire will not lose anything with Friedrich in for Gibbs but he is not at full match fitness and has not played very many games in the last year. His rust has shown itself in uncharacteristic errors that have put the defense in tight spots. The more reps and games Friedrich gets under his belt, the better the defense will be for it. Besides cohesiveness, another thing hindering the defense this season has been the keepers’ habit of giving up easy rebounds or not punching the ball away far enough. As long as the defense minimizes their errors and learns to play together, I think they will be a more than solid back 4. They are too talented to be anything less.
The midfield has been all over the place in terms of performance. There are games when they dominate the midfield and others when the forwards are dying for any type of service. Pardo and Pause have been steady generals in the midfield and I do not foresee them not being in the starting XI. I still think sitting Pause and bringing on another offensive minded player will improve the attack but I don’t know how the defense will be without him organizing it. This is especially true for a back 4 that has not figured out how to play together yet. Pappa has been his inconsistent self but I think he has been tracking back more than I have seen him in recent years. He seems to be a prime candidate to go to the bench once Rolfe regains match fitness and showed well in a sub role this weekend. This is a make or break year for him and I see him taking steps to complete his game if he wants to move on to the old country. As the playmaker for the team, Grazzini has the ball at his feet a lot of the time. Teams now know this and are being quite physical with him to the point of visibly frustrating him on the pitch. It does not help that the refs have let him take several hits without granting fouls. He needs to better adapt to the physicality of the league and the refs have to do a better job of protecting a playmaker. The midfield should receive a boost if Nyarko drops back to playing on the wings fulltime. The bench has not really produced this season and this will need to change once the team starts playing those midweek/Open Cup fixtures (thanks MLS schedulers) in the upcoming month. I have yet to see anything from Robayo and it does take some time for new players to adjust to the league but he needs to start producing if he wants to see more minutes. The bench will get a boost from either Pappa or Nyarko but any team trying to make a deep Open Cup run needs more than 1 quality bench player. The midfield needs to be consistent week to week. I think this is strongest part of the club and needs to be influential in every match.
The forward combination of Nyarko and Oduro have their days numbered but this has more to do with the acquisition of Rolfe than their play together. Unfortunately, Rolfe’s injury has postponed this for a couple of weeks. Nyarko has been great at creating chances for Oduro so far but Dominic needs to start finishing a higher percentage of them. They play well off of each other and this should continue regardless of where Nyarko plays. There have been times this season where Nyarko basically drops back into the midfield and still finds Oduro making his runs and I see this continuing. The key here will be the finishing of Rolfe. Dominic puts himself in great spots but his finishing is lacking and the team needs another reliable scorer to pick up his slack. Like the midfield, the forwards off the bench have not contributed much this season. Puppo seems to be the first option off the bench and provides good energy and movement but has yet to score. Barouch has played less this season and seems to have lost his role as first forward off the bench. No other forward has really played this season and I don’t see the rest of them getting first team minutes, barring any injury. The midfield will continue to create chances, it is up to the forwards to ensure they convert those chances to goals.
Overall, the Fire are playing just under my expectations but I have faith they will gel and play better as a unit. This needs to start at home by not dropping easy points. As most Eastern Conference teams, the team has struggled mightily against the West the last year but have played very well against the East. The next couple weeks will be tough for the team as they play several Western Conference opponents. On the flip side, due to the unbalanced schedule, they will mostly play Eastern Conference teams after this stretch. I wish this stretch was later on in the season but it will be a good test for the club and one where they need to grab as many points as possible. At the same time, they should not feel too bad if they struggle against the West at this point of the season. This team is good enough to compete for the top of the East, they just need to start playing like it.
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