Both teams were extremely busy in the month of May, and after playing fifteen matches in the month combined, Chicago and Cincinnati rotated several key players out of their starting XI. For Chicago, the most notable omissions from the starting lineup were Xherdan Shaqiri, Kei Kamara, Maren Haile-Selassie, Rafael Czichos, Gastón Giménez, and Chris Brady. All except the injured Brady, who received 15 stitches after the Toronto match, featured in the second half of the match.
The Fire again experimented with the five-back system and played with just two true central midfielders in what was, on paper, a 3-4-3 (5-2-3). However, with Brian Gutierrez placed on one of the wings, it gave the Fire the option to play with three central midfielders. As Shaq did against Toronto when he started on the wing, he often roamed centrally to provide a more advanced option in midfield for the Fire to build and create through. With the absence of Shaqiri from the starting XI, Fire fans were expecting Guti to be the creator and the facilitator on the offensive side of the ball. However, the young and prolific playmaker ultimately struggled to really take the match by the scruff of the neck as he has done so many times this season and was eventually substituted for Shaq in the 62nd minute.
Not only Guti, but the Fire as a whole, really struggled to create chances going forward and threaten Cincinnati’s goal. One point that the broadcasting team made that I think really has some validity is how it is really hard to attack and create chances when playing with a rotated side. Players, who have not played regularly this season are integrated with some of the first names on the team sheet, and this nuance is often a struggle. There was a lot of frustration, especially in the first half, for the Fire, specifically between the three front players, who were struggling to really connect and play off of each other. Not only was the rotated team struggling to play harmoniously with one another, but the Fire had players playing out of position and in a new system that is almost foreign to them after strictly playing in a 4-2-3-1 for the duration of Ezra Hendrickson’s time in charge.
After looking incredibly strong in the five-back system in the 2-0 win against Austin FC a couple of weeks ago, the Fire have struggled to find good form while playing in this new shape. Problems with the Fire’s new system began to appear in the game against Toronto, where the Fire really struggled to create going forward. After that game, Kei Kamara spoke about the nuances to this system and how the team found it hard to break down their opponent. However, this is a learning curve that the Fire must eventually overcome and the team’s play in this system is certain to improve with time and practice.
From my perspective, the biggest problem with the system is the lack of attacking presence in midfield. Although Shaq and Guti both come centrally, they are not a true ten and are not able to solidify themselves as a true presence in attacking midfield when they have duties to press the opposing full-backs and attack down the flanks. Additionally, especially when the Fire start with the preferred duo of Gaston and Fede, the two central midfielders hardly provide anything in the attacking third. Both are defensive-minded midfielders and are great at what they do, but their abilities to win and keep the ball in the middle of the park are certainly exemplified when they have a true ten to play with. Especially because the two do not like to get very far forward when attacking, the presence of a true ten to make a late run to get on the end of a cutback, cross, or even a through ball in between the lines is certainly missed. Jairo Torres certainly provides a lot more going forward when playing as one of those two in midfield and could certainly be a viable option for the Fire in the future. His more attack-minded style of play could really balance the defensive-mindedness of Gastón/Fede, which we saw in Saturday’s match. Torres started alongside Fede and played the whole second half alongside Gastón. The Mexican midfielder played as the more advanced player and was complemented very well in both halves, I thought, by Fede and Gastón, respectively.
The turning point in the match, I thought, was in the 61st minute of play, where Cincinnati introduced three regular starters in Júnior Moreno, Brandon Vázquez, and Dominique Badji. The Fire immediately responded within the minute with three of their own stars by introducing Shaq, Kamara, and MHS into the match. This infusion of fresh legs and quality into both sides certainly took the match up a level in terms of intensity, and it looked to be anyone’s game.
However for the Fire, the story of the match was conceding late goals and hence the points. The Fire were ultimately put under by an 86th minute goal from Cincy captain, Luciano Acosta, and ultimately forfeited all three points.
Hoping to put this match aside and out of the memory of the players, the team must put all of their attention on their crucial U.S. Open Cup Quarter-Final against the Houston Dynamo on Tuesday. After resting so many key players and ultimately coming away from Cincy empty-handed, the only acceptable result will be a win.