Preseason Kickabouts: Fire vs. Quakes in Cali

"I'd be safe and warm if I was in LA..." (photo: @BrendanHannan

“I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA…” (photo: @BrendanHannan)

The Men in Red got work done against defending Supporters Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes last night in beautiful Santa Barbara, CA.

As a long-time consumer of professional team sports and former equipment manager for a NCAA Division 1 FCS gridiron squad, I’m sure of one thing about preseason action: You’ve got to take what you see with a grain of salt. Sure, you’ll catch glimpses here and there of what may portend when your squad laces ‘em up and hits the pitch for real. Hell, you may even make a correct prediction or two. But ultimately it’s futile, perhaps foolish, to use what you see before first kick as any real barometer of regular season outcomes. After all, the manager’s probably tinkering, so the proverbial droids you saw may not actually be the ones you were looking for.

That said, I haven’t seen my beloved Men in Red in action since my soccer pumpkin was smashed last Halloween night. As you can imagine, I (like you perhaps) was seriously jonesing for an opportunity to watch a Chicago Fire match. And (most of) you know what the Fire blogger you love (or love to hate) does when this happens.

So to get my match review writing chops back up to speed, I decided to share some brief thoughts on a little preseason action. But be aware my dear reader, like my soccer-playing muses I need to start slowly and work my way up to match fitness, so don’t expect the usual mind-blowing stuff. Or any humility for that matter. ;)

Oh yeah, and if you had something better to do on Saturday night (trust me, I get it), you can watch or, for junkies,  re-watch the friendly right here courtesy of the boys and girls at Chicago Fire Communications (merci mes amis):

What Happened?

Saturday night’s match on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara (go Gauchos) was a first glimpse at what Chicago’s starting XI may look like when the MLS regular season opens on March 3rd in LA:

Chicago Fire flat 4-4-2 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 2/9/13

Chicago Fire flat 4-4-2 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 2.9.13

Thirty-two players were available for selection on Saturday night (20 signed, 12 unsigned), and a good number of these fellas saw action in a reserve match that preceded the main event. Daniel Paladini even pulled double duty.

Hunter Jumper & Mike Sanders (aka Maicon Santos) sat out with a quad strain and an abdominal strain, respectively. Alex wasn’t in town (nor country), as he was busy tying the knot in Brazil this weekend. Parabéns Alex!

Notably, Dilly Duka, Arne Friedrich, Patrick Nyarko, and Sean Johnson saw their first action of the 2013 preseason.

After playing to a 0-0 draw for 79 minutes, guest player Quincy Amirikwa - off fine hold-up play by Corben Bone - drew a hard foul in the box. The referee pointed to the spot and ginger man/midfield rock Jeff Larentowicz stepped up to bury his shot past former Fire man Jon Busch. And after a characteristic stoppage time attacking flurry by San Jose, the Men in Red escaped with a 1-0 victory. Details follow…

PLAY OUR PRESEASON MUSIC!!!

Analysis Hooo!

Let’s take it from back to front, and then we’ll get into some Gaffer and tactics talk.

Goalkeeper

Sean Johnson looked solid. He made four saves, a couple of which were of the top-notch variety. One standout was his save on a wicked header from Chris Wondolowski (or was it Mike Fucito?) off looping, diagonal long-distance service from the left flank. 

Sega: Cracking. (photo: sports.yahoo.com)

Sega: Cracking. (photo: sports.yahoo.com)

Defense

Gonzalo Segares put in a full shift and looked most impressive at left back. Sega bossed the left flank all evening. He was sharp in attack and didn’t take any mess on the defensive side of the ball. Logan Pause looked serviceable, yet underwhelming at right back. He got burned on the flank a couple of times, and allowed Mike Fucito to cross a dangerous ball into the six-yard box across Sean Johnson’s face. Jalil Anibaba saw about 25 minutes at right back after Pause moved to D-Mid.

Arne Friedrich, understandably, was rusty. Stephen Kinney spelled Arne after the first half and played well. Austin Berry put in a solid full day’s work and made a few key clearances in the first half.

Midfield

With all the new faces, the midfield was most intriguing (and impressive) to watch. Jeff Larentowicz, besides scoring the winning goal on a penalty kick, went the full 80 minutes and played tidy and hard in the defensive midfield. His counterpart Joel Lindpere displayed box-to-box versatility in the middle for 70 minutes. Lindpere proved adept in defense and attack and showed his moxie all over the pitch.

Bienvenue sur les dix-huit à mon ami! (photo: chicago-fire.com)

Yazid: Bienvenue sur les dix-huit à mon ami! (photo: chicago-fire.com)

Things sure have changed at left wing. Dilly Duka and Yazid Atouba are exciting players. Both have the skill to go wide, control the dribble, aggressively cut diagonally to goal, and take the shot. Duka seems a bit more adept at combining with and creating for his teammates, but little Atouba has serious speed and a soft first touch that you just can’t teach. Fire fans are understandably high on both of these youngsters.

Patrick Nyarko took a bit of a beating out there during his forty minutes of play. He had two players nipping at his heels each time he gained possession and wound up on the ground more than Fire fans would have liked. One collision in particular had me praying to the soccer gods for Patty’s health. The Texican Xavi, Corben Bone, relieved Nyarko in the second half and played a key role in forcing the late penalty that secured a Fire victory. 

Forward

Aside from former Toronto FC man Quincy Amirikwa’s ability to draw the penalty late in the match, Chicago’s forwards were underwhelming – especially during the first half. Chris Rolfe was invisible and barely touched the ball. Sherjill MacDonald was in bulldozer mode and suffered from a bit of tunnel vision. Granted, the Fire conceded most of the possession during the first forty minutes, but when opportunities did develop in the final third, the forwards’ movement off the ball was not sharp, nor decisive.

Coaching/Tactics

Manager Frank Klopas came out with a flat 4-4-2 formation, with central midfielders Lindpere and Larentowicz operating a true pulley system. Klopas’s was a very defensive-minded tactical plan during the first forty-minute half, as Chicago conceded the majority of possession. The Fire did crank up the attack a bit after the 30th minute though, as Duka, Lindpere, and Nyarko showed flashes of danger. Overall, there were a few breakdowns in the shape of the formation, but that is expected at this stage. Plus, players are still learning each other’s tendencies.

The 4-4-2 stayed put for the first fifteen minutes of the second half, but with a bit of a different feel. With Corben Bone (RW) and Yazid Atouba (LW) inserted on the wings, Joel Lindpere drifted forward a bit and Chicago cranked up the pressure. The Fire controlled much more of the possession and spent more time in the attacking third during the latter forty minutes.

Put him in coach. He's ready to play, today. (photo: bigstory.ap.org)

Anibaba: Put him in coach. He’s ready to play, today. (photo: bigstory.ap.org)

4-2-3-1 showed itself around the 55th minute when Jalil Anibaba subbed in for Chris Rolfe, which left Quincy Amirikwa alone up top (Amirikwa subbed in for Sherjill MacDonald in the 52nd). Joel Lindpere then moved further up the pitch and played well in the withdrawn striker/trequartista role.

The decision to start Logan Pause over Jalil Anibaba is the only bone I have to pick with Frank Klopas. It’s a mistake to start a player past his prime (for sentimentality’s sake) over a young, proven starter who hasn’t yet reached his peak. I did not like what I saw when Pause pushed high up the flank, trying to combine with guys and generate offense. I just don’t see him making effective overlapping runs into the attacking third.

Parting Shots

Why doesn’t San Jose have a jersey sponsor? You’d think a tech company from Silicon Valley would be all over that empty space on the Quakes’ chests. Google? Hello?

Will UCSB attendees get free milk if they show up at Toyota Park this season?

What’s Next?

The Men in Red head back home Sunday for a brief freeze and will fly south to thaw out in one of America’s most stunning and historic cities on Wednesday. What awaits them in Charleston, SC? The Carolina Challenge Cup of course! Damn that looks like a good time, doesn’t it?

From February 16th-23rd, Chicago will play three exhibition matches in eight days vs. Houston Dynamo, USL Pro and host side Charleston Battery, and the Vancouver Whitecaps, respectively. Then, it’s back home for good to prepare for the real deal on March 3rd in LA vs. Los Galácticos

Post-Match Video Reaction – Frank Klopas & Jeff Larentowicz
Match Highlights
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