The big question leading up to Saturday’s match against the Columbus Crew was whether Frank Klopas would line his team up with a back five or if he would revert back to the team’s traditional 4-2-3-1 shape. The humiliation at midweek in the U.S. Open Cup, where the Fire were beaten by three goals at Bridgeview, was the team’s fourth straight match without a win. In all four of those matches, the Fire had played in their new five-back system and had struggled to find success on either side of the ball.
The 3-4-3 system that the team had been utilizing does not include a true number ten. In the absence of this central playmaker, the team had struggled to create opportunities going forward and break lines, especially in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch.
Defensively, the team has been without starting center-back Carlos Terán, who has been sorely missed throughout this stretch of rotten form. Defensive midfielder Mauricio Pineda has established himself as the Fire’s second-best center-back in the absence of Terán but also missed some matches during this stretch due to concussion protocol. With these injuries, in addition to players like full-back Arnaud Souquet being played out of position on the right side of a center-back trio, the Fire have looked incredibly fragile and open at the back.
Despite these struggles that the Fire have faced while playing in their new system, Klopas decided to stick with the five-back for Saturday’s match against the Crew. However, although the Fire defended with five at the back for the duration of the match, the Fire played with four when building out of the back and when in possession of the ball. In the last few matches, the Fire have built with three from the back, with those three being Rafa Czichos, Pineda, and Gastón Giménez, who would usually drop into the backline from midfield, pushing Souquet, the right center-back forward and towards the sideline. With Souquet and Miguel Ángel Navarro high and wide and right wing-back Maren Haile-Selassie, would be perched really high as almost a winger. When building like this, especially against the Dynamo in the U.S. Open Cup, the Fire struggled to break lines and create opportunities for themselves.
Building out in the four as they did on Saturday night, the Fire found a lot more success and established themselves as the best team in the first half. Possessing and attacking in the team’s “traditional” 4-2-3-1 shape, Shaq operated as a true number ten, which gave the Fire a much-needed presence in attacking midfield. Especially with the Crew playing with four across the midfield with only two true central midfielders, the Fire’s midfield dominance in the first half was evident. With this advantage and confidence in building out of a four with two pivots, the home side was able to hold possession in dangerous areas of the pitch after successfully breaking lines.
This ability to hold the ball in the attacking half allowed the Fire to create some chances in the opening period. Kei Kamara provided lots of energy as the Fire’s lone striker and found himself with the Fire’s two best chances of the first half. Unfortunately for the Fire, however, the veteran striker was not able to convert on either of these two opportunities.
As the Fire continued to grow into the game, the Crew seemed to come nowhere close to creating anything for themselves in the first half. The visitor’s first attempt on goal came in first-half stoppage time and was a tame effort from outside of the box that Spencer Richey gladly gobbled up.
However, it was a whole new Crew team that came out to start the second half. Different, not in terms of personnel, but in terms of effort and determination. The Fire no longer had the foothold on the match that they had in the first half but were rather attempting to repel the Crew. After creating absolutely nothing in the first half, the Crew created three solid scoring chances in the opening ten minutes of the half that were ultimately wasted through poor finishing. Ultimately for the Crew, this new invigoration within their team paid off as they opened the scoring through a deflection in the 50th minute of play.
Following the opener, Columbus did not let off the gas as they continued to lay on the pressure and dominate the match. As the minutes ticked away, it looked like no road back for the Fire until they introduced some fresh legs just before the 80th-minute mark. While Fabian Herbers played an awful final 15 minutes, Jairo Torres again showed a positive showing as a second-half substitute. The midfielder reinvigorated some life into the Fire, who had been second-best in the second half. The midfielder successfully drove with the ball in midfield and reintroduced the Fire as a presence in the attacking third. Following his introduction, the Fire nearly found the equalizer off of a set piece. Substitute Kacper Przybyłko was gifted with two golden opportunities to tie the match, but the striker ultimately bottled both chances from within eight yards and left Fire fans scratching their heads.
Minutes later, however, Torres was able to find Miguel Navarro with a pass into the final third, who cut the ball back to Shaqiri to bring the match to one apiece. Both teams continued to push for the go-ahead goal, and it really looked to be anyone’s game. It was evident that neither team was willing to settle for just a point.
As the Fire looked for what could have been a dramatic winner, substitute Fabian Herbers made a dreadful giveaway in possession that led to the Crew winning the match off of an effort from beyond the midfield stripe.
Following Shaq’s tantrum after the match, I decided that although he was the Fire’s best player on the night, he did not deserve a MOTM article. While the Swiss international’s behavior was immature and not fair towards the home supporters, all Fire fans certainly shared his anger, frustration, and unhappiness as the team had again thrown away points on a goal in the dying minutes of the match.
Currently sitting second to last in the East, the Fire have the least number of wins in their conference from what has been a dreadful start to the season. If the Fire want to have any chance of making anything out of this MLS campaign, they need to play at 100% for all 90 minutes (plus added time). Late goals and goals from set-pieces have ultimately sunk the Fire this season, and if the Fire continue to concede these types of goals, they have no chance at making anything out of this season.