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Fire Mon Mar 24 2014
Cold weather, the Midwest's chief commodity behind indefatigable kindness, is little more than a burden to the citizenry but it can be a boon to its outdoor athletes. For soccer players cold weather prevents overheating when running the field, allowing the game to stay at a higher tempo for a longer duration. There are other aspects to this as well, such as the reduced coefficient of restitution between the ball and the players' feet, leading to better first touch; this also has the effect of playing long balls and high-velocity shots harder in equal measure, it should be noted. This bracing briskness can also catch a visiting side unawares, as seen in games like last year's SnowClasico, when the US Men's National Team played Costa Rica amid a blizzard in Colorado.
For the most part those conditions were on full display Sunday, as the Chicago Fire opened the 2014 season at Toyota Park. Though temperatures had been on the rise since the mid-week, late Saturday night saw a steep decline and even snow accumulation, making for a chilly game day in Bridgeview. The cold seems to bring out something extra in fans as well, and they came out in force; despite the below-freezing weather there were 16,228 on hand to kick-off the 2014 season at home. With those factors at play, the Fire were able to grind out a 1-1 draw against last year's Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls, improving to 0-1-2 but still searching for the form they seized upon last year.
This can, in large part, be attributed to the healthy level of experimentation on head coach Frank Yallop's end. Yallop has, in the first three games, started three distinctly different lineups, and continues to evaluate the progress of each alignment and pairing to divine the best result. Allowing younger players or those new to the squad an opportunity to sink or swim is a factor which had not been so present in years past. Frank Klopas had been the technical director of the Fire from 2008 until his eventual accession to the head coaching spot in 2011; the position was left vacant while Klopas was the top man, so his word on a player was law every time. Now with Brian Bliss in the TD position and Yallop at the helm we are seeing a culture-change at the team, a hallmark of which being: each player will get a run-out, perhaps more, but starting will be merit-based more than anything. The more senior members of the squad, your Chris Rolfes and Logan Pauses if you will, have seen their roles diminished, while Harrison Shipp and Victor Pineda (!!!) are factoring into the squad early on in the going. Pineda is a special case, since he had spent 4 full years on the team without seeing one single minute of play before today. Pineda came on in the 70th minute of the game, subbing in for Benji Joya who had another good game, showing a glimmer of his abilities as a creative midfielder that will hopefully only deepen over the coming season.
Oh, right, there were goals. The game got off to a scintillating start with New York getting a good look at goal in the 3rd minute when Johnny Steele played an arcing cross to Lloyd Sam who was just wide of the mark and hit side netting. It didn't take long after for the Men in Red strike the correct side of the net. In the 6th minute of play Big Red himself, Jeff Larentowicz, cracked home an astonishing header off of Harrison Shipp's well placed corner to put the Fire ahead 1-0. The pace didn't slow down from there, with Thierry Henry attempting to level things up ten minutes later, but for the heroics of Sean Johnson. It was just 5 minutes more when a corner from Henry led to a tangle of bodies in the box, most of them on the ground, and an unmarked Dax McCarty capitalized, chipping an ugly ball at the crossbar which bounced just inside to level the score.
The remainder of the game saw the two teams knotted up all over the field, in both attack and defense. The Fire were evenly matched in just about every respect, leading to the stalemate of a scoreline seen at the blow of the final whistle. There were a couple of great opportunities for the Fire to go ahead, but the Red Bull backline and keeper Luis Robles were focused on protecting the scoreline, perhaps even pulling off a win—virgin territory for New York at Toyota Park; it was not to be for New York, however. In the 77th minute a moment of schadenfreude put a bow on their conquest, as a well-timed cross from Lloyd Sam to Peguy Luyindula ended in groaning and pain, rather than Red Bull celebration.
For his contributions, and assist on Larentowicz's goal, Harrison Shipp was deservedly named Man of the Match on the day. Over the course of preseason and his two starts it is quite evident that he is a talented presence in the midfield and that he will have a bright future with the Fire. Now that the team is back to its full complement of stars, with Mike Magee having finally returned from whatever had kept him out of the starting eleven these past two weeks, it will be good to see what the players and staff can do to go out there and get that first win on the season. Next week will see them on the road against an already weary DC United, which will be the team's best look to get in the positive column. Hopefully the Fire will get hot long before the Chicago weather follows suit.